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University trustees should resign, Illinois panel says

CHICAGO — A panel investigating the role that clout played in University of Illinois admissions recommended in its final report released on Thursday that all trustees voluntarily submit their resignations and let Gov. Pat Quinn decide which ones to accept.

In a scathing 45-page report, the Illinois Admissions Review Commission found unqualified students were admitted because of political connections, and recommended that any new trustees conduct a review of the university's president, the chancellor of the Champaign campus and other administrators.

Trustee Edward McMillan said he's submitted his resignation to the governor. McMillan, who was appointed by Quinn in May, said he wants to comply with the commission's recommendation.

Two other trustees, board Chairman Niranjan Shah and Lawrence Eppley, already had quit, and Quinn has accepted their resignations.

Quinn issued a statement Thursday saying he will "act quickly to address the problems that have been discovered." He formed the commission in June after the Chicago Tribune revealed the university maintained a list of politically connected applicants — including some linked to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich — and admitted some over better-qualified candidates.

The investigation found some trustees pressured university officials on behalf of unqualified applicants, and that trustees, administrators and lawmakers helped get applicants' names on a special admissions list, called Category I.

Panel members Thursday put much of the blame on Richard Herman, chancellor of the university's flagship campus in Urbana-Champaign, saying his conduct was inconsistent with the university's "principles of ethical conduct and fair dealing."

"Herman was a major participant from the highest level of the administration ... all he had to say is, 'We're stopping this,' and that would have been the end of it," commissioner Bernard Judge said after the report's release.

Herman did not immediately respond to telephone and e-mail messages left by The Associated Press.

The report also found University President B. Joseph White failed to appropriately oversee some who engaged in admissions abuses, and that he personally "participated in admissions applications" inappropriately.

White told reporters Thursday afternoon that he agreed with the report's recommendations, saying the commission's criticism of him, Herman and other university officials was "proper." But he added that he intends to remain in his post. He also declined to say whether any administrators would be fired.

He said he would call a university-wide meeting next week to discuss how to implement the commission's recommendations.

Commissioners did not call for university administrators to resign, saying they did not have the authority to dictate personnel changes.

But the commission's final report included administrators' testimony describing their roles in the process.

Many of the thousands of pages of e-mails and other documents released by the university involve communication with Herman.

They include exchanges with former law school dean Heidi Hurd about admitting underqualified, well-connected applicants in exchange for scholarship money, and a plan to admit a poorly qualified applicant backed by Eppley in exchange for jobs for law school graduates.

Herman told the commission that he felt pressure by trustees to give special consideration to certain applicants.

The remaining trustees have expressed mixed opinions on whether they should resign.

Trustee Ken Schmidt called the panel's recommendation "a terrible decision" and said if Quinn asked him to resign, Schmidt said he'd tell him, "I would like to meet with you and discuss this first."

Schmidt, a U of I graduate, criticized the panel for treating all the trustees as if they had "exactly the same culpability."

Trustee Frances Carroll said she wants to read the panel's report, but would consider resigning if the request came from the governor.

She said she's confident trustees "could turn this around and come up with suggestions on how to not let this happen again."

Other trustees did not immediately return phone messages left by the AP earlier in the day. But Trustee David Dorris has said that he and many of the trustees would agree with the commission's recommendation. And Trustee Robert Vickrey has said he hasn't ruled out resignation but would wait for the report.

Commissioner Ricardo Estrada said the trustees' resignations could "help restore the confidence the public has in its flagship university."

Eppley, a former board chairman, resigned in late July. University records show he wrote e-mails to White noting Blagojevich's interest in candidates, including a relative of convicted influence peddler Tony Rezko.

Eppley told the commission that he never pressured anyone to admit a student but now recognizes that inquiries by trustees, lawmakers and others amounted to an underground system for influencing admissions.

Shah resigned Monday. He has denied trying to admit relatives to the school or being pressured by public officials to support certain applicants.

But e-mails released by the university include lists of applicants that Shah sent to Herman, asking for help in reaching "a favorable outcome for these individuals." Documents also show Shah successfully pressed Herman to create a six-figure university job for his future son-in-law.

The admissions review panel also recommended that the Category I list be eliminated, that a new Board of Trustees be trained in rules of conduct and that the university establish written policies prohibiting sponsorship of applicants by prominent people.

University officials said in a statement that campus leaders and admissions officers will meet Wednesday to discuss the recommendations, but will immediately end the Category I list and prohibit the university's office for governmental relations from having any role in admissions.

The review commission said lawmakers should create an inspector general for state universities or give the state inspector general more money to keep tabs on universities.

The board oversees the campuses in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago and Springfield. Trustees vote on measures and choose university leaders such as the president and campus chancellors.