09 July 2009

Corruption, Journalism and Academic Dismay

Stay the Course

In late May of this year, the Chicago Tribune published an investigative report (Clout Goes to College) which exposed a trend of under-qualified, but politically connected, students being admitted into the University of Illinois (Champagne-Urbana).

The story revealed, through documents acquired via a freedom of information act request, that some 800 students had landed on a so-called 'clout list.' These students, also known as 'Category I,' by the university, experienced higher acceptance rates despite their overall lower ACT and class-rank .

Essentially, students with connections to top political officials in Illinois (including members of the state congress and members of former Governor Blagojevich's administration) were magically being admitted into the university, despite poor qualifications and rejections by the university's admissions officials.

To anyone familiar with the politics of Illinois, the only response was a weary shake of the head and a, "...Should have seen it coming," response.

Since May, the Tribune has continued extensive reporting on the case, including filing a lawsuit against the University to release more records. (View the subsequent reports here.) Indeed, the matter stirred a great deal of outrage and the new Illinois governor launched a commission to investigate the practices.

And it gets better, listen to a few of the developments revealed since the initial report.

The U. of Illinois Law School was specifically cited for its use of clout in admissions. To make things worse, it seems that deliberate trades were organized and made. In exchange for admitting a student backed by Blagojevich, the Dean of Law was offered job opportunities for graduates of the program. Which graduates you ask? How about the Category I students who were under-qualified in the first place?

But exchanging favors for jobs is nothing new in Illinois. And neither are bribes in the form of money and incentives. The U. of I. Chancellor (top administrator) claimed that exchanging jobs was a way of undoing some of the damage done by the admitting Category I students. And finally, in order to make sure this cover-my-ass technique worked, the Chancellor offered the School a tasty sum of $300,000 in the form of scholarships (to entice well qualified students).

So, now we can put a price on guaranteed admission to the University of Illinois School of Law. 300 grand. Yes, this sum was offered in exchange of admission for one, well-connected, student.

The response of U. of I. officials has been one of desperation and regret. They paint a picture of big, evil Illinois politics swirling around their meager academic forms. And then, professors of Law at Illinois wrote a letter to the Tribune calling into the question the attention the publication paid towards this issue. Apparently, the fact that patronage and clout systems like the one so deeply exposed in Illinois are not rare in these professor's experience. But this fact is not an excuse for the university, though it is cause enough to criticize the paper. It seems that widespread, but unspoken-of corruption should come as no surprise to Tribune editors and should not land on the front page.

This last bit, the professors' letter, pissed me off the most. I have two responses. The first is that academics like those professors and the administrators of U. of I. have no excuse to crumble under political pressure. The mission of institution of higher education is to mentor brilliant minds and contribute to scholarly debate and current research. Political standing and pressure should be of little concern to academic institutions. Perhaps I am simply disturbed that this so-called bubble that academics work in was proven mythical in this case. That one might escape from political corruption and find a legitimate pursuit (if not enlightenment) in Illinois' foremost public institution of higher education seems like a reasonable expectation. For these administrators and intellectuals to simply shrug their shoulders and claim that there was nothing they could do is nonsense. Or perhaps I have too much faith in professionals, that they might retain a shred of respect for themselves and education in the face of filthy politics. That they might value reputation and quality higher learning more than a job, however politically cushy and media friendly. The failure of those expectations leads me to read their letter as more of an attempt to remain in good standing with Illinois politicians, than of reputable academic "dismay."

I must apologize for the length of this entry. But, it is largely due to the Chicago Tribune's thorough investigation and reporting. Their initial story was backed up with almost 2,000 pages of documents. And they sued the university for more. My second, and final, response is to the absurdity that any self-respecting academic would criticize a wonderful example of investigative reporting. Is it not the job of news publications to inform the public of such outrageous practices that have, heretofore, gone unarticulated? Sadly, the death of Michael Jackson has actually kept some of these developments off the front the page and out of people's minds. Nevertheless, in an age in which large centralized corporate media organizations are taking over the "news" with advertising and gimimcks, and in an age in which print media is becoming extinct, this series has renewed, to an extent, my faith in the Chicago media. Not only have they gone to great lengths to expose every nook and cranny of this academic corruption, they have stuck with it such depressing and familiar material for months. What's more, the stories I've cited here appear to do so without mounting campaigns against specific individuals. Editorializing has remained in the editorial section (cited so many times in the professor's letter). Continued, inscrutable coverage of such events, even if an attempt to reach journalistic heights of the Watergate era, even if an attempt to be successful at one's career, is respectable and professional.

As an aspiring intellectual, I cannot understand how any person of thought, any doctor of philosophy, could possibly object to a publication that provokes thought, incites outrage and presents their understanding of what has happened.

The governor's investigation is to conclude in early August, and as if I was captivated by a serial story of yore, I keep tuning in for every twist and turn.

In the end, the developments I've seen here have been the cherry on top of my disenchantment sunday of late. And in that recipe for cynicism has been a fed-uppedness (try that word on for size!) with Illinois and it's politics. Though, as my work on The Butler Underground indicate, private institutions are far from perfect, I can be glad that I avoided another clout-shrouded institution in Illinois.

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