University head resigns in enrollment scandal

Niranjan Shah, chairman of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, resigned Aug. 3, amid an investigation into the use of political clout in admitting certain students into the state’s most selective public university, located in Champaign-Urbana.

Shah’s resignation came a week after the resignation of Lawrence Eppley, who chaired the board prior to Shah. Both stepped down after members of a state commission investigating their admission practices asked them and their fellow trustees resign. The remaining seven governor-appointed trustees said they will wait until the final report by the commission, due later this week, is released. The Illinois Admissions Review Commission was appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn.

The university has been under fire since the Chicago Tribune first reported in May that the school maintained a list of politically connected students. The Tribune said certain students were admitted under pressure from former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, university trustees and others. Blagojevich appointed Shah a trustee in 2003. Shah was chosen as chairman earlier this year.

Shah was accused of pressuring university officials to admit certain applicants. For example, one applicant pushed by Shah for the College of Business Master of Business Administration program was denied admission at three different levels of review but was ultimately admitted to the university. Shah was also accused of pulling strings for his future son-in-law to work for the school.

In a statement Shah said, “When I became a trustee … many of the stakeholders in the University of Illinois system – trustees, university administrators and staff, legislators and others – operated under a set of rules and norms that seemed appropriate at the time. Today, I recognize that those rules are changing with the times, and I think that change is a very good thing.”

Shah partly blamed Chancellor Richard Herman and previous U. of I. President James Stukel for facilitating his meddling rather than telling him it was wrong.

Parents and education activists, on the other hand, say a bigger problem is inequities in admission of disadvantaged students in public universities nationwide.

Far too often, students from wealthy families, rather than low-income and working-class youth and young people of color, are being admitted, critics charge. Affirmative action policies that overcome institutional racism and the legacy of discrimination should be implemented in order to eliminate racial, gender and class bias or “clout” in accessing higher education, they note.

Since 2005, over 800 applicants were admitted to the University of Illinois who did not qualify. As a group they had lower ACT scores and ranked lower in their high school classes than the average student admitted.

Many argue that as long as there is an unequal enrollment process and the board of trustees of the university system is composed of the wealthy and well connected, college bound youth of color or working-class background will continue to be denied.

Some say open admissions to the state university system should be implemented, which would allow any student to be admitted if he or she graduates from a high school in the state and meets the minimum academic standards.

At the same time a progressive tax system, taxing the rich, and greater federal subsidies for educational opportunities at all levels, would give low-income students the ability to afford college, which could reduce the inequalities, they say.

Education is a right, critics say, and ought to be free and equal for all, not just the wealthy or the privileged.

plozano @ pww.org