University of Illinois President B. Joseph White on Monday told a commission investigating the effect of politics on school admissions that he found an environment in which who you know and what you can offer matter to a shocking degree when he took over at the university in 2005.
And he said the university's reputation has suffered such a blow because of the role of political clout on campus that he and other university leaders have little choice but to insulate decisions about who gets into school from anyone but admissions officials --barring graduates, donors and anyone else from the process.
Two of White's predecessors, meanwhile, told the Illinois Admissions Review Commission that they'd like to see some of the politically appointed trustees who oversee the university and its three campuses ousted.
White told commissioners that he'd never seen anything like the culture of influence and clout at Illinois before he came to the university from the University of Michigan four years ago.
"I don't know how to describe it," he said during the meeting on campus in Urbana. "It's an influence environment; it's a quid pro quo environment."
White told commission members that he plans to kill Category I, the list of politically connected applicants the university has maintained at least the past few years.
Gov. Pat Quinn appointed the commission to examine university admissions after news reports revealed Category I and the admission of some underqualified members of that list.
The university has released thousands of pages of e-mails in response to news media requests that detail the handling of applicants linked to politicians, trustees and others.
White was questioned Monday about an e-mail he forwarded to Chancellor Richard Herman _ who runs the Urbana-Champaign campus _ and others from Trustee Lawrence Eppley indicating that then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich was backing a particular candidate. That candidate, who was initially denied admission but later accepted, turned out to be a relative of Tony Rezko, the convicted political influence peddler who is a key figure in the federal government's investigation of Blagojevich.
White told commissioners that he didn't know who Rezko was when he passed the e-mail along in 2005.
White said he also didn't know that Heidi Hurd, the law school's former dean, agreed to admit underqualified applicants pushed by Herman in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships.
While White said he believes Herman wanted what was best for the university, such dealmaking at the very least showed poor judgment.
He said he and Herman haven't talked yet about the scholarships or other aspects of the scandal, but plans to do so after the commission gives Quinn its report, which is due by Aug. 8.
A message left at Herman's home Monday evening by The Associated Press was not returned.
White clearly inherited many of the university's problems, commission chairman Abner Mikva said after Monday's meeting, but should have asked more questions about the depth and breadth of the culture of influence he described.
Earlier Monday, former university presidents James Stukel and Stanley Ikenberry said they would like to see all nine politically appointed trustees _ except for Ed McMillan, a Quinn appointee who joined the board this year _ ousted.
But Stukel also said that might strip the board of needed experience and said at least three trustees should be removed: Eppley, chairman Niranjan Shah and Robert Vickrey.
Those three, Stukel told commissioners, are products of Blagojevich-era politics who owed their jobs and loyalty to the governor.
Ikenberry pushed commissioners to recommend changes in the board's makeup. In addition to the nine governor's appointees, three student trustees are chosen by campus vote for the board.
The commission meets again Wednesday in Chicago.