Manzullo named in U of I admissions scandal
By Stuart R. Wahlin, Staff Writer
U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo (R-16) was among the names mentioned during hearings to investigate alleged preferential treatment for the politically-connected in gaining admission to the University of Illinois.
Responding to complaints of clout influencing admissions, Gov. Pat Quinn (D) appointed seven individuals in June to serve on the Illinois Admissions Review Commission, which has been looking into the claims of special treatment for allegedly under-qualified applicants with powerful friends, referred to as the “Category I” list.
“We all have a stake in the University of Illinois,” Quinn said, “and this independent review will erase any questions, and guarantee its reputation as a center of higher learning and achievement.”
It is alleged legislators, contributors and alumni have exercised outside influence in the admissions process. Meantime, university lobbyists are also accused of meddling with admissions in exchange for funding consideration from legislators.
During July 27 testimony, B. Joseph White, university president, was asked to address a 2006 e-mail to Heidi Hurd, then-dean of the university’s law school, and Rick Schoell, who recently retired as executive director of governmental relations and director of federal relations.
The e-mail stated: “Congressman Don Manzullo from Rockford called me to tell me [redacted] has applied to our law school. Could I get a read on the application and let’s handle carefully. I’ll need to ensure no surprises to Don. Rick, Don was on his way out the door to catch a plane to D.C., said he has ideas for me about the medical college building at Rockford, need to talk again. Thanks. Joe.”
Manzullo spokesman Rich Carter argued the White e-mail regarding the congressman was out of place at the hearing.
“If you didn’t understand the timing on all of this stuff, there could be an inference that there was some type of a connection [between the applicant’s admission and funding for the medical college],” Carter acknowledged. “But when you look at it, it’s exactly the opposite.”
Carter noted Manzullo had been securing funding for the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford expansion project long before the 2006 e-mail. Federal dollars had been earmarked in 2003, 2004 and 2005.
“Our involvement with that project actually started before Dr. White was even involved at U of I. It started back in 2002,” Carter reported. “That’s probably the only reason that that e-mail was even brought up [during the hearings]—because there was mention made of that project. But the bottom line is that project was well in the works before any of this discussion started.”
Because Manzullo had worked to secure $2.2 million for the Rockford campus, Carter indicated, the congressman’s “ideas” referenced in White’s e-mail were geared toward moving the project to the top of the university’s to-do list.
“Every year, the University of Illinois put together kind of a capital funding priority project; basically, what they would focus their funds on,” he explained. “The Rockford project was always fairly low on the list, and we were concerned with that, because the United States Congress had endorsed this thing three straight years. The College of Medicine was involved in a fund-raising campaign, but it wasn’t going to get anywhere near the 30 million it needed to build this thing. They really needed to prioritize it.”
According to Carter, White and Manzullo first met in March 2005, during which time the subject of a student interested in law school came up during small talk. White suggested U of I’s law school, Carter said, but Manzullo indicated the student’s mind was set on elsewhere.
Explaining the e-mail, Carter indicated the purpose of Manzullo’s phone call had been to stress the Rockford campus as a funding priority for the university, and that secondary mention of the applicant was only to note the student had ultimately chosen U of I over other schools.
“It was of just an informational thing,” Carter said. “So, if you read the e-mail in that context, it makes a little more sense.”
Asked to interpret White’s “I’ll need to ensure no surprises to Don” comment, Carter responded: “I have no idea, and I talked to the congressman about that, and both of us agreed that that is a very cryptic e-mail. When I first saw that, I was very taken aback. And I’m like, ‘Why would that be the case?’ I just don’t understand why he would do that, based on the conversation they had. …It’s just written in such a way I’m not sure what it means.”
White did not respond for comment prior to publication.
“In the other e-mails [presented during the hearing], Dr. White specifically states, ‘We need to get this guy in,’” Carter noted. “There’s no mention of any of that. That’s why this is a very different e-mail.
“He didn’t ask him to do anything, and Dr. White didn’t ask the law school dean to do anything, which is very different than some of the other e-mails,” he added. “I mean, you’ve got some of the state leaders, like [Illinois House Speaker Michael] Madigan [D-22] and some of those guys who are putting 30, 40 requests in, where they’re specifically saying, ‘You need to get this guy in.’ Obviously, none of that happened here.”
Manzullo’s prospect was accepted to the law school, but Carter argued it was on the student’s own merits. White testified there was “no quid pro quo” on behalf of the applicant, and that funding for the expansion project had been obtained from the state.
In March, Manzullo announced $238,000 in federal funding had been secured for the Rockford campus expansion, in addition to the $2.2 million previously touted by Manzullo for the project.
According to Mianne Nelson, director of advancement and community relations for the Rockford facility, the school is seeking a total of $5 million in federal funding for the expansion, and $14.8 million has been allocated from the recently passed state capital bill. The remaining costs of the nearly $27 million expansion will come from private donations, Nelson indicated.
The Illinois Admissions Review Commission completed hearings July 31, and is expected to deliver its findings and reform recommendations to the governor’s office by Aug. 8.
The group’s report is expected to encourage the resignations of university trustees appointed by ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D). Edward McMillan, recently appointed by Quinn, would be an exception. Niranjan Shah, chairman of the board, and Trustee Lawrence Eppley—who encouraged fellow trustees to do the same—have already tendered their resignations.
Since 1995, trustees have been appointed by the governor, instead of being elected.
from the August 5 – 11, 2009 issue
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