An Admissions Scandal Shows How Administrators’ Ethics ‘Fade’

April 17, 2015

College administrators’ own road to hell might be paved with routine institutional considerations, suggest the findings of a study that examined a high-profile admissions scandal at the University of Illinois.

The potential for misconduct "pervades colleges and universities more than we assume — and even more than we feel comfortable acknowledging," says a paper on the study’s findings, scheduled to be presented on Friday at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference, in Chicago.

"When we think about misconduct and corruption, we often think of it in terms of imperfect, immoral individuals, whereas in fact when you look deeply into cases of misconduct you often see much more complicated processes at play," says the study’s author, Nathan F. Harris, a doctoral student in higher education at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Based on his examination of the 2009 Illinois admissions scandal, which centered on the university’s use of a separate, hidden admissions process to ease the entry of applicants with ties to politicians, donors, and university officials, his paper concludes that administrative misconduct frequently is "an organizational problem that demands organizational solutions."

Often, he says, misconduct "originates, evolves, and sustains itself" as a result of a confluence of factors: common psychological tendencies, such as self-deception; environmental pressures, such as financial concerns; and structures within organizations, such as the enrollment-management systems that many colleges have put in place to coordinate their admissions decisions.

"A senior administrator," Mr. Harris says, "does not wake up in the morning and say, Today I am going to do something that lands me on the front page of the Chicago Tribune for the wrong reasons." Instead, he says, what comes into play is a phenomenon known as "ethical fading," in which the culture or structure of an organization causes those within it to lose sight of ethical considerations.

Michael N. Bastedo, who, as director of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, advised Mr. Harris in his research, on Thursday characterized the Illinois study as part of a small but growing body of higher-education research that is "starting to see ethical problems as system problems." He reached similar conclusions himself in his own 2009 study of nearly 60 public universities’ trustees.

The University of Illinois is hardly the only public institution to draw scrutiny for hidden admissions favoritism. Most recently, William C. Powers Jr., president of the University of Texas at Austin, has come under fire over the past year for intervening in admissions decisions on behalf of well-connected applicants. Although such direct presidential intervention in admissions decisions is regarded as rare, admissions officers at many other selective colleges acknowledge that they are often pressured to give special treatment to applicants with connections.

A state commission that investigated admissions practices at the University of Illinois examined reams of documents and held 12 public hearings in which it heard testimony from 30 witnesses. It also interviewed more than 40 people.

Mr. Harris based his study on the commission’s work. His paper explores aspects of the admissions process that the commission heard about in its investigation but discussed little in its final report. The commission’s data, Mr. Harris found, shows that Illinois favored well-connected students not just in admissions decisions but also in access to desirable residence halls, co-curricular programs, popular courses, and other offerings.

In examining how the university’s clout-based admissions process emerged and persisted, Mr. Harris found:

  • Tough economic times had triggered cuts in the university’s budget and increased competition for admission. The result was both a surge in the number of applicants asking for special consideration and added pressure on the university to make admissions decisions that might help its bottom line.
  • The creation of a shadow admissions process represented a "truce" between competing institutional interests. It prevented any open confrontation or ethical debate between administrators who wanted to assist politicians or donors and those administrators who believed admissions decisions should be based on merit.
  • Staff members in the university's governmental-relations office saw responding to admissions inquiries as a way to maintain good relations with their constituents.
  • The university’s leaders reassured themselves that such admissions favoritism was both a longstanding practice at the university and common among other selective institutions. "If tracking special-interest applicants was ethical, so was contacting high-profile sponsors about pending decisions; if these practices had been ethical, so was meeting to discuss applicants; if meeting was ethical, so was reconsidering decisions to deny ‘qualified’ applicants," his paper says. The incremental evolution of the process "blurred discrete decision points that might have prompted administrators and trustees to recognize the ethical implications of their actions."
  • Some administrators and trustees argued that the special admissions process actually created educational opportunity, pointing to how it had been used to benefit applicants who were members of racial or ethnic minority groups, or were from rural areas or other geographically underserved parts of the state. Several argued that the process helped ensure that applicants who had been wrongly rejected received another look. Administrators and trustees "sanitized their involvement" by employing positive, euphemistic language. Using such language "enhanced self-perceptions of morality," the paper says.
  • Senior administrators even said the special admissions process helped protect undergraduate admissions decisions from outside interference by providing a place for university officials and administrators to route inquiries about applicants rather than dealing with those inquiries themselves. In reality, the routing of such inquiries through the chancellor’s office aided such outside interference by keeping the people who had passed the inquiries along from having a full understanding of how the process worked and knowing the full ramifications of their actions. Trustees rarely discussed the process among themselves, adopting "a hear no evil, see no evil" perspective, the paper says.

Mr. Harris, who has been hired by the University of Rochester as an assistant professor of education, says he hopes to conduct similar research on how "ethical fading" plays into colleges’ other efforts to find new revenue streams.

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at