Leadership & Governance

U. of Illinois President Resigns in Wake of Admissions Scandal

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In his resignation letter, B. Joseph White wrote: "The notion that I would submit to pressure -- or apply pressure -- for admissions or anything else in order to please the high and mighty is dead wrong."
September 23, 2009

The admissions scandal at the University of Illinois claimed its highest-ranking victim on Wednesday, when B. Joseph White, president of the three-campus system, announced he was resigning, effective December 31.

Mr. White denied that he ever used pressure to influence the admission of well-connected applicants, and he said he was stepping aside to let the new Board of Trustees select the university's leader.

In a letter to the trustees, Mr. White, who holds a Ph.D. in business administration, said he was committed to the university and would remain as a faculty member. He also wrote that he would forgo a retention bonus that he would have been eligible for in February.

The university said in a news release that the retention bonus would have been worth $475,000. It also said that Mr. White would continue to help raise money for the university's $2.25-billion capital campaign.

Christopher G. Kennedy, who was appointed to the Board of Trustees this month and is its chairman, wrote in a response to Mr. White that his resignation did not imply he was at fault for the admissions problems investigated this summer by a state-appointed review commission. "My colleagues on the board and I appreciate that your resignation is motivated by serving the university's best interests and is not intended to create any presumption of wrongdoing by you concerning the subjects investigated by the governor's Admissions Review Commission," he wrote.

The board will appoint an interim president in the next few weeks, Mr. Kennedy said, and will begin a search for a new president, with the goal of having the new leader in place by the start of the next academic year.

Investigation and Repercussions

Mr. White, who has led the Illinois system since 2005, has been enmeshed for months in the scandal that followed the revelation of a "clout list" of applicants who received special consideration in admissions decisions because of their ties to trustees, donors, or politicians. A report released last month by the commission criticized Mr. White and Richard Herman, chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The report came down more heavily on Mr. Herman, who oversaw the clout list, but also faulted Mr. White for having a role in the process.

The review panel, which was created by Gov. Pat Quinn, recommended a complete overhaul of the admissions process and the resignation of all members of the Board of Trustees. Over the past month, Governor Quinn, a Democrat, has appointed six new trustees, including Mr. Kennedy, and reappointed one who stepped down.

The governor said neither he nor the board's chairman had asked for Mr. White's resignation. At a news conference Wednesday morning, Mr. Quinn said the university's reputation had been paramount for Mr. White, and he commended the departing president for taking action to move the university forward.

"I think President White is doing what's best for the university, and the people of Illinois are grateful to him," Mr. Quinn said.

A 'High-Integrity Leader'

Mr. White's decision to resign was a turnaround from the position he took after the Admissions Review Commission's report was released on August 6. He said then that he wanted to help fix the problems and make the University of Illinois a national leader in admissions integrity.

Last week, the faculty at the system's flagship campus sent him a message that it did not believe he was the right person for that job. The faculty Senate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign approved a nonbinding resolution calling for the removal of Mr. White and Mr. Herman.

In his resignation letter, Mr. White included a statement he had made to the faculty Senate, in which he said he had worked to insulate the university from external pressures in an intensely political environment. "The notion that I would submit to pressure—or apply pressure—for admissions or anything else in order to please the high and mighty is dead wrong," he said. "I came to Illinois in 2005 a fiercely independent person and high-integrity leader. I still am."

Mr. Herman took a different approach with the faculty Senate, delivering a remorseful apology for failing to stop a system of political favoritism. He said he had considered resigning in order to avoid more public scorn, but decided he would rather stay on and continue to serve the university.

Even with his apology, Mr. Herman may not be in the clear. The Board of Trustees has announced it would review the performance of top university officials.

The clout system, which gave a "Category I" designation to applicants with ties to trustees and other influential people, was exposed by the Chicago Tribune last May and snowballed over the summer into a highly public dispute. Earlier this month, the Board of Trustees passed a resolution to eliminate the "Category I" designation, to establish written criteria for admissions, and to create a "fire wall" to insulate the admissions process from outside interference.

The scandal has been a case study in governing boards and administrators overstepping their powers, experts say, and may lead other institutions to reconsider how they handle admissions.

"It will probably force some public universities that have allowed personal pressures and influences to factor into their admissions decisions to re-evaluate the practice," Graham B. Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University, said in an interview on Wednesday.

Brad Wolverton contributed to this report.