When a University of Illinois transfer applicant last month was denied acceptance, she called the admissions office to ask about submitting an appeal. Her godmother, who stated that she was a Cook County Circuit Court judge, was yelling in the background.
"Godmother was loudly saying the decision was 'ridiculous,' that she was 'a Circuit Court judge in Chicago,' 'sending in an official petition,' and 'writing a letter for protest' about the goddaughter's denial," according to an entry on the university's admissions log that tracks when individuals try to interfere with the admissions process at the Urbana-Champaign campus. The godmother did not give her name.
In the past, such complaints may have landed the student on an admissions clout list that tracked politically connected applicants. Instead, the contact was placed on an admissions log that tracks when outside parties try to insert themselves into the process.
The admissions log began in 2009 after a high-profile admissions scandal in which the Tribune revealed that underqualified, politically connected students were getting into the university over more qualified applicants.
University of Illinois staff members have logged 23 incidents from October 2009 to last month, according to a list released to the Tribune. They include an athletics department employee who wanted to check on an applicant's status and an applicant's mother who said she was calling her state representatives to get a decision changed.
Most of the log entries seem benign, with people not realizing that only applicants or their parents can contact admissions staff.
"It definitely shows that people have gotten the message that it is not appropriate to go outside of the system," said U. of I. spokeswoman Robin Kaler. "There are very few where there appears to be any evidence or even a hint of impropriety."
The log is a far cry from the secret clout lists formerly kept by the university to track students sponsored by trustees, legislators and high-ranking administrators. Students on those lists got preferential treatment and, in some cases, were admitted despite subpar credentials. About 160 to 180 undergraduate applicants were included on the lists from 2005 to 2009. University lobbyists used to meet with the former chancellor to review politically connected applicants.
The new log works like a drop box, where admissions officers can enter comments to a password-protected website at their discretion but cannot access the information. When an entry is created, it is automatically emailed to the admissions director, university ethics officer and provost.
Under the new rules, if university employees interfere, they can be fired. If trustees meddle, they can be removed from the board by the governor. The log, accessible under the Freedom of Information Act, is intended to make inquiries public in the hope that employees not directly involved with admissions stay out of those decisions.
Third-party contacts only are logged if they are made to an admissions representative. For example, if a legislator calls the chancellor to ask about admissions, that contact would be logged only if the chancellor then passes on the request to the admissions office.
"There is a lot of education that goes into it," Kaler said. "The current leadership of the system and of this campus has made very clear what is appropriate. There was a very focused effort to change the culture, and I think that has happened."