Field Notes: Reflections on an admissions scandal

April 12, 2019
  • Admissions and Recruitment
  • Competencies
  • Professional Integrity
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"Field Notes" is a regular AACRAO Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at connect@aacrao.org.

by Nancy Walsh, Director of Admissions Operations, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Recent national events concerning the “Operation Varsity Blues” FBI investigation has brought up memories of a similar situation which happened on my campus almost 10 years ago. I’d like to describe what happened, how we handled it and where we are at today.  Please note that this is my own personal reflection on my memories back to 2009 when I was working as an associate director and had 13 years in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions (OUA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign at that time.

Category I Makes the News
The summer of 2009 turned into anything but the ordinary. Rather than worrying about collecting final transcripts, prepping for the next application cycle and trying to squeeze in vacation days, OUA staff found themselves caught up in an investigation set in motion by senior administrators who were providing special admissions treatment for relatives of legislators, trustees, and other influential individuals. In late May of that year, the Chicago Tribune began running a series of articles detailing improper undergraduate admission practices on our campus that came to be known as “Category I.” The Tribune along with other media outlets began to request thousands of documents under Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act.  The documents detailed what was described as a shadow admissions system allowing special consideration of ‘connected’ applicants who did not meet typical standards to be admitted. This system was outside of our normal admissions process and saw decisions and concerns by admissions staff being overruled.

The news stories quickly garnered the attention of Illinois citizens, including our newly appointed Governor Pat Quinn who appointed a state commission to conduct a comprehensive investigation on June 10, 2009. Over the course of the summer, hearings were held by the commission which included testimony from current and former members of our staff. It was a painful time for our office, and it was difficult to carry on the daily operations, which included trying to recruit the freshman class of 2010. Many of us took these allegations very personally; it felt like an attack on our hard work and the integrity of the office. You certainly no longer felt proud to say that you worked in the undergraduate admissions office as there was a perception that we were all corrupt, which was far from the truth.

The commission released its report on August 6, 2009 and part of its Recommendations section read “…personnel in the various admissions offices of the University are highly capable and clearly dedicated to the core mission of enrolling students of accomplishment and promise who will make positive, meaningful contributions to University life. Particularly if permitted to do their jobs free of undue influence, these admissions professionals will no doubt continue to deliver classes that will succeed…” Ah, a sense of relief and vindication that the commission recognized that our core mission was not compromised, but unfortunately, pressure from above resulted in a very black eye for our office. The commission recommended that all members of our Board of Trustees voluntarily submit letters of resignation and that a firewall policy be built around our admissions process, which I will describe below. Not only did most of our Board resign, but our President and Chancellor were also reassigned. No OUA staff members lost his or her job.

New Policies and Practices
Our campus quickly formed a task force after the commission released its report to work through the recommendations. The task force consisted of faculty members, staff members within the Offices of the Chancellor and Provost, the student body president, our director of undergraduate admissions and our associate provost for enrollment management. The Admissions Task Force Report was made public on September 16, 2009 and it clearly defined new policies and practices, including the creation of a “firewall” around the admissions process, an Ethical Code of Practice, Improved communication of admissions criteria and development of a formal appeals process. All of the policies and practices outlined in the report went into effect immediately.

All OUA and college staff who review undergraduate applications were required to attend training on the ‘Policy Prohibiting Improper Influence in Admissions’, also known as the firewall policy. The training also included acknowledgement that the Ethical Code of Practice had been discussed, and staff had to sign a document confirming that they had received the training and would be adhering to the ethical code and firewall policy. This training continues today and is required before any staff member can review an undergraduate application file. We also remind continuing staff of the policy at our annual application review training and send out an email reminder prior to review season as well.

The policy is intended to build a ‘firewall’ around our admissions process. At the undergraduate level, we can only discuss admission files with the applicants themselves, parents/legal guardians/spouses, school counselors and/or staff members within the firewall. The policy also prohibits letters of recommendation. If unpermitted third party inquiries are made to a staff member in the firewall whether via phone, in-person meeting or email, we are required to make the third party aware of the policy (especially if they are external). In most cases, the external individual is not aware of our policy and the conversation ends immediately. If the conversation continues and becomes more aggressive or if the third party is a staff member outside of the firewall, the interaction must be reported in an online log system. The information contained in the log is made available to the Senate Admissions Committee on an annual basis and is also subject to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. Abuses of the policy can also be reported to the University Ethics Officer, and all staff who violate any part of the policy can be subject to discipline, including termination.

10 Years Later
It is somewhat ironic that the Operations Varsity Blues scandal hit almost exactly 10 years after our own situation. While the two episodes were different in tactics, the intended end result was the same – trying to gain admission to an institution using unethical or illegal means. I am not aware that any laws were broken or charges brought against individuals in our case, but none-the-less, it was an extremely serious matter which resulted in multiple higher level employees losing their jobs and strict policies put in place. The new policies were happily welcomed by our office. They helped bring authenticity, transparency and integrity back to our office, and the firewall is very important for us to maintain a strong, unbiased review process. I would strongly encourage all colleges and universities to examine your own process and put policies and practices in place to affirm the integrity of your work. Trust me, the public embarrassment and major blow to office morale that would result from such an incident is well worth the time in examining your process to ensure no misconduct occurs.

The current scandal has also brought new light to our situation 10 years ago. Over the years, it has been more challenging to ensure that all campus staff members are aware of the policy. We have seen the occasional improper request over the ensuing years with a few more in recent years, likely as new staff members have been hired who were not familiar with our own history. We have tried to communicate our policy more frequently to the campus community and will also hold trainings with campus units if requested. But, overall, we feel that the firewall policy has been highly successful, and we are confident that we have removed any outside influence in our admissions reviews. I am hopeful that all who have read about Operation Varsity Blues, whether on our campus or not, will recognize the importance of ensuring a clean admissions process, in which the applicants are evaluated on their academic credentials, essays, activities and attributes and nothing else.