University of Illinois president and board done in by ‘clout list’

By A. James Memmott

September 27, 2009 at 8:21am

B. Joseph White seemed like a perfect fit when he was named president of the University of Illinois in 2004.

He had been an interim president at the University of Michigan. He had raised millions of dollars as the dean of the business school there. And he had been in private industry as a vice president at Cummings Engine Co.

But despite all this experience, White, 62, could not prevent or control an admissions scandal at the university, and on Wednesday he announced his resignation effective at the end of this year.

B. Joseph White
B. Joseph White

In leaving, White will pass up a $475,000 retention bonus due him in February. However, he will stay on as a member of the business faculty teaching ethics and leadership at an annual salary of $300,000.

White’s troubles begin in May when The Chicago Tribune revealed that hundreds of seemingly unqualified applicants to the university’s main campus at Champaign-Urbana had been admitted after the intercessions of elected officials, donors and members of the university’s board of trustees.

The paper reported that since 2005 about 800 undergraduate applicants had landed on the so-called “clout list.”

Inclusion on the list did not guarantee admission, though it certainly helped. According to the Tribune, for the 2008-2009 school year, the university accepted 77 percent of the applicants on the list, as opposed to 69 percent of applicants overall.

In one case, the Tribune reported, White passed along an admissions request from then Gov. Rod Blagojevich on behalf of a relative of Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a Chicago businessman who would later be convicted of influence peddling. The university then admitted the Rezko relative.

Blagojevich, who later resigned, is awaiting trial on wire fraud and bribery charges.

A state-appointed commission named following the Tribune story released a report in August that faulted White for has handling of the Blagojevich request. However, it placed more blame for the admissions scandal on Richard Herman, the chancellor of the Champaign-Urbana campus. Herman continues to serve in that position.

The report called for an overhaul of the admissions process and the resignation of the board of trustees. All but two of the 13 trustees subsequently left the board.

In August, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn named Christopher G. Kennedy to the board. Kennedy, the president of the Chicago’s Merchandise Mart Properties and the son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was subsequently elected board chairman.

On Wednesday, Kennedy praised White and stressed that his resignation was not an admission of wrong doing related to admissions.

In a letter to the board, White did not comment on the admissions issue. “I take this action to enable you as a newly constituted board to select university leadership going forward,” he wrote.

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  • #1.   V Davisson 09.27.2009

    Do you mean he was teaching ethics? Not ethnics…

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