MOVING TO FRONT FROM JUNE 5: Senator Lauzen replies, below.
====original JUNE 5 item========
This story airs the dirty little secret of the pressures under which state law schools operate all the time: state legislators, who of course vote on university budgets, make special pleas to admit friends, relatives, and constituents. Mostly they weigh in on behalf of weak candidates. The subtext of these "recommendations" and "phone calls" is always clear: your legislative agenda items will fare better with me if you admit so-and-so. The story linked above recounts one such exchange at the University of Illinois a few years back:
An e-mail dispatched by the former law dean at the University of Illinois is less than enthusiastic about a state senator’s recommendation for the admission of one applicant.
"She won't hurt us terribly, but she certainly won't help us," Dean Heidi Hurd wrote in reference to the applicant, in an e-mail to Chancellor Richard Herman. "She will almost certainly be denied admission if the process unfolds as we predict. But she can probably do the work. If you tell me we need to do this one, we will. We'll remember it though!"
"Please admit," Herman replied. "I understand no harm."
The Chicago Tribune obtained Hurd’s e-mail and hundreds others under a Freedom of Information Act request that showed “an ongoing power struggle between educators who want to protect the integrity of the state's most prestigious public university and administrators who also feel compelled to appease powerful lawmakers.” The article notes that lawmakers making requests on behalf of constituents oversee educational budgets, creating pressure to acquiesce.
Herman said not everyone who is recommended by clout-heavy officials wins admission to the university.
No surprises here, and Hurd's posture was the totally normal one. Deans know the pressure that university administrators are under from unscrupulous legislators, but when they try to be accomodating they also expect solicitude on the issues their unit confronts.
But here's the kicker that makes this story special: the State Senator, Chris Lauzen, who was using his political muscle to get some connected mediocrity admitted, is quoted as follows when confronted with his (no doubt typical) unethical stunt:
He said the upsetting part of the e-mail exchange was the tone of Hurd’s e-mail. "If it were me, I'd fire her, maybe for insolence," Lauzen said. "If she doesn't believe the person is qualified, she should say no. Instead, she asks for a quid pro quo. Where are her ethics?"
"Pot calling the kettle black" would really understate the appalling moral hypocrisy of this man.
UPDATE (June 17): Senator Lauzen graciously called me to take issue with the Tribune story and to explain his actions. I invited him to send me a written statement, which I said I would publish. He kindly agreed. What follows is Senator Lauzen's response:
LAUZEN REPSONDS REGARDING U. OF I. ARTICLE
For those who believe that all of their fellow citizens who serve in public office are selfish, undisciplined crooks, there is certainly nothing that I can write to correct the Tribune’s unjust attacks upon my record of constituent service. There is a wise expression, “Don’t dare to argue with a newspaper that buys ink by the barrel.”
However, for others who can discern that some of us enter public service to help others, I will make my brief case. There were three factual errors in your report which set up an inaccurate inference that somehow I tried to politically muscle an unqualified candidate through the admission process past more qualified applicants. That assertion is simply false.
First, I called asking for information, not admission. In both my personal and professional experience, I have seen applicants enter the admission and financial aid processes with incomplete applications. In 1974, I was waitlisted for admission at the Harvard Business School after a professor upon whom I relied failed to submit a promised recommendation letter. One of the most frequent reasons for failure in scholarship applications is incomplete data. As an effective advocate for parent and student constituents, it is consistent to request information from any state bureaucracy, including a university, as I do when I am called to help with the Illinois Department of Revenue, Human Services, Corrections, Transportation, Employment Security, Children and Family Services, etc.
The laziest thing, when constituents call for help, is to do nothing. That has not been my consistent habit over 17 years of public service.
Second, I did not call the University of Illinois lobbyists; to this day, I don’t even know who those people are. Instead, I called the U. of I. legislative liaison who is the proper channel for a member of the General Assembly to reach out for information. Perhaps the reporter and editor can paint my actions to be more sordid if they have me inaccurately approaching the publicly-despised “lobbyists” rather than the appropriate legislative liaison.
Finally, the reporter and editors did not report the whole truth about the context of the exchange between two administrators whom I hardly even know, and much less can take responsibility for the content of their email communications, deeper thoughts, and feelings. I spoke to neither. However, I continue to believe that , if former Law School Dean Heidi Hurd felt that any candidate was unqualified to do the work or to be admitted, the only ethical answer if she felt pressured to do what she thought was wrong was simply to say “No”, not “We will remember it though!”
As I observed initially, to hold a shadow bargaining chip over her supervisor’s head, perhaps for future promotion or benefit, is the very Webster’s definition of insolent, i.e. “insultingly contemptuous in speech or conduct”. Again, if the applicant is not sufficiently qualified for a spot, simply say “No”, reject, and we all move on. But I asked a completely different question, “Is there anything else the candidate needs to provide to complete the application?”
In the end, this student applied and was uncomplicatedly accepted to another fine Big Ten university law school, did a wonderful job academically, and is now very productively employed in her profession. In this specific case, the Tribune makes much ado over nothing.
Compared to the dismal failure of the Tribune’s Ethics Reform crusade, which I certainly supported, featuring my call for one student seems “small potatoes” in objective comparison. I realize that the financially bankrupt Tribune is in a desperate struggle to sell more newspapers and more ads, that media bias is infamous, and that their latest conceit is that they are the “watchdogs in the corridors of power”; however, in this instance, neither their facts nor inference were reliably accurate. Who will eventually monitor these self-appointed monitors?
In 17 years of public service I have never taken one inappropriate cent from the taxpayers; have come from a successful business background where my clients paid me 700% what my constituents pay me; have no family members directly or indirectly employed in any government agency at any level; have passed reform legislation, against most adds, that actually cut pay for politicians this year and eliminated automatic future raises . . . . What more might you want?
Senator Chris Lauzen
I thank Senator Lauzen for this thorough response, which speaks to a number of the issues raised. I still imagine that university officials might interpret even an informational inquiry about a candidate as something more, and I think it would be better for distinguished state universities, whether in Illinois or elsewhere, if elected representatives explained to their constituents that to avoid even an appearance of improriety, they can not contact universities regarding cases for admission, even for informational purposes.
ADDENDUM: One reader thought I was agreeing with Senator Lauzen's allegation of 'insolence' against Dean Hurd. I do not. There was nothing remotely insolent about her e-mail, and it would have been to Senator Lauzen's credit to disavow, rather than reaffirm, that point.