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U. of I., in wake of admissions scandal, commissions a poll
The University of Illinois has commissioned a poll to test responses to its admissions scandal, with options including a public apology and the resignation of some school trustees.
The board took no such dramatic steps Thursday, but did issue a statement at its regular meeting pledging to end admissions abuses.
"We ask for the patience and support of everyone who has a stake in this university as we work through a focused and deliberative process that will help us create an admissions system that is transparent, free of undue influence and fair," read Board Chairman Niranjan Shah.
The survey suggests the university was still trying to shape its message as recently as late last week, when in-state alumni and select Illinois residents were e-mailed the poll. All responses were due July 18.
Among other things, they were asked to choose who is "most at fault" for the admissions problem -- trustees, administrators or politicians -- and whether they would be willing to donate money in the future.
The survey sought opinions on more than a dozen statements that the university could make about the situation. Participants were asked to respond to each, including judging "how believable" it was and whether it made them feel more or less favorable toward the U. of I. They also were asked to select words or phrases that they found "most appealing" in each.
It is unclear whether the university plans to use the results to shape its public statements -- though the one released by trustees Thursday contained some language also tested in the survey, including a pledge to make admissions "transparent, fair and free of undue influence."
U. of I. spokesman Thomas Hardy said the statement was not written based on poll results. "There are a certain set of words to use in a situation like this, and these were some good ones," he said.
Hardy said he didn't know the cost of the survey, how many people were polled, or the results. He said U. of I. occasionally surveys "key audiences," a practice he noted was followed by other organizations, including newspapers.
"Tracking public awareness and opinion concerning admissions and other issues affecting the university is logical, considering recent events, and will be useful in responsibly addressing concerns," he wrote in an e-mail.
He said the university's outside legal counsel hired a public relations firm that in turn reached out to polling company Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates. The D.C.-based firm, which worked on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, declined to comment.
When shown a copy of the survey provided to the Tribune by a respondent, Hardy refused to say whether it was the same survey. But a university source who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed it was.
Peter Desmond, a 1977 U. of I. graduate who received the poll, called it "a great waste of resources."
"It seems to me that they are trying to build and measure their response rather than drawing a line and saying, 'This is how we conduct ourselves.' They are looking to put out a message, take as little responsibility as possible," said Desmond, whose daughter attends U. of I.
The survey was conducted during a state probe of admissions practices at the Urbana-Champaign campus launched in the wake of a Chicago Tribune investigation. The newspaper found that more than 800 undergraduate applicants received special consideration from 2005 to 2009 because they had powerful patrons, including trustees, elected officials and donors. Dozens more law and graduate school applicants also got special consideration.
Nicholas Burbules, chairman of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee, said he understood why the poll was commissioned.
"It's understandable to probe the sentiments and perceptions that people have toward the university now and find out what will be necessary to put things back on the proper footing," said Burbules, an education professor. "There is a PR issue here. That is putting it mildly. The university has done things that are inexcusable."
The university's alumni association issued a statement Thursday urging Illinoisans to separate the issue of admissions practices from the school's top academic reputation.
"We remind our alumni and the citizens of Illinois that the U. of I. has a very proud history, spanning nearly 150 years," the group wrote. "Throughout its many decades, the U. of I. has been a beacon of academic and affordable excellence, and its future is even brighter."
The survey shows a university deeply concerned about the damage the admission scandal has done to its reputation and whether the negative publicity will hamper future donations to the state's most prestigious public campus.
The poll gave respondents a chance to shrug off the admission abuses, with proposed statements contending that "public universities have long departed from meritocratic admissions and it's acceptable to give special consideration to certain applicants."
Ted Conway, a graduate from 1977 who received the poll, described it as "off-putting" and said the university has mishandled its response.
"They should have fessed up right away and not have been so arrogant," he said.