Inside The U Of I Law School's Book-Cooking Scandal

The University of Illinois issued its final report this week on the goosing of class profile data posted by the College of Law publicly and reported to the American Bar Association. This really does look like déjà vu all over again. The university's last admissions debacle was a short two years ago, the 2009 revelation of a list reserved for well-connected undergraduates unable to meet admissions standards unattainable only for the most reprobate of slackers. For their supporting roles in this bit of influence peddling, both Chancellor Richard Herman and President B. Joseph White ultimately resigned and the university adopted a new policy placing a "firewall" between admissions and administrators. And Illinois Law's fudging of its data comes on the heels of similar revelations at Villanova University's School of Law, which was censured by the ABA in August for intentionally misreporting its class profile data since at least 2002. This seems very much like a drama we have seen twice before.

Having said that, we must notice key differences. Unlike the U of I's previous admissions scandal, the misreporting recently uncovered did not cause any unqualified students to be admitted to the law school. Data for the incoming class -- such as LSAT scores, GPAs, and acceptance rates -- were altered after the class was admitted, and with the clear hope of improving the admissions selectivity that is a major factor in such rankings as those of Forbes and the U.S. News and World Report. Rather than a corrupt admissions process, the crime in this case is false advertising. And unlike Villanova, there has been no evidence found of collusion among Illinois administrators in creating this fiction. Villanova misreported data at the direction of senior administrators. The lengthy report prepared by the firms Jones Day and Duff and Phelps finds the manipulation of statistics at Illinois to be entirely the work of one man: Paul Pless, Assistant Dean of Admissions. Pless was placed on administrative leave on September 7, and resigned from the university on November 4. All evidence suggests that the manipulation of scores was the wrongdoing of a single individual in a position of trust.

We should be skeptical, of course, of the neat-and-tidy conclusion that only one individual is culpable here. But the facts suggest that it might be so: two LSAT scores were altered for the class of 2011; one LSAT score and twelve GPA scores for the class of 2012; no LSAT scores and thirty-one GPA scores for the class of 2013; and 109 LSAT scores and 58 GPA scores for the class of 2014. Not surprisingly, the discrepancies between reported and actual class profile data were largest in the last of these: where the actual median LSAT and GPA scores were 163 and 3.7, respectively, the school reported 168 and 3.81. Remember the "firewall" that seemed like a good idea after the admissions scandal of 2009? It may have had the unintended consequence of allowing discrepancies to be more difficult to detect: once in place, the admissions office was barred from passing along individual student data to the school's administration. That might be one reason why the data suggest a sharp uptick in misreporting for the classes of 2013 and 2014. When the misrepresentation became especially flagrant this year, a whistleblower reported the discrepancies on August 26, which initiated the investigation process -- though that fact worries the clean edges of the sole culprit narrative: if a whistleblower could know of misreporting this year, how is it that nobody knew of misreporting in previous years?

But the law school's administration is not entirely blameless: taking a page out of the playbook of high-pressure sales, it had imposed on the admissions office ever-increasing targets for profile data. If the class of 2013 had a median LSAT of 167, then the class of 2014 must have a median LSAT of 168. (Taking another page from the same playbook, Pless was rewarded for meeting these performance targets: his salary rose from $72,000 when he took up his position in 2004 to $130,051 in 2011.)

That the school's administration set such goals is partly attributable to laudable ambition misdirected thanks to the facile metrics of the U.S. News and World Report. It also seems to be mildly irrational over-ambition: the University of Michigan has reported a median LSAT of 169 for the class entering this year. Can the University of Illinois reasonably expect to raise its median LSAT by a point a year, surpassing the nation's top programs in less time than it takes to complete a JD? It seems unlikely. And we cannot blame the U.S. News entirely: Illinois Law is neck-and-neck with Indiana in the rankings, though the latter reports significantly lower median LSAT scores for its entering class (most recently a seventy-fifth percentile score of 160). Climbing the rankings on the back of class profile data is thus partly an internal priority, rather than one imposed by the metrics of rankings alone. An ambitious school can find other ways to pursue excellence.

I raised these concerns in a conversation with Dean Bruce Smith on November 7, the day after the final report was released, a meeting I entered armed with a faculty member's innate suspicion of administrators, which suspicion is especially keen during moments of administrative cock-up. (That Dean Smith has the preternaturally tidy grooming and icy good looks of a model in a Brooks Brothers catalog heightens my suspicion further still, and when over the course of our chat he quoted Churchill I was positively aflame with doubt -- calamity is never really our finest hour at all, no matter what agents of calamity tell us.)

To be fair, one must first concede that the Dean's office laudably engaged in no cover-up during this process: it has co-operated with the investigation process launched by the university's Ethics Office, and widely disseminated facts as they became known. When we spoke Dean Smith endorsed the report's recommendations on adding greater checks and balances in data reporting, on using reproducible methodology in arriving at class profile figures, and on developing an internal auditing system. He also indicated that the law school would be receptive to the auditing of class profile data currently being contemplated by the Law School Admission Council, though he could not entirely endorse a process that has yet to be drafted.

The real victims in all of this, of course, are current students in the College of Law, who declined opportunities to attend peer institutions and in many cases are taking on six-figure student debt for a credential that has lost substantial value -- Villanova has plummeted in the U.S. News rankings from 67th to 84th; Illinois will likely have a significant tumble when new rankings are released in the spring. As a remedy Dean Smith signaled the need for increased efforts in professional development and career placement, an investment that the college has already undertaken with several new hires, including a new full-time counselor in its Career Services office beginning work this December. The law school must also, he averred, redouble efforts in alumni outreach, something already difficult in these straightened times and now facing the additional challenge of regaining the alumni's trust.

There was a revealing point in this congenial conversation when Dean Smith and I seemed to be speaking different languages. I suggested that one way of preventing such eventualities in the future would be greater faculty oversight of the admissions process: when admissions are presided over by people committed to the academic life of the institution, and whose jobs are not on the line if they do not meet profile targets, then the process might be less prone to corruption. That is the way we do things in the admittedly lower pressure, and lower volume, world of graduate admissions in my home department, English, where a faculty committee assembles to find the most promising scholars in the pool. At this point Dean Smith graciously suggested that he would take my suggestion into consideration, but proceeded to describe the ways in which such a measure would be impractical, especially given the law school's high volume of applicants, and stated that law-school admissions has become a specialized profession unto itself.

I was at that moment speaking the language of a bygone era in university life when academic decisions were made by academics. And that language is no longer fully understood in a time when decision-making is monopolized by administrators overseeing self-contained bureaucracies. There is a timely lesson here for the University of Illinois system as a whole, given that President Michael Hogan has recently announced a plan to centralize the admissions of all three campuses in a single office. Do we really want more admissions professionals to be rewarded like commission salesmen for meeting selectivity targets? In justifying his plan, President Hogan cited the admissions scandal of 2009 and its subsequent implementation of a firewall. But the firewall is meant to keep out administrators too cozy with unscrupulous donors, not faculty adhering to legitimate academic standards. Responding to the university's last admissions scandal, AAUP President Cary Nelson observed that faculty oversight "could have provided enough sunlight to prevent this scandal from ever happening." One cannot help but feel that the same is true of the law school's current scandal, and that it will continue to be true as the entire university system cedes admissions to an applications clearinghouse.