The Week In Ethics Blog

Ethical Leadership Trumped: Leaders Fall at U. of Illinois

Ethical Leadership Trumped: Leaders Fall at U. of Illinois

Posted On: Saturday, September 26, 2009

The University of Illinois (U. of I.) had a breakdown of integrity. For years, legislators, wealthy outsiders, trustees, and administrators were allowed to influence the admissions process, resulting in less qualified students being admitted over the more qualified, until it exploded this spring. The casualties are still being counted. Most recent is  B. Joseph White system president who resigned this week, one day before the newly constituted board of trustees planned to review his and a chancellor’s role in what is called the Category 1 “clout list” program. Both administrators received no confidence votes from faculty and students.

In the fallout of the scandal, exposed in May 2009 by the Chicago Tribune, the “leaders” rushed for cover, denying, then admitting but minimizing their role, and trying to frame the problems as blips in their record of accomplishments. In a poignant moment when the university’s student newspaper asked White last month how the unethical practices of influencing admissions decisions would have been known without the Tribune’s stories, White said he believed in the freedom of the press and now they knew about the problem.

Huh? White was that clueless? His “tone at the top” was that bankrupt on subjects of fairness, equality of access, and transparency? Illinois Governor Quinn created an outside commission to investigate and recommend admission practice reforms. Recommendations included building a firewall to insulate the admissions office from university or outside influence. This is an overdue step in creating integrity and something other universities criticized for admission favoritism should also adopt if fairness in their process is an intended outcome.

The commission report found White and Chancellor Herman, whom he appointed and supervised, “acted inconsistent with university-sanctioned principles of ethical conduct and fair dealing.” Both men resisted calls to resign, standing on their records. Herman, whose fate is now up to Trustees, reportedly told the commission he “went off course with good intentions,” believing he was serving the greater good by not alienating powerful people. So the message here is good fundraising trumps ethical leadership?

White initially said U. of I. acted no differently than other selective universities, later admitting he was wrong to downplay what had happened. He eliminated the Category 1 program, apologized, and was quick to create a campus team to implement the recommendations to eliminate patronage and set up accountable, transparent admissions systems. He supported the creation of a university-wide code of conduct for admissions, and even suggested earlier this month that trustees create a trustee committee on ethics. If the Trustees want to rebuild the university’s reputation, it starts with essential steps they can take to set the tone and demonstrate ethical leadership throughout the university.
White, probably with the help of legal and PR advisors, took himself down a well-worn path of how leaders in crisis seek to correct problems and lead change. Except it turns out, White isn’t the guy people want to follow on the road back.

Praised by Trustees for his decision to “voluntarily” resign, if they sign off, White’s contract allows him to remain at the university as a business professor, teaching leadership and other courses. He wrote The Nature of Leadership: Reptiles, Mammals and the Challenge of Becoming a Great Leader (2007). In his first chapter he says: “The direction leaders set, the results they achieve, and the values and tone with which they imbue their organization have a profound effect on the quality of our world and our individual lives.”  By his own book, White gets a failing grade.

This story is about abusing influence and power and the lack of controls to reinforce ethical conduct. It also demonstrates what happens when leaders insinuate themselves into any process – in this case admissions – and create even the perception that the information they provide is pressuring or confusing subordinates into taking a particular action to please the leader at the expense of fairness or established procedures.
What White, Herman, former trustees, and others didn’t get is that while they may have raised a lot of money and racked up wins for the university, the cost of acting without integrity and abdicating ethical leadership just bankrupted their records.

Gael O'Brien

Gael O’Brien is a catalyst for leaders leading with purpose and impact through clarity, presence and connection so that they create engagement that transforms their companies’ future. She is an executive coach, culture coach, speech coach and presenter. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University and a Senior Fellow Social Innovation, the Lewis Institute at Babson College.

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TimBloggerDudeMary ChiassonDave Stachowiak Recent comment authors
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Dave Stachowiak

As a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, this story has kept my attention in the recent months.
While it may never be clear who was ultimately at fault for this unfortunate policy, leaders must bear the responsibility for both the successes and failures of institutions on their watch. I am hopeful that the leadership changes that are now being made will restore confidence in the admissions process and move the school forward from this embarrassing episode.
Thanks for the perspective, Gail!

Mary Chiasson

Hi Gael,
Thank you very much for speaking out on this critical ethical breakdown and others.


I don’t know If I said it already but …Excellent site, keep up the good work. I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂
A definite great read….


Glad to see I’m not the only one who cares.

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