Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Broken promises: How "jarheads" got shunted aside at the University of Illinois: A Marathon Pundit series

Now that the orange and blue smoke has faded from the Chief Illiniwek controversy at the University of Illinois--my alma mater--I have a story to tell that will that will make the administration of the state's flagship university wish for the good old days of defending the Chief.

Last Sunday I met with Robert van der Hooning at a Starbucks a few miles north of Morton Grove. He's a former Assistant Dean at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign College of Business. We spent a little more than an hour together. This post is the first of a series.

Van der Hooning noticed my post from last month that drew from an ABC 7 Chicago story, He contacted me via e-mail, and we agreed to meet. He’s passionate about University of Illinois and providing world class education to veterans.

After a successful career in the private sector, van der Hooning decided he wanted to give something back to the community. In early 2004, van der Hooning was hired to beef-up enrollment and academic standards for Urbana-Champaign’s money-losing operation in Chicago, including its Executive MBA ("EMBA") program. Two years later he was promoted to Assistant Dean and commended for recruiting good classes, launching a capstone course in China and strengthening the University’s position with the Chicago corporate community.

He was not new to academia, however. He's a former professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and McCormick School of Engineering, the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, and IMD International (Lausanne), the #2-ranked B-school in Europe. He also ran the International Bankers School on Wall Street and built a $50 million software company in artificial intelligence.

Van der Hooning was "reassigned" by the University last June--but he remained under contract to the school until two weeks ago.

When van der Hooning signed on at Illinois, there were about 23 students enrolled in an EMBA program which had been shrinking and losing money in previous years. Even Illinois’ MBA program in Champaign had shrunk from over 200 students to about 100 today and most of them are foreign students. Illinois’ other masters degree programs in Finance and Technology serve nearly 100% foreign students.

The most-sought after MBAs in the Chicago area attend the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. Both of those schools have thousands of MBA students enrolled in their programs every year. Thousands more attend Loyola, DePaul, the Illinois Institute of Technology, and even Notre Dame. The radio airwaves here are dominated by commercials from schools touting their MBA programs--why should Illinois' flagship public university not be part of that mix?

Heck, even DePaul University, a frequent topic of my scorn here because of the ongoing the Thomas Klocek case, has a larger MBA program than Illinois. They want it even larger, as they occasionally send me postcards urging me to enroll there.

The College of Business holds its classes on the fourth floor of the 200 S. Wacker building--across the street from the Sears Tower. I've been in the building at least a dozen times--the alumni association is on the second floor.

(Note: The University of Illinois at Chicago, located on the city's Near West Side, has an MBA program, too, run separately from the downtown Executive MBA program of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Yes, it's a little confusing.)

The fourth floor facilities of the Urbana-Champaign College of Business have three classrooms, one huge meeting room that seats 200, and several meeting rooms. Two classrooms can accommodate 110 students. Van der Hooning came up with an idea to reach that number by partnering with the Illinois Veteran's Grant program. 110 seats could easily be filled with Illinois veterans.

From the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs web site:

The Illinois Veteran Grant (IVG) Program pays tuition and certain fees at all Illinois state-supported colleges, universities and community colleges for Illinois residents. An individual must:
· be a veteran; and
· reside in Illinois six months before entering the service; and
· have at least one full year of active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces which includes veterans who were assigned to active duty in a foreign country in a time of hostilities in that country, regardless of length of service
· return to Illinois within six months of discharge from the service.

With thousands of Illinoisans fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan--many of whom, sorry John Kerry, have bachelor's degrees and years of hands-on leadership experience, surely this would be a marriage made in heaven.

Van der Hooning's boss, Dean Avijit Ghosh (pronounced "gauche") liked the idea. So did David Ikenberry, van der Hooning's U of I business school mentor, and many others in the Provost and Chancellor’s office. David Ikenberry is the son of Stanley O. Ikenberry, former University of Illinois president. Van der Hooning even made sure the Board of Trustees approved of what he was doing.

So the idea was a go and a press release announcing the program was sent out on March 3. In it, the 110 military scholarships was the big news. No other University in the country had ever done something on this scale for veterans.

Here is an excerpt from that press release:

The IVG Program is funded by the Illinois Student Assistance Commission
and provides up to 120 units for tuition of eligible students. According to Robert van der Hooning, Assistant Dean and Director of the Executive MBA Program in Chicago, the College will make this a cost-free opportunity for qualified and eligible candidates by waiving tuition and program costs. The Executive MBA Program consists primarily of classes that meet every other weekend (Fridays/Saturdays) in Chicago and is designed exclusively for mid-to senior-level managers and professionals. The program is valued at $74,000 and includes tuition, a trip to China, mandatory fees, books, meals, and lodging.

A trip to China, too. Awesome.

That press release, van der Hooning told me at our Starbucks chat, "was approved by the public relations director and Dean Ghosh in writing." Ghosh wrote others at the University confirming the ambitious plan.

I want to reiterate this point: With financing coming from the Illinois Veteran's Grant, those 110 scholarships were meant to be for the 2006-2007 academic year. Van der Hooning told me, both in person and via e-mail, the understanding within the College of Business was also very clear--110 military scholarships were to be awarded for the current academic term. He showed me an internal document written by the top administrative dean at the College called "Guidelines for Implementation for Academic Year 2006-2007."

The Christian Science Monitor wrote an article about it. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talked about the program -- this link comes from the University of Illinois College of Business web site. Within the article, there's a video link of Rumsfeld discussing the U of I MBA scholarships. Van der Hooning communicated with about 1,000 veterans in 2 months. Soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan called him at his home.

The Daily Illini, while not the official newspaper of the university, is essentially the newspaper of record for the University of Illinois, and it wrote about the program here. US Rep Rahm Emanuel touted it here. And in a press release from Illinois Lieutenant Governor Patrick Quinn, the state's number two man "saluted the College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) for its commitment to award free tuition for its Executive MBA Program to Illinois service members who have served in the Global War on Terror" in his press release.

Lieutenant Governor Quinn also gave a speech about it on the Champaign campus in front of U of I’s President, Joe White, the Chancellor, Provost and several dignitaries in May. He received a loud round of applause when mentioning the 110 veteran scholarships.

Veterans who qualified for the program, van der Hooning told me, were accepted on a "quick admit" basis, which meant busy veterans and overseas soldiers were conditionally admitted based on grades, college degree, experience and the like pending receipt of those seemingly endless forms. Van der Hooning got the idea from his mentor, David Ikenberry, who used it to expedite admissions for foreign students in his Masters of Finance program in Champaign.

And a whole bunch of Illinois veterans were accepted--and received letters confirming that.

Then problems came up. Van der Hooning told me that Dean Ghosh wrote him two months after the launch of the scholarship program and demanded dramatic cut-backs in the scholarship program for financial reasons. Ghosh wrote van der Hooning an email and said he wanted "additional cash flow from the additional students so we need to think about how the veterans scholarship will affect our cash flow." Ghosh said he only wanted a class of 45-50 students total – military and non-military students – regardless of the promise made to deliver 110 scholarships just for vets. Van der Hooning said Ghosh was concerned about "underfunding by the Illinois Veteran's Grant, and he didn't want to have the College of Business left holding the bag."

Actually, IVG funding has been constant for several years, van der Hooning told me. As schools raise tuition prices, there is less IVG funding to go around, but this is something Ghosh acknowledged in writing to van der Hooning and others on the Urbana-Champaign campus.

And then there was the complaint that there were two many "jarheads" in the program. That phrase, which caught my eye in the ABC 7 Chicago report, bothered me. So I asked van der Hooning who said that to him.

"Actually three people, John," he told me. Professor David Ikenberry, Dean Ghosh, and Larry DeBrock, a professor and associate dean.

So the decision was made by the University of Illinois College of Business to rescind most of the scholarships by using petty bureaucratic bullying. In a meeting in Champaign on May 17, van der Hooning was ordered by Ghosh to reduce the number of military scholarships from 110 to 15-17. Worse, van der Hooning was told to find or create technical reasons to rescind admission to military candidates already admitted. He was told "too many jarheads will bias the class demographic."

To the best of my knowledge, "military" isn"t a demographic. But to the all-too-quick-to-classify-and-demography world of academia, I guess it is.

He refused to cooperate. He told them their plan was unethical, discriminatory and probably illegal. (Just one of those things is good enough for me.) He told them to consult the University’s attorney, Chancellor Richard Herman, President Joe White, the Chief Ethics Officer and others.

What happened next is shocking. Ghosh, DeBrock, Admissions Dean Sandy Frank and Ikenberry decided to take matters into their own hands. So they got a copy of the admissions database from the Executive MBA program, studied it, and in an ex post facto manner, put in new procedural deadlines for the completion of application materials in order to reduce the number of military veterans in the program.

They basically looked at military candidates' application data and came up with new deadlines that they knew military candidates hadn't met. Sort of like betting on a horse a couple days after the race...or moving the goalpoast before a field goal attempt.

They told van der Hooning to implement the new policy. They e-mailed him a letter to send military candidates and told him to sign it on official College letterhead. He refused. Eventually, Ghosh sent DeBrock to meet with van der Hooning. DeBrock came armed with a list of about 35 military veterans to rescind from the MBA program. Again, van der Hooning protested on grounds of ethics and discrimination, so DeBrock added one civilian to the list of rescinded candidates.

Most of those dozens of military men and women, "the jarheads," got tersely-worded letters rescinding their admissions statu--ironically right after Memorial Day weekend. The letter, which van der Hooning refused to sign, contained his electronic signature literally cut-and-pasted from a marketing postcard. Robert told me he refused to sign it. The letter stated that an applicant’s "quick admit" had been rescinded but they could still wait in line with a new admissions committee Ghosh formed that now included DeBrock and Ikenberry. What the letter didn’t say was that the class size had been capped at 60 but there were 85 people already admitted. Worse, van der Hooning was told to continue recruiting non-military students to the class at the same time the rescind letters went out to military students. DeBrock and Ikenberry told van der Hooning "you'll be a hero if you get this done."

The former "quick-admittees" were furious. They contacted an equally furious van der Hooning who had written a letter of protest to Ghosh citing concerns of ethics and discrimination. The veterans sent e-mails and letters to Lt. Governor Pat Quinn and Congressman Emanuel, who were not only upset, but like van der Hooning, felt their support had been misused by the university. They also wrote Joseph B. White, President of the University, and the University of Illinois Board of Trustees.

Robert told me he was contacted by UIC Chancellor Sylvia Manning’s office in early June on behalf of President White to investigate the problems associated with the military scholarship program. He asked for and received a promise of confidentiality--fearing for his job.

He gave Manning's investigator a 30-minute debriefing of the situation and was told that the matter needed to be escalated to President White. A few days later, President White's office called him and scheduled a phone conference. Robert waited for the call, but it never came, so he called President White's office and was told that Ghosh and President White had talked and the "matter would be handled internally by Ghosh." A few days later, Robert was "reassigned."

Representatives of Quinn and Emanuel, both Democrats I'd like to add, made their opinions known to Ghosh personally, and after two interventions, the "jar heads" who Ghosh rescinded were promised they could attend after all. Ghosh wrote on June 14, "... the College will not waiver from its commitments. Be assured each case where an applicant has received a notice of conditional admission, via email or by letter, will be honored by (the) College." It’s ironic that the "commitments" Ghosh spoke about were the ones he tried to break.

Despite assurances in Ghosh’s letter, van der Hooning was again pressured by DeBrock and Ikenberry to quietly discourage some of these same veterans from enrolling in the program. He was told to be a "team player" and keep recruiting more non-military students to the program while telling military candidates the program was full. There were about 100 military veterans waiting in line.

Ultimately, 37 veterans enrolled in the Executive MBA program.

But 37 is not 110. Tom Hardy, U of I’s top PR spokesperson, told Chuck Goudie of ABC 7 Chicago that the 110 scholarships were always meant to be spread over 3 years. However, all references to the military scholarship program have been dropped from the college’s web sites and program brochures.

Ironically, most of the graduate students in the College’s MBA, MS Finance and MS Technology programs in Champaign are foreign students outside the United States. Overseas students are highly coveted by US universities for the same reason, as I learned in covering the DePaul-Klocek story, that American Muslims are. They often pay cash for their tuition--so there's no cumbersome student loan paperwork for the schools to deal in order to satisfy government requirements. For religious reasons, many US Muslims eschew loans, believing that dealing with financial transactions that involving interest is against their faith.

But the University of Illinois is a state-funded institution. The Illinois vets who had the scholarships pulled from them are, like myself, Illinois taxpayers. These men and women were promised education benefits from the Illinois Veteran Grant program and GI Bill. The U of I is good enough for the international students, but not the jarheads, it seems.

But one of van der Hooning's military recruits would be a proud addition to any master's of business program. He's author and blogger Matthew Currier Burden, better known as BlackFive. His book is The Blog of War: Front-Line Dispatches from Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Too many jarheads? I say, not enough.

During our discussion, van der Hooning told me his motivation in getting his story out now is "to do the right thing, to fulfill a promise the university made to these vets and bring attention to the problem of veterans' education." Since van der Hooning was "reassigned," he has been developing a business plan to provide education to returning veterans through partnerships with Illinois businesses, several other schools and benefit programs like the GI Bill and the Illinois Veteran Grant. He’s spent his own time and money to develop the idea.

As with all "B" schools, I'm sure there is a mandatory ethics course in the curriculum. Perhaps the administration of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign should take it.

Yes, he's suing his former employer. He feels he was wrongfully forced out of his job because he tried to get the university to honor its promise to those War on Terror veterans. He believes because he challenged Ghosh’s ethics and revealed the details to an investigator sent from President White that he was pushed out by the university. Incidentally, Ghosh led the search committee that nominated Joe White for President of U of I.

Incidentally, the Sarbanes-Oxely Act, something I for the most part oppose, protects whistleblowers. Surely Sarbanes-Oxely is required subject matter for all MBA programs, including the one at the University of Illinois. SOX only covers corporations. The State of Illinois has a whistleblower protection act in place, but I couldn't find much online about it, and besides, I'm not a lawyer.

Bad publicity is something the University of Illinois can weather--after all, the Chief Illiniwek controversy will die down, and the university will still be here. But being hit in the pocket book is something walled-off administrators understand much better.

John Mauck, Thomas Klocek's attorney, mentioned that DePaul wrongly pinned a "Scarlet R of racism" on him. Van der Hooning, probably has a Scarlet "T" for troublemaker attached to him. He wants to continue working in academia. But that's pretty hard to do with a scarlet letter next to your name.

He’s a single father with three daughters.

Meanwhile, the man who had a dream to build up the little MBA program across the street from America's tallest building just deposited his last U of I paycheck--he's officially unemployed, his final "reassigment."

Is there something missing from this post? Yep, there sure is. I e-mailed Tom Hardy, the U of I public relations office spokesman quoted in the ABC 7 Chicago story. He never replied to me. My e-mail to him was firm, but polite. If Hardy wants to get in touch with me--or for that matter if anyone from my alma mater wants to--the door is open.

Thanks for the links:

Part-Time Pundit
Backyard Conservative
the blog
Rogers Park Bench
Blogmeister USA
Reverse Spin
The Inside Dope
Illinois Veterans Education Bill of Rights

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