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Columnist
Make U of I officials explain themselves on veterans program
By Chuck Goudie | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 3/10/2008 12:08 AM

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It certainly wouldn't be as captivating as the hair-in-the-Coke questions that we enjoyed when Clarence Thomas was up for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Nor would it be as thrilling as the blue dress questions raised during Clinton's impeachment performance.

And it might not look like the recent Roger Clemens/steroid interrogation on Capitol Hill.

But this week in Springfield, when state university officials are asked to explain why they need more tax money, it would be the ideal occasion for University of Illinois leaders to answer a nagging question.

Why do some U of I administrators believe that Iraqi war veterans are jarheads, as alleged by a former assistant dean?

Robert van der Hooning, who was fired from the U of I, alleges that demeaning word for United States Marines was used by his bosses when they ordered him to slash the number of scholarships for veterans.

In a lawsuit Van der Hooning filed against the U of I, he claims top administrators of the business school indicated there were too many "jarheads" in the program. Van der Hooning says he was ordered to reduce MBA scholarships from 110 to 17, and told to concoct "technical reasons" to dump veterans from the program.

In other words, he claims that the U of I ordered a cover-up.

"They thought that there was something wrong with veterans. They thought there was something inferior about them," said Van der Hooning, who alleges he was dumped after trying to blow the whistle.

U of I announced two years ago that it was going to give out up to 110 full-ride master's degree scholarships for veterans, each valued at $72,000, including room and board and a study trip to China. Assistant Dean van der Hooning was director of the program.

As ABC7 reported a year ago, the fighting soldiers thought they would return home to become Fighting Illini only to have their offer of a free MBA shot down.

"After we launched the 110 full-ride scholarship, things went really well. We had contacts with 1,000 people around the country, vets and active duty," said van der Hooning. As head of the program, van der Hooning notified nearly 100 Illinois veterans that they had been awarded complete scholarships.

U of I officials have said he was to blame.

"He had committed improperly and incorrectly 110 from the get go, when the intention of the university was 110 over a three-year period," said Tom Hardy, U of I spokesman, shortly after van der Hooning's lawsuit was filed. Hardy also denied that anyone from the university used the term "jarhead."

Van der Hooning claims that after the scholarships were promised, U of I "decided, whoops! Too expensive! We want to cut this back. That's what happened. It's definitely a conspiracy, it's definitely a cover-up," he said.

"A statement like that is as offensive as it is laughable," said the U of I's Hardy at the time.

Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, a veterans' advocate and sponsor of the original U of I scholarship program, didn't find it funny.

Lt. Gov Quinn complained last November in a letter to university leaders.

"I am writing to express my continuing concern about the University of Illinois' Executive MBA program's treatment of our veterans," Quinn stated. "Since that promising beginning, I have been deeply disappointed by the University of Illinois' failure to fulfill its promise to our veterans. Instead of honoring our pledge to our veterans, the University of Illinois has cut back on its promise."

And now, the Illinois Court of Claims that heard Mr. Van der Hooning's case has ruled largely in his favor. The court last Friday upheld five of the six counts filed by the former dean, denying U of I's motion to dismiss his complaint.

The ruling by the claims court, which hears cases against state agencies, clears the way for Van der Hooning to take his case to the next venue. His lawyer, the famous Chicago patronage case attorney Michael Shakman, pledges to fight the university in circuit court. If a cover-up and retaliatory firing are proved there, it could result in punishment against the university and reinstatement of Van der Hooning's pay and position.

"On one hand, it's hard to see why all the people involved in this problem just didn't admit what they did, say, 'Sorry, fix it and move on,'" van der Hooning told me. "It's a good lesson for students -- admit mistakes early, apologize, make amends and move on. Administrators should role model this behavior instead of hiding the truth."

Such an admission is not in the cards, according to a U of I official. "I can say that the university will continue to defend itself against this attack on its fine programs and on the university's commitment to veterans," said Robin Kaler, associate chancellor for public affairs.

Now let's return to the House budget hearing this week. Lawmakers might want to invoke Springfield's great Latin motto, "Quid pro quo," by insisting that there won't be any more tax money for U of I if the university's leaders don't fully explain their decisions in the veterans scholarship program. And turn over all the files, e-mails and letters.

If the answers are not forthcoming, then a little Chicago Latin might be order.

"Bonus fortuna vobis quod equus vos rode una."

Good luck to you and the horse you rode in on.

Or something like that.