It was a bizarre variation on a timeless spring ritual. As high school seniors and their parents sat on pins and needles awaiting word from college admissions offices about whether Billy or Suzie got into Yale — or something less — news broke that 50 people in six states were charged by the federal government for being active participants in perhaps the greatest college admissions scandal in the nation’s history, even as the colleges themselves were held harmless.
On the one hand, it’s hardly surprising. It’s an open secret that being wealthy helps on so many levels: from access to healthcare, to preferential treatment by the criminal justice system, to fancy tax shelters. In the realm of education, the wealthy also can afford to hire standardized test tutors. Finally, we also know that legacy preferences are commonplace in college admissions, or that a major gift can grease the skids for entry.
But even by those already low standards, the indictment handed down last week by the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts was stunning in scope and in the specificity of the fraud and racketeering charges it contained — to say nothing of the effrontery of the degenerate schemes.
Dozens of wealthy people, including two Hollywood actresses, paid fixers to misrepresent their children’s test scores, help students cheat on the tests or create phony athletic credentials and bribe college coaches to recommend admission to the gatekeepers.
The most preposterous method concocted by the parents’ fixer, authorities say, was to create the illusion of top-notch athletic achievement by using “staged photographs of their children engaged in athletic activity” — mostly semi-exotic sports that could give their kids a leg up in elite schools, such as pole vaulting, rowing, or water polo. The photos range from simple images of athletes who resemble the applicants to images where the child’s head was Photoshopped onto the body of a real athlete.
This immoral and illegal behavior raises so many questions that I scarcely know where to start. But suffice it to say that I was less shocked by the parents milking the system for advantages than I was by how most of them don’t even seem to think they’re doing anything wrong.
“To be honest, I’m not worried about the moral issue here,” a partner in a prominent Manhattan law firm told the fixer in a phone call wiretapped by the FBI. That sounds more like a mobster with a master’s degree than a lawyer with a highly respected firm — a firm which, by the way, has put the offending attorney on indefinite leave.
The concept of educational fakery is, of course, nothing new. But previously it had been largely confined to fraudulent enterprises like Trump University and professors who inflate their resumes or sleep with their students. And let us not forget all those Division 1 athletics scandals, including serious violations at UConn under both Jim Calhoun and Kevin Ollie.
But the larger questions remain. The list of elite institutions is impressive — Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, USC. Lest we lapse into schadenfreude at the fall of the rich and powerful, consider this: In most cases, it appears that the students themselves were not aware of their parents’ chicanery — which, for obvious reasons, is profoundly unfair to the students who were wrongly admitted. They’ll live with that stigma for the rest of their lives. So, for that matter, will the colleges and the students who were admitted after their parents played by the rules. After all, if unqualified students can graduate from an elite university, how hard can it possibly be?
To wit, I recall reading the memoir Eight Is Enough by the late Tom Braden, a former CIA official, newspaper man, and one of the original co-hosts of CNN’s Crossfire. Braden, whose book was later turned into a popular television series, was an alumnus of Dartmouth, which admitted him even though he never graduated from high school. His daughter also wanted to go to Dartmouth but lacked the stellar credentials then needed for entry. Braden was a former trustee of the college and was asked to pull strings to get his daughter admitted. He resisted but finally made a phone call and shoehorned her in. She got mostly B’s and graduated honorably.
I’m hoping some good can come out of this. On Friday, Yale announced that it would conduct an internal review of both its admissions and athletic recruitment departments, and rescind admission to students whose applications were submitted under false pretenses.
But the struggle for fairness no doubt will continue — and the story won’t go away anytime soon. The lawsuits have already started to fly as a result of this perversion of justice. Class action suits have been filed against several universities by rejected students and a California woman has filed a $500 million class action suit against two Hollywood actresses and other people of privilege for bribery and falsifying test scores.
If nothing else, this shocking series of events is an object lesson in how not to conduct oneself — and it will surely be a jobs program for a nation that already has too many lawyers.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at email@example.com.
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