It is rare that an ethics story is the front page feature of the day, but the scandal that broke last nigh is certainly that. From the AP, on the results of the investigation code-named “Operation Varsity Blues”…
Fifty people, including Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, were charged Tuesday in a scheme in which wealthy parents allegedly bribed college coaches and other insiders to get their children into some of the nation’s most elite schools. Federal authorities called it the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department, with the parents accused of paying an estimated $25 million in bribes.
At least nine athletic coaches and 33 parents, many of them prominent in law, finance or business, were among those charged. Dozens, including Huffman, were arrested by midday.
Huffman, best known for “Desperate Housewives,” is married to celebrated actor William Macy (“Fargo”). Presumably he is going to be arrested too.
The coaches worked at such schools as Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Wake Forest, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles. A former Yale soccer coach pleaded guilty and helped build the case against others.
Yikes. You can get all the details at The Atlantic, Esquire, The Stanford Daily, Chicago Tribune, Raw Story, The Week, Justice News, The Texas Tribune, Slate, SFist, Recode, Page Six, TechCrunch, TMZ.com and Fox News.
- The news media and politicians are already building the narrative that this is a privilege scandal, with rich people using their money to keep advantages for their children that their children don’t deserve. “Privilege breeds privilege” is the catch phrase of the day.
It’s hard to see a huge ethical difference between this and the traditional way the wealthy got their often dim kids into prestige schools: they paid the equivalent of bribes, contributing large amounts with the understanding that Junior’s letter of admission would be the quid for that quo. The mains distinction is that the pay-offs are going to employees rather than the schools themselves. The results are the same: kids who would not normally have been admitted to elite school cut into line ahead of more qualified students because their parents spend money to distort the process.
- One detail in the story is that some of the students were told to “act dumb” so they could claim learning disabilities that would get them extra time on the SAT exams as well as the opportunity to take the tests alone—all the better for cheating.
I first encountered this kinder, gentler, different form of privilege when I was teaching legal ethics at a law school. Students who had evidenced no special problems all year suddenly showed up with paperwork requiring me to let them take an extra hour (or more) to take their finals, though I was required to grade them on the same curve as everyone else. I don’t know if this is triggered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but it certainly arises from the same philosophy. It’s unfair (yes, I know it’s “unfair” that some kids have learning disabilities. But that’s life…), sends a false message to the rising generations that society is obligated to fix their personal problems., and IS cheating, as well as making other forms of cheating easier.
- The most important lesson of this scandal is that college in America is no longer about education, and has not been for a very long time. I have been to conferences where all the speakers talked about was the degrees and the credentials, and their vital role in getting good jobs. The trivial matter of training students to think critically, giving them the tools and skills to understand the world they live in, and provide a broad-based knowledge of culture, history, science and more so they can be productive and responsible members of society was barely discussed at all.
Ironically, attending an elite school made it crystal clear to me that the credential alone was meaningless, or close to it. I have friends with no degree at all whom I regard as better educated than some of my Harvard classmates, and you would think so too if you talked to both groups.
Robin Meade on HLN is blathering on about the parents “cheating the system.” The system of higher education itself is a cheat.
- We are told many of the students had no idea that their way to Old Ivy was being paved for them by their unethical parents. If so, they really are dummies. When you receive a scholarship to play a sport you never played, that should be a clue that something is amiss, for example.
This sounds like contrived ignorance to me, and as the lesson of Albert Speer tells us (how many of today’s elite college grads, the ones who were admitted fairly, know who Albert Speer was?), contrived ignorance is complicity.
- The scandal again shows how sports corrupt education. Our education system would immediately take a step back toward integrity and the responsible allocation of resources if athletic scholarships were banned.
The question is being raised whether the students involved should be tossed out because of their parents’ conduct. I’m going to have to think about that one. Here’s a poll:
UPDATE: Here is the full indictment and list of those charged: