Observations On “Operation Varsity Blues” [UPDATED!]

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.

Ethics Observations:

  • 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:

36 thoughts on “Observations On “Operation Varsity Blues” [UPDATED!]

  1. The answer to the poll is simple. Yes they should be expelled. If a person robs another in order to give the proceeds of the robbery to another and then the scheme is found out the recipient must give back the proceeds of the robbery irrespective of having no involvement or knowledge of the true source of said proceeds.

    • I agree with your position, Chris. I saw pundits whinging about how the students shouldn’t pay for the sins of their parents. Agreed. Dad robbed a bank so we don’t imprison the children. However, when Junior sits out in the car while Dad is robbing the bank, all the while knowing that Dad is robbing the bank, Junior cannot escape liability and keep the cash Dad left in the duffel bad in the back seat.


  2. “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.”

    And, in Speer’s case, less ignorant than he let on as evidence has come to light since the time of his best-selling books that he knew a lot more about the inner workings of the concentration camps than the public was led to believe. I find it difficult to believe that most of these kids didn’t know strings were pulled for them.

    As for the students being kicked out, I believe that scholarships received under false representation should be pulled for certain.

    I suppose it would be too much to hope for that this incident will create a conversation about sending students to college who have no business being there. It should start with the sports programs that give scholarships to young athletes solely so they can play football or basketball while earning a useless unearned degree (ala the UNC scandal from a few years ago) in Communications. Playing sports in college should be a means to an end – getting a good education one would not otherwise afford – rather than the end itself.

    • There was a great series on the interplay of academics and athletics in 2008. Most of it is gone, but it outlined the way athletes are guided through a University whose standards are too high for them. Below is my summary of what I could gather from the articles.

      Admissions: To get a low-performing athlete admitted, they are admitted to the College of Kinesiology (not the main LSA College). This is because Kinesiology’s tie to athletics allows them to reserve hundreds of spots each year for low-scoring athletes, athletes who would have no chance of being admitted to LSA (average ACT score of 30). They are then signed up to study Communications in Kinesiology (not the Communications Department).

      Transfer: The athletes used to stay in Communications, but the major was such a joke (and one of the main majors in that college) that accreditation had a problem with it. It used to require 12 credits of 200-level classes and above. That was it. Now, the degree has real meat to it, but only in the junior and senior year. So, the athletes are safe for the freshmen and sophomore year where they take easy classes and build their GPA.

      This allows them to transfer to LSA. Although they couldn’t be admitted to LSA as freshmen, now that their GPA is high enough, they can transfer in. This is essential to avoid the rigorous classes now in the Communications major.

      General Studies: Once in LSA, they are signed up as a General Studies major. This is important because other majors have competencies that need to be met. General Studies doesn’t. Since there are no ‘General Studies’ faculty, there is no one to fight to keep the program rigorous. They were able to strip General Studies from requirements mandatory for all other LSA majors, most importantly the foreign language requirement. LSA requires all majors (except General Studies) to demonstrate 4th term proficiency in a foreign language. Third term proficiency is the ability to read a pulp novel in the foreign language without a dictionary.

      Upper Level Courses: The lack of upper level courses was cited by accreditation bodies, so now the athletes need upper-level credits. The two ways of getting them are low-hanging fruit and independent study courses.

      Low-hanging fruit are the ‘experiential’ courses many majors have to give the students the experience of work in their field. Elementary ed, for instance, has students go read books to kindergarten students so they can be part of an elementary class, observe, and gain experience. To a General Studies major, however, it is just reading children’s books.

      The athletic department has a list of ‘cooperative faculty’ who are willing to do independent study ‘courses’ for athletes. One professor in psychology signs the athletes up for 400 level Independent Research in Psychology (or something like that). Then, he teaches them to use a day-planner. This course can be retaken for credit. This professor receives football and basketball tickets as thank-you’s for helping out athletes in need.

      The great thing about this is that the University doesn’t hide it, it SHOUTS it. They showcase how they care for the athletes, make sure they get their education. Using a day-planner is a useful and valuable skill, we are proud we instruct our athletes with practical knowledge, athletes are given a wide view of life through real-life experiences in classes, our professors are so dedicated they teach dozens of independent study classes each year for our athletes, etc.

      That is the impression given by the MLive series of articles.

      • This is similar to how Texas A&M used to coddle athletes. My step father worked for the Athletic department (30 or so years ago) as an ‘advisor.’ His main job was to keep athletes eligible to play, especially (surprise) football.

        He arranged tutors, navigated class schedules(with a list of teachers to avoid), rode the players about assignments due (he got every syllabus, every semester, that a ‘client’ was in), and if needed took profs to golf, gave away game tickets, or arranged gifts. All of this was just this side of legal, mind you, if unethical as hell.

        Just the way the game was played.

  3. If someone was admitted under false pretenses, then they should be expelled. Of course then they’ll just go wherever and ultimately land the same job through connections that they would have landed anyway. Worse still now, my state is paying for illegal immigrants to go to college on the taxpayers’ dime. Kids who have no business being in this country in the first place now cut in front of people who were born here.

  4. Yes, they should be kicked out. Leaving them in gives the parents their objective, even though law enforcement caught them. We don’t let people who wind up with money or goods stolen by others keep it, even if they didn’t know it was stolen.

    I do feel sorry if the kids were unaware, but if I were a child and got into a school by fraud, I wouldn’t want to stay. If they do want to stay, in a way, it suggests that they have rationalized their parents thinking and internalized the privilege of wealth in a destructive way.

      • I’d also want whatever academic credits they had completed voided. BTW, Glenn, do you think these kids, who probably grew up with all the privileges of wealth, haven’t already internalized them? They don’t all become total pieces of shit like Paolo Liuzzo, son of uber-wealthy Long Islanders in the “recycling” business, who withdrew from my alma mater after killing another student in a fight, but served not a day in jail, kept living the life of the rich socialite, and went on to date one of Prince Andrew’s daughters, but they know damn well they can ignore traffic laws, get as drunk and disorderly as they want, and dispense with romantic partners’ free will, all with zero consequences.

        • I believe that all major colleges have services where you can pay people to take your tests for you. There are a vast number of services where people will write your term papers/theses for you. You might wonder how someone can take a test for you? Well, there are 2 basic ways to do this. If you go to a large school and have 100’s of people in your class, no one will notice if a strange person is taking the test. Many such schools only require your ID number, not your name, on the test. It is easy for a graduate student in Spanish from a neighboring college to get any grade you want on your Spanish 101 exam. This doesn’t work for a small class (say 5 people). Another method (one that also doesn’t work well for small schools) is to have your tests administered by a ‘testing center’ by being ‘diagnosed’ with ADD or ADHD. The professor never sees the person taking the test at the testing center. Depending on the security at the center, an imposter may have an easy time taking the test for you. If the test is multiple choice, this will even work for a very small class.

          If these don’t work for you, there are always the tried and true cheating methods. About 10-15% of college students never even read the questions on their own exam, they just copy the answers off neighboring people. Then there is the Apple Watch to get answers. You can always wait until a friend finishes the test and they you can ‘have to go to bathroom” where the friend either waits for you or you call them to get the answers. A variant of this is the “I just woke up, can I still take the test” when you wait for your friend to leave the test, get the answers from them, and then show up late and take the test after finding out the answers. You can take a picture of the test with your phone and have a friend text you the answers as well. There are any number of ways students cheat in college. They learned these in high school. Surveys consistently show that over 95% of high school students admit to cheating in high school.

          Yes, if they cheated to get into college, they likely are planning on cheating their way THROUGH college as well.

      • I prefer the idea of a mandatory transfer better than an expulsion in cases where you can’t firmly establish the student knew about the cheat. Some of the students had to have known (the fake sports scholarships, for example) but one of the other methods I saw described was taking standardized tests in a particular testing location with a particular proctor who would change the student’s answers without the student’s knowledge.

        Nothing can fix the situation for the students who weren’t admitted to allow the bribery kids in, but transferring the unworthy out of the school removes their unearned position without adding the black mark of expulsion to their records for a sin they may not have been aware of.

        Likewise, unless specific knowledge of wrongdoing by the student can be established I’d hesitate to say they should be stripped of their credits. They may not have fairly earned ADMISSION to the college, but if they did the course work then they fairly earned that credit.

      • Yeah, as long as it’s not optional, that would be great. “Kicking them out” would, in my vernacular, include forcing them to transfer elsewhere. I’d even be okay with a recommendation, if it was earned by their effort at the current school they attend.

  5. I also vote yes. I was intrigued (and somewhat nauseated) as I was listening to the NPR segment on this scandal this morning, as it was explained that the parents were so concerned with their children’s fragile self-esteem that they not only offered these bribes, but would even keep their kids in the dark about their SAT scores, letting them think they scored far higher than they actually did. If parents were truly successful in such deceit, then I can’t imagine anything better for those kids than to face some harsh reality. The situation suggests that the kids are so buffered against the real world that they are being crippled. I’m sure the shock of their parents’ arrests and convictions will have some salutary effect, but keeping their unearned position at a college would probably negate most of the lesson to be learned. Furthermore, taking action themselves to be admitted elsewhere would be a valuable exercise to set them back onto a path of self-sufficiency.

    The one question I would ask is whether these students should be banned completely from their current college or university, or if they should be allowed to reapply and be considered on their own merits.

  6. When parents feel the need to bribe somone to get their kid into a school they are telling their kids that they don’t have what it takes to get in on their own merit.

    This is one significant problem with all programs designed to increase a specific enrollment. The difference is that bribes appear to be discrete choices so the individual receiving special consideration can be identified whereas programs that grant special consideration across an entire demographic can cause recipients and others question whether the admission was based on merit or were they given an artificial advantage.

    • College admission is absolutely crazy. Our son is a freshman in high school. The pressure we parents put on children to build their college resumes is out of control. There are standardized testing tutors. Recruitment tutors/experts. There is a company just two doors down from my office that specializes in building those college resumes, to the tune of $18,000.00. Per child. Think about that. Yet, I place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the parents.

      We, the Parents, place so much importance on the PSAT, the SAT, the ACT, and other standardized tests, as well as extracurricular activities (sports, theater, music, social service hours, etc.). We know that Jack has been taking ACT/SAT prep courses since early 8th grade so we have to catch up. We need to put The Boy in accelerated prep classes just to pull even with Jack, but what next? Jack and The Boy are going to make perfect scores on those tests and attend the same school. How do we set The Boy apart from all the other Jacks and Jills? Do we enroll The Boy in mission trips to Uganda or Peru? How about an internship with the UN’s Iraq’s Food for Oil? What about Boy Scouts? Is it too late for him to become a member, get as many merit badges as possible as quickly as possible so that he is eligible for Eagle Scout? If so, what kind of Eagle Scout project should he do? Everybody makes a bench for people to sit on, so should he build a recreation center for the bottom up, laying foundations and walls and roofing and .. . all while singlehandedly solving the problems of poverty, homelessness, violence against women and the homebound? Will he have time to discover a cure for cancer, leukemia, and AIDS, while setting new state and club swimming records?


      • You are overpreparing and making this way too stressful. I suspect that these ‘requirements’ are ones your neighbors and friends are impressing on you, not actual requirements. With the number of college students declining, schools are hard-pressed to find qualified students or even students who can pay. Many universities will be going out of business in the next 5 years. Now, these exceptional requirements are probably necessary at an Ivy League school or MIT, they are hardly required for most state schools, even flagship ones. Those are the requirements to get a full-ride scholarship at the most difficult college in my state. I laughed at the thought of someone paying bribes to get their child admitted to UT Austin. My guess is that you would need to have a sub-18 ACT score to need to do that.

    • Well, clearly they didn’t (or it was too marginal for them to be comfortable with) or they wouldn’t have considered the bribe. No rational person would bribe someone to take an illegal action if it was not necessary to their ultimate objective.

      This is one significant problem with all programs designed to increase a specific enrollment. …

      I’m trying to figure out what you mean by “specific enrollment,” and I’m having no luck. You mean like legacies, or something?

      • Specific enrollment means any program that values a financial or demographic criteria over capability whose enrollment has a cap. These are implicit and explict enrollment goals that drive the selection process

        Programs to promote female enrollment in STEM careers
        Diversity programs.

      • By ‘specific enrollment’ think not enough black students, not enough hispanic students, not enough LGGBTTQIA students, etc, I think you are missing some pieces of the puzzle. As johnburger2013 illustrated, some people are in social groups that make college admissions seem really competitive. Because of this, they hire ‘enrollment consultants’. These consultants charge vast sums of money and they are the ones doing the bribing. There is a very real possibility that these bribes were not necessary.

        Now, there is another possibility. Many colleges are currently charging higher tuition for people who don’t meet the admissions requirements. Bribing the soccer coach may be cheaper than paying that ‘enhanced’ tuition for 4 (or 5 or 7) years. That is why I suspect this case is being prosecuted. The coaches pocketed money that the school would have received if not for the fake athletic credentials.

  7. My only comment to this is to clarify a widespread misconception on this page. The involvement of coaches in this scheme was not to give the applicants sports scholarships, but to list them on the applications as “athletes”. As athletes, they would be held to a lower academic standard when applying. If they were given sports scholarships, they would be expected to show up on rosters and compete, otherwise they would draw the scrutiny of the NCAA.

    Also (I guess I do have another point), in at least one case the student did not know about his/her parents scheme, because the student never even applied to the school (Stanford).

  8. This has been going on forever, but I have a couple of observations (and a correction).

    The correction is that the fake athletes didn’t get scholarships. Just ‘being on the team’ is enough to get you admitted. Most schools are quite open about this, admitting that they hold a certain number of spots for athletes who could not be admitted on academic credentials. Not all athletes get scholarships, so if the coach says a student is ‘on the team’ and then the student decides not to play, well, you can’t force them to play and you can’t revoke their admission.

    Schools now have ‘legal’ ways to do this. I have been told by parents that many schools have a separate fee structure to admit students who don’t meet their academic requirements. There is one set of admission requirement for students who pay the standard rate and a lower requirement for students who are willing to pay more (usually double). My suspicion is that the schools were upset that the coaches were cutting into this extra money.

    The ADA is definitely being gamed and it is destroying some students’ achievement. At some public schools, almost all the male students are diagnosed as ADD/ADHD. Many students who have these waivers finish their test before most of the class and get the higher scores. I had a student leave my major when I told her she had finished the tests first all year and had the highest grades in her class and in my opinion she didn’t have a learning disability that would prevent her from taking a normal curriculum. She wouldn’t stay with professors who didn’t view her as disabled and limited.

  9. 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.

    Most of the kids apparently didn’t get scholarships. They were admitted as non-scholarship athletes. Some of the kids had no idea that they had been admitted as athletes. They thought that they had been admitted on their own merits. One of the wiretaps included this conversation:

    SPOUSE: So [my son] and I just got back from [U]SC Orientation. It went great. The only kind of glitch was, and I – he didn’t – [my son] didn’t tell me this at the time – but yesterday when he went to meet with his advisor, he stayed after a little bit, and the – apparently the advisor said something to the effect of, “Oh, so you’re a track athlete?” And [my son] said, “No.” ’Cause, so [my son] has no idea, and that’s what – the way we want to keep it.

    Likewise, the indictment said that some kids had no idea that their test scores had been doctored. They got back their results and were pleasantly surprised to learn that they had done better than they had expected.

    Of course, most of the kids were totally complicit in the fraud, but some were innocent and not necessarily dumb.

  10. I’m surprised that no one has mentioned that the push to women’s athletics caused by Title IX may have contributed to making the fraud possible. My understanding is that colleges have had to create women’s athletic teams in order to maintain an acceptable balance for sustaining well-established men’s athletic teams in spite of the fact there is a dearth of women athletes. Women’s crew is the usual example of a team that many colleges created in the wake of Title IX. Another unintended consequence of mucking with supply/demand laws?

    • I noticed that the NCAA rifle teams are overwhelmingly female/co-ed. A decade ago, I think they were majority male. There are 2 men’s teams, 9 women’s teams, and 22 co-ed teams. This sport is pretty cheap, scholarships are not normally offered, and you can put a lot of women on a team.

  11. I heard that one of the parents involved named McGlaskin? is employed by a private equity firm as (drumroll) an institutional ethicist.

    Looking for corroberation

  12. FOX news reported that Don Lemon tied Trump to the cheating scandal. It was a stretch but he suggested the system was rigged against Joe workingclass in favor of people like Trump. See Trump is responsible for every injustice.

    I wonder when it will be suggested that Lemon was the beneficiary of legislated unfairness – affirmative action. Did his college acceptance prevent a more qualified student of a different demographic profile? Hard to say but given his known abilities I have to believe many more would have been superior choices.

  13. I voted Yes, not because I don’t want to be merciful to the students themselves (I do), but to make sure there is a clear deterrent to future parents considering going down this path.

    If you thought there was a risk for your child to be expelled (or whatever you want to call it / however you want to implement it), then maybe you’d think twice about engaging in the various forms of cheating on display here.


    • The parents are being charged criminally by the FBI. If that isn’t sufficient deterrent, but the threat of academic sanctions on their children is, then something is badly out of whack here.

      • There is something badly out of whack for this to happen at all. You might be surprised what inhibits a parent: potential consequences for their kid might mean more than jail time they never believe will happen to them.

        • Particularly when the consequences end up being the exact opposite of the intended result, which is the spirit in which I meant it.

          If the results aren’t reversed, it’s a little like letting bank robbers keep the money after they’ve done their time. Some people would still be okay with that.


  14. Having grown up and attended university in Canada, I can at least say that the US university system certainly gives the appearance of having been corrupted by athletics. As a high school senior, we would talk about so-and-so going to Waterloo for Engineering, another going to Western Ontario for Pre-Med, or to Queens for Pre-Law. When I moved to the US I’d hear of co-workers’ high-school aged children talking about how they could go to this school for Track, or this other school for Golf, or another for Volleyball. I went to university because I felt I had a specific calling that demanded a disciplined and specialized course of academic study. These kids seemed to barely have academics on their radar, let alone a calling.

    As for what to do with the students already admitted, I declined to assign one blanket answer to all of them. Those who were complicit, whether they admit it or because it can be reasonably inferred, should be expelled. Those who were not should be evaluated on their performance since admission. If they have not been performing up to the standards of the institution, they should be sent packing, otherwise an innocent student who has shown themselves independently deserving of their spot should be allowed to stay.

  15. I voted ‘yes’ to make it clear to other parents that this will gain them nothing. This also immediately opens up the spaces for the next term to be filled competitively. Now if some of the students didn’t really need the help, they should be allowed to compete. If they want to keep the credits they fraudulently earned, they have to retake a double-blind final to show they did absorb the material. As it may be months or a couple of years this final would be a little more general than it would be at the end of the semester. If the college wants to complain about the cost and bother, that should be a warning to be more diligent in preventing this, and/or publically give all related normal fees, housing, and loan interest costs to some randomly selected charity. This is a penalty for not keeping a clean house.

    And yes, anything outside intramural sports doesn’t benefit the other students. It consumes far more resources than it produces, even aside from the corruption and deflation on the value of a degree.

  16. Just in on those who have legal troubles for attempting fraud:

    Major Democratic Donors Among Wealthy Elite Netted In Massive College Bribery Scandal


    Amazing how those who constantly call us ‘deplorables’ actually act that way…

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