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July 2019 Issue [Easy Chair]

What We Do in the Shadows


The celebrity scandal of the year has been the discovery of just what lengths some actors will go to in order to get their children parts in our leading universities. This latest rash of (moderately) famous people behaving badly broke into the headlines in March, with the big reveal of the FBI’s “Operation Varsity Blues.” (To be fair, despite the purloined movie title, those charged included not just actors but a whole spectrum of our lawless upper classes: financiers, businessmen, high-priced lawyers, a doctor, a developer, a Silicon Valley whiz, the owner of a winery, and Jane Buckingham, a “parenting guru” whose advice books include The Modern Girl’s Guide to Sticky Situations, which promises “a stack of get-out-of-jail free cards for the deserving gal with the best intentions and a moment of bad luck.”) Andrew E. Lelling, the U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, announced “charges in the largest college-admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice,” with some fifty individuals indicted for allegedly using illegal means to get their children into eight prominent universities, from Yale to the University of Texas, Georgetown to the University of Southern California, Stanford to Wake Forest.

If Lelling’s claim sounds anomalous to you, no wonder. When was the last time you heard of a college-admissions scandal being prosecuted by the Department of Justice? Or by anyone else, for that matter?

The prosecutors, as often seems to be prerequisite today, would not have been outdone by Salem’s witch-trial judges in their moral indignation. “We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school is more likely to take your son or daughter,” Lelling harrumphed to the press. “We’re talking about deception and fraud.”

That deception and fraud was certainly heinous—and often risible. Beyond such quotidian deceits as hiring people to take S.A.T.s and other college-admissions tests, university coaches of relatively obscure sports were bribed to accept the résumés of completely unathletic students for their rowing, sailing, tennis, soccer, basketball, and volleyball teams. These admissions were “authenticated” in some instances by the students posing for photos in pools or with tennis rackets or, in one case, a shot of a rower lifted from a website.

The subterfuge worked like a charm. I was going to write that admissions officers were so oblivious to what was going on that an ambitious parent probably could have photoshopped an applicant’s head onto a picture of LeBron James and gotten away with it. But then I read that pictures of some of the fraudulent athletes actually did consist of applicants’ heads placed on the bodies of real athletes.

“Make no mistake: this is not a case where parents were acting in the best interests of their children. This is a case where they flaunted their wealth, sparing no expense, to cheat the system so they could set their children up for success with the best education money could buy, literally. Their actions were without a doubt insidious, selfish, and shameful,” Joseph R. Bonavolonta, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston field office, felt compelled to add.

Anyone not convinced of the deleterious effects of this sort of celebrity helicopter parenting need only check out the “College Dorm Room Tour 2018” YouTube posting by Olivia Jade Giannulli, a daughter of the actress Lori Loughlin and fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, who were charged with spending half a million dollars to get Olivia and her sister into U.S.C. as additions to its rowing team, with the photo of Olivia—supposedly a coxswain—posed on a rowing machine. (Note to Admissions: the cox is the one who doesn’t row.)

In her post—in good part an ad for Amazon, which she thanks for being “super sweet” in furnishing her standard freshman double—Olivia gives us an assiduous, six-minute tour of every single thing she has in her room. She is so oblivious to how she comes across that she even makes sure to point out her large, block initials—“OJ”—prominently displayed in her window with no apparent cognizance that these are also the initials of U.S.C.’s most infamous alumnus. This omission is surprising given that, in a previous video, Olivia had informed us that her college career would largely gravitate around football: “I don’t know how much of school I’m going to attend, but I’m going to go in and talk to my deans and everyone and hope that I can try and balance it all,” she told her lucky fans. “But I do want the experience of, like, game days, partying—I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know.”

The storm of invective this video brought down upon Ms. Giannulli led to still another video titled “I’m Sorry,” this one a black-and-white effort that she shot while in bed and that oscillates almost moment to moment between penitence and victimhood. None of which—at first—seemed to have redounded negatively on her burgeoning social-­media career. Olivia’s dorm-room video has enjoyed more than 1.5 million views as of this writing and “I’m Sorry” nearly a million, even with the comments section disabled on each video.

“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” concluded Lelling, who is reportedly contemplating also charging some of the students involved, if they were legally adults at the time of the fraud. “There can be no separate college-­admissions system for the wealthy, and I’ll add that there will not be a separate criminal-­justice system either.”

“Today’s arrests should be a warning to others: you can’t pay to play; you can’t lie and cheat to get ahead, because you will get caught,” elucidated Agent Bonavolonta. “Our investigation continues, and we will continue to find and stop those who are not playing by the rules.”

Ah, but just what are the rules in U.S. college admissions today? There can be no “separate college admissions system for the wealthy” and no “separate criminal-­justice system either”? There has always, of course, been a separate and unfair college-admissions system—and legal system—for the wealthy and well connected. Why is “donating a building” legitimate but slipping cash to a crew coach is not? In both instances, hasn’t money replaced effort and knowledge?

“The real victims in this case are the hardworking students,” whose places in colleges were grabbed instead by “far less qualified students and their families” who “simply bought their way in,” Bonavolonta informs us.

Yet what should money, in any form, have to do with judging hard work or determining who gets to go to college? There are plenty of students in the United States right now who get higher S.A.T. scores because their parents are willing and able to pay for them to take classes that will increase those scores. And there are plenty of students who work hard but whose parents don’t have the wherewithal to help them take such classes. Right there, money makes all the difference.

“If I can make the comparison, there is a front door of getting in where a student just does it on their own, and then there’s a back door where people go to institutional advancement and make large donations, but they’re not guaranteed in,” rationalized Rick Singer, the shady creature who elicited some $25 million from parents to set up these elaborate schemes—before turning state’s witness against them. “And then I created a side door that guaranteed families to get in. So that was what made it very attractive to so many families, is I created a guarantee.”

Singer is the creator, chief executive officer, and “Master Coach” of something called The Key, which billed itself as “the world’s largest private Life Coaching and College Counseling Company,” and cofounder of an “online high school” with “a student population of over 18,000 students annually paying over $15,000 per year.” He seems to have lost sight, amid all the money, of the blurred lines that signify what is legitimate and illegitimate in college admissions. And why wouldn’t he, after actually being able to sell something as compromised as a for-profit, do-it-yourself-at-home high school?

Like Bernie Madoff and his ilk a decade earlier on Wall Street, Singer simply identified a product that his wealthy clients wanted—that guarantee—and sought to provide it. Who cared about any of the collateral damage, such as those other, unseen, harder-working students? Corruption is so inherent now in so many of our institutions that it can hardly be surprising when the Rick Singers of the world are brazen enough to carve out a “side door” of their own.

Ask yourself this: Even if Olivia Jade Giannulli were in fact the greatest coxswain in women’s rowing history, why should she get a spot over a better student at U.S.C., considering how many benefits our society bestows on those who obtain a college degree? Why should U.S.C. have a rowing team at all, or Stanford a sailing team, which was another of Singer’s convenient covers for slipping unqualified students into a quality school?

For that matter, why should U.C.L.A. have a basketball team, or Texas a football team? Why should any college or university waste its money running sports teams? (And it’s a lot of money: as of 2018 the highest-paid public employee in eight of the fifty states was a basketball coach; in thirty-one, it was a football coach.) The inequities—and futility—of most college athletics have been well documented. As even the N.C.A.A. admits, the overwhelming majority of players don’t go on to professional or Olympic stardom; the overwhelming majority of American colleges and universities don’t make money on their athletic programs but instead let them chew up valuable resources.

Beyond providing the basic facilities for gym classes and intramural games, our universities shouldn’t have anything to do with organized sports. And I write this as someone who has joyfully followed college football since the days when O. J. Simpson was running through defenses for Ms. Giannulli’s U.S.C. Trojans.

Rich people getting their kids into college by buying coaches or buying buildings. Athletes favored over “mere” students. “Legacy” admissions to give advantages to the sons and daughters of alumni—advantages traced back, no doubt, in many families to when those schools still discriminated against people of color, or women, or Jewish Americans, or others. These are all the side doors we still use for certain privileged individuals. And just to make the whole admissions process even more torturous and hypocritical, many of our greatest universities have lately adopted an even more egregious new practice—“recruit to deny,” a policy in which schools actively encourage students whom they know will be turned down to apply anyway, despite the waste of time and money and effort and the disappointment that such a process must entail. This seems to be done mostly in order to increase each school’s rejection rate, a figure that plays a key role in where they end up in U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings of American colleges and universities.

In the face of a system so inherently corrupt, so devoid of principle or sense, what is much of our country fixated on? Why, black people, of course. The case of the bad actors and their feckless offspring will soon fade from the headlines—if it has not already—to be replaced by the Students for Fair Admissions lawsuits. In federal court as of this writing, “Fair Admissions” is ostensibly an effort to blast open the admissions process at Harvard and at the University of North Carolina, on behalf of underrepresented Asian applicants—but it is really about ending affirmative action for people of color, and thereby making what college you go to more dependent than ever on how much money you have.

Students for Fair Admissions is a secretive organization that claims to have 22,000 members but won’t reveal its membership rolls, and—surprise, surprise!—is funded mostly by large donations from major far-right donors, such as the Searle Freedom Trust and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Its point man is one Edward Blum, a former stockbroker and failed politician who solemnly intones that he is only interested in ensuring that “your race and your ethnicity should not be something used to help you or harm you in your life’s endeavors.” Apparently, removing race from “life’s endeavors” does not extend to checking institutionalized, governmental racism—just as a legacy of racial brutality and enslavement dating back four centuries is supposed to have nothing to do with who now has the swag to pay their way into the front, back, or side doors at Harvard and elsewhere.

Blum’s suit will likely go all the way to the Supreme Court, and he now has the Trump Justice Department wholeheartedly on his side. But however the case is decided, it’s almost certain to open another bitter wound in our long and painful racial history, pitting African and Hispanic Americans against Asian Americans. So is another nascent controversy over how to increase the number of students of color in New York City’s elite high schools.

The purpose of such controversies is primarily to provide the right wing’s perennially embattled, white-­supremacist cohort with potential allies. Indeed, one wonders if all the indignant words from U.S. Attorney Lelling about clueless Hollywood and other, presumably progressive elites trying to game the system for their kids isn’t simply a way to signal to his boss that he is going after yet another favorite target of the right wing.

Many of Lelling’s targets already have pleaded guilty and will pay big fines or even do jail time. They have also suffered what are—for the elite—the much worse punishments of social and professional ostracism, losing parts and endorsements and sometimes even the places in these schools that they went to such lengths to secure. Several of her many sponsors, for instance, have now dropped Olivia Jade Giannulli, who is said to be re­assessing her college ambitions. (Reportedly, she was enjoying spring break on the yacht of the chairman of U.S.C.’s board of trustees, Rick Caruso, when Lelling dropped his bombshell. There was no word on whether they were close enough to shore for her to row back to land.)

No doubt, the scalps of all these “cheaters” will be flourished at one Trump rally or another next year, amid roars of approval, repeated flag hugs, and the occasional “sieg heil.” It’s nothing less than what they deserve. Yet what will be left still uncorrected—or, likely, made even worse with the help of Lelling’s Justice Department colleagues and our stacked Supreme Court—is the greater corruption of a college-admissions process that systematically discriminates against the poor and people of color, no matter how many oblivious actors and their children are shamed.

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July 2020

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