Press Rogue — April 12, 2019, 3:18 pm

Grading on a Curve

Early this week, the media pounced on the latest installment of Operation Varsity Blues, the investigation into what federal prosecutors have called the largest college admissions scam in American history, bringing renewed focus to the two B-list actors who have been implicated in the scheme. As the headlines in one leading newspaper put it: “Felicity Huffman and 13 Others to Plead Guilty in College Admissions Scandal” and “Lori Loughlin and 15 Others Face New Charges in College Admissions Scandal.” From another news-gathering operation: “Felicity Huffman to Plead Guilty for College Cheating” and “Lori Loughlin and Hubby Just Indicted for Additional Charge.” The first two headlines ran in the New York Times, the second two were splashed across the TMZ website. If not for the casual use of “hubby,” it would be hard to guess which headlines belonged to which outlet.

The Times kicked its Variety cosplaying up a notch later in the week, with an article whose headline is best read as a movie trailer voice-over: “Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman: 1 Scandal, 2 Actresses, Diverging Paths.” The paper compared Huffman’s “long, hand-wringing apology” and “somber” demeanor in court with Loughlin’s seeming “to approach her courthouse visits with an affect more common on the red carpet.” The Times’ analysis mirrored a CNN article from the day before, which reported that Huffman “took responsibility for her actions,” and reminded readers of the time last month when Loughlin invited a paparazzo who filmed her leaving yoga class to “follow me around all day if you want.” Huffman, the narrative goes, is hoping to race through the publicity crisis as efficiently as possible in hopes of salvaging her upcoming Netflix miniseries, whereas Loughlin is prostrating herself before the altar of All Publicity is Good Publicity. After the scandal broke, a number of outlets simply published lists of the indicted parents, creating a kind of courtroom red carpet. The Washington Post, for its part, published brief biographies of the accused that leaned heavily on celebrity, making a point of noting that Silicon Valley investor William McGlashan, Jr., once worked with Bono. Readers, apparently, are only prepared to care about the story because the accused are famous or fame-adjacent, never mind what they actually did.

By approaching the admissions scandal as a celebrity story, outlets like the Times and the Post are squandering an opportunity to highlight the massive iniquities of American higher education. Rather than think critically about who elite universities serve—a population that includes many top-flight journalists—national outlets seem to have accepted the framing that schools embroiled in the scandal have put forward. It’s a story about a few rotten millionaires and corrupt coaches, oddballs that can be easily excised, rather than an unjust system in full flower.

A couple publications deserve credit for trying to get beyond the haze of celebrity gossip. After the original indictments, the Chronicle of Higher Education polled twenty of the most selective universities in the country, asking if they were planning to “exert more oversight over how students are designated as athletic recruits” and if the scandal illuminated a “broader need for reform in selective admissions.” Only Dartmouth, Penn, and Johns Hopkins joined Yale (which figures prominently in Operation Varsity Blues) in pledging to reform athletic recruiting. Fifteen other schools either didn’t answer or demurred, while West Point stated that “no adjustments are expected.” To the second question, only seven colleges acknowledged a need for a holistic reevaluation.

The fact that a number of schools ignored the Chronicle’s questions speaks to a rot in the college admissions system which goes much deeper than athletic recruiting. As the New Yorker’s Masha Gessen sagely pointed out last month, were a foreign correspondent assigned to cover this story, she would have to spend the bulk of her column explaining the “exotic customs of American college admissions”—chief among them the “legacy” designation, what Gessen calls “the positively pre-modern concept that the right to an elite education is heritable.” Only then could she go on to establish why this particular intrusion was deemed unacceptable. In the past decade, the industry that offers private tutoring and test preparation to the children of plutocrats surged past $10 billion in revenue. And that’s just the academic side. As Gessen points out, it’s equally “essential for parents to be able to afford to pay for their children’s extracurriculars and sponsor their volunteerism.” Have a family that can’t afford club soccer fees or a summer trip to a health clinic in the developing world? Tough luck getting into Stanford.

In addition to the survey, the Chronicle interviewed the historian Jerome Karabel, author of “a 700-page exposé of the ways Ivy League colleges have quietly tinkered with their admissions formulas for decades.” Karabel echoed Gessen’s critique, noting that the investment in tutors, coaches, and counselors is an obvious example of “how privilege is perpetuated through generations.” Even more troubling, in his view, were the methods we “take for granted as normal, such as donating a building and getting special consideration for your child or grandchild.”

Indeed, the ongoing lawsuit against Harvard seeking to prove that its admissions system unfairly disadvantages Asian Americans has exposed a “Dean’s Interest List,” which includes prospective students related to donors who have made seven-figure gifts to the university. As the Harvard Crimson noted last year, for every class admitted between 2010 and 2015, the “Dean’s Interest List” and a similar list compiled by the university’s director of admissions accounted for one out of ten new students. Harvard came under fire again last week, when the Boston Globe reported that the home of the school’s fencing coach had been purchased at almost double its assessed value by the father of a prospective student in 2016; after the student was admitted, the father sold the house at a $324,500 loss. However indelicate, loathsome, or unethical, such practices remain perfectly legal.

As the Chronicle and the Globe have shown, there are a wide range of issues in higher education that deserve greater scrutiny. Going beyond the admissions system, this scandal could also serve as a chance for the country to reckon with the outrageous sticker price of an undergraduate degree—attending Columbia University in New York costs upwards of $300,000. Or it could be, as has largely been the case so far, a heel turn for a TV star from the Nineties, full of pining for wholesome “Aunt Becky.” The general disinterest in covering Operation Varsity Blues as part of a broader story is perplexing. It starts to make some sense, however, once one realizes that many of the journalists employed by the country’s most prominent newspapers are alumni of its most selective schools. A study published last year found that some 30 percent of staff writers at the Wall Street Journal had attended an Ivy League university. At the Times, the proportion was almost 40 percent.

Perhaps journalists’ willingness to spin this story away from the systemic inequality their alma maters perpetuate can be explained as misguided loyalty. Well, it’s time to unpin that Brown pennant from the wall and tuck that Princeton hoodie away in a drawer. Elite colleges are among our most powerful institutions. While many publications are content to limit their higher education coverage to an annual thinkpiece in September, the tremendous influence these schools have managed to accumulate in the past few decades requires a new, more diligent approach. If our premier journalists could shed their nostalgia for a moment, they might see the admissions scandal for what it is: an opportunity to completely reevaluate American higher education, to turn the nation’s elite colleges upside down and shake them. The process may prove uncomfortable for those whose careers in Washington and New York newsrooms began at those very schools, but it will surely be more consequential than whether or not Lori Loughlin gets to return to Fuller House.

Never miss a column! Get Press Rogue delivered directly to your inbox.

Share
Single Page

More from Kyle Paoletta:

Press Rogue May 23, 2019, 2:59 pm

One Horse Town

Press Rogue May 16, 2019, 4:00 pm

Playing With Fire

Press Rogue May 9, 2019, 4:00 pm

Boys on the Bus

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2019

Make Way for Tomorrow

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Red Dot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Gimme Shelter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Body Language

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trash, Rock, Destroy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Gimme Shelter·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I.

That year, the year of the Ghost Ship fire, I lived in a shack. I’d found the place just as September’s Indian summer was giving way to a wet October. There was no plumbing or running water to wash my hands or brush my teeth before sleep. Electricity came from an extension cord that snaked through a yard of coyote mint and monkey flower and up into a hole I’d drilled in my floorboards. The structure was smaller than a cell at San Quentin—a tiny house or a huge coffin, depending on how you looked at it—four by eight and ten feet tall, so cramped it fit little but a mattress, my suit jackets and ties, a space heater, some novels, and the mason jar I peed in.

The exterior of my hermitage was washed the color of runny egg yolk. Two redwood French doors with plexiglass windows hung cockeyed from creaky hinges at the entrance, and a combination lock provided meager security against intruders. White beadboard capped the roof, its brim shading a front porch set on cinder blocks.

After living on the East Coast for eight years, I’d recently left New York City to take a job at an investigative reporting magazine in San Francisco. If it seems odd that I was a fully employed editor who lived in a thirty-two-square-foot shack, that’s precisely the point: my situation was evidence of how distorted the Bay Area housing market had become, the brutality inflicted upon the poor now trickling up to everyone but the super-rich. The problem was nationwide, although, as Californians tend to do, they’d taken this trend to an extreme. Across the state, a quarter of all apartment dwellers spent half of their incomes on rent. Nearly half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lived in California, even while the state had the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation. In the Bay Area, including West Oakland, where my shack was located, the crisis was most acute. Tent cities had sprung up along the sidewalks, swarming with capitalism’s refugees. Telegraph, Mission, Market, Grant: every bridge and overpass had become someone’s roof.

Article
Body Language·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I am eight years old, sitting in my childhood kitchen, ready to watch one of the home videos my father has made. The videotape still exists somewhere, so somewhere she still is, that girl on the screen: hair that tangles, freckles across her nose that in time will spread across one side of her forehead. A body that can throw a baseball the way her father has shown her. A body in which bones and hormones lie in wait, ready to bloom into the wide hips her mother has given her. A body that has scars: the scars over her lungs and heart from the scalpel that saved her when she was a baby, the invisible scars left by a man who touched her when she was young. A body is a record or a body is freedom or a body is a battleground. Already, at eight, she knows it to be all three.

But somebody has slipped. The school is putting on the musical South Pacific, and there are not enough roles for the girls, and she is as tall as or taller than the boys, and so they have done what is unthinkable in this striving 1980s town, in this place where the men do the driving and the women make their mouths into perfect Os to apply lipstick in the rearview. For the musical, they have made her a boy.

No, she thinks. They have allowed her to be a boy.

Article
Trash, Rock, Destroy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes lives in a nondescript modern building in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. I know it well: it has a Bricorama—like a French Home Depot—on the ground floor, where we sometimes had cause to shop back when we lived in the neighborhood. The people who work there seemed to hate their jobs more than most; they were often absent from the sales floor. In the elevator to Despentes’s apartment, I marvel that while I was trying to get someone to help me find bathroom grout she was right upstairs, with her partner, Tania, a Spanish tattoo artist who goes by the name La Rata, like someone out of one of Despentes’s novels.

In an email before our meeting, Despentes asked that we not do a photo shoot. “There are so many images available already,” she explained. Much had been written about her, too. A Google search yielded page after page: profiles, interviews, reviews, bits and bobs—she read from Pasolini at a concert with Béatrice Dalle; someone accused her of plagiarizing a translation; a teacher in Switzerland was fired for teaching her work. The week I met her, she appeared in the culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles in conversation with the rapper-turned-actor JoeyStarr. The woman is simply always in the news.

Article
Burning Down the House·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Discussed in this essay:

Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright, by Paul Hendrickson. Knopf. 624 pages. $35.

Frank Lloyd Wright isn’t just the greatest of all American architects. He has so eclipsed the competition that he can sometimes seem the only one. Who are his potential rivals? Henry Hobson Richardson, that Gilded Age starchitect in monumental stone? Louis Sullivan, lyric poet of the office building and Wright’s own Chicago mentor, best known for his dictum that form follows function? “Yes,” Wright corrected him with typical one-upmanship, “but more important now, form and function are one.” For architects with the misfortune to follow him, Wright is seen as having created the standards by which they are judged. If we know the name Frank Gehry, it’s probably because he designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in 1997. And Gehry’s deconstructed ship of titanium and glass would be unimaginable if Wright hadn’t built his own astonishing Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue some forty years earlier.

Article
The Red Dot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

That night at the window, looking out at the street full of snow, big flakes falling through the streetlight, I listened to what Anna was saying. She was speaking of a man named Karl. We both knew him as a casual acquaintance—thin and lanky like Ichabod Crane, with long hair—operating a restaurant down in the village whimsically called the Gist Mill, with wood paneling, a large painting of an old gristmill on a river on one wall, tin ceilings, and a row of teller cages from its previous life as a bank. Karl used to run along the river, starting at his apartment in town and turning back about two miles down the path. He had been going through the divorce—this was a couple of years ago, of course, Anna said—and was trying to run through his pain.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

Shortly after the Regional Council of Veneto, in Italy, voted against climate-change legislation, its chambers were flooded.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today