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 16, 2019, 4:00 pm

Playing With Fire

Press Rogue May 9, 2019, 4:00 pm

Boys on the Bus

Press Rogue May 2, 2019, 3:41 pm

Correct the Record

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

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2019

Downstream

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Stonewall at Fifty

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Maid’s Story

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Is Poverty Necessary?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Is Poverty Necessary?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1989 I published a book about a plutonium-producing nuclear complex in En­gland, on the coast of the Irish Sea. The plant is called Sellafield now. In 1957, when it was the site of the most serious nuclear accident then known to have occurred, the plant was called Windscale. While working on the book, I learned from reports in the British press that in the course of normal functioning it released significant quantities of waste—plutonium and other transuranic elements—into the environment and the adjacent sea. There were reports of high cancer rates. The plant had always been wholly owned by the British government. I believe at some point the government bought it from itself. Privatization was very well thought of at the time, and no buyer could be found for this vast monument to dinosaur modernism.

Back then, I shared the American assumption that such things were dealt with responsibly, or at least rationally, at least in the West outside the United States. Windscale/Sellafield is by no means the anomaly I thought it was then. But the fact that a government entrusted with the well-being of a crowded island would visit this endless, silent disaster on its own people was striking to me, and I spent almost a decade trying to understand it. I learned immediately that the motives were economic. What of all this noxious efflux they did not spill they sold into a global market.

Article
Stonewall at Fifty·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Early in the morning on June 28, 1969, New York police raided the Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street, the city’s most popular gay bar. The police had raided Stonewall frequently since its opening two years before, but the local precinct usually tipped off the management and arrived in the early evening. This time they came unannounced, during peak hours. They swept through the bar, checking I.D.s and arresting anyone wearing attire that was not “appropriate to one’s gender,” carrying out the law of the time. Eyewitness accounts differ on what turned the unruly scene explosive. Whatever the inciting event, patrons and a growing crowd on the street began throwing coins, bottles, and bricks at the police, who were forced to retreat into the bar and call in the riot squad.

Post
The Wrong Side of History·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Left to the tender mercies of the state, a group of veterans and their families continue to reside in a shut-down town

Article
Downstream·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The squat warehouse at Miami’s 5th Street Terminal was nearly obscured by merchandise: used car engines; tangles of coat hangers; bicycles bound together with cellophane; stacks of wheelbarrows; cases of Powerade and bottled water; a bag of sprouting onions atop a secondhand Whirlpool refrigerator; and, above all, mattresses—shrink-wrapped and bare, spotless and streaked with dust, heaped in every corner of the lot—twins, queens, kings. All this and more was bound for Port-de-Paix, a remote city in northwestern Haiti.

When I first arrived at the warehouse on a sunny morning last May, a dozen pickup trucks and U-Hauls were waiting outside, piled high with used furniture. Nearby, rows of vehicles awaiting export were crammed together along a dirt strip separating the street from the shipyard, where a stately blue cargo vessel was being loaded with goods.

Article
What it Means to Be Alive·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

My father decided that he would end his life by throwing himself from the top of the parking garage at the Nashville airport, which he later told me had seemed like the best combination of convenience—that is, he could get there easily and unnoticed—and sufficiency—that is, he was pretty sure it was tall enough to do the job. I never asked him which other venues he considered and rejected before settling on this plan. He probably did not actually use the word “best.” It was Mother’s Day, 2013.

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.

Gene Simmons of the band Kiss addressed Department of Defense personnel in the Pentagon Briefing Room.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today