The College Admissions Scandal: Society’s Failure of Accountability

You’ve no doubt heard news reports about multiple high-profile indictments of wealthy parents who allegedly paid college coaches and others some truly staggering sums — with the reported aim of getting their children into top-tier universities they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten into. In just one jaw-dropping example of accountability failure in college admissions, a young woman with zero soccer skills somehow emerged as top soccer recruit for Yale. Her parents paid a consultant $1.2 million to make this happen.

This massive case is said to involve a total of $25 million in payoffs. Fifty people were charged. In the immediate aftermath of what everyone agrees is the nation’s biggest-ever college admissions scandal, many observers, including me, were tempted to blame the leaders of the schools involved for a lack of accountability. But a closer look at the story suggests that academic leadership wasn’t really the problem.

Federal prosecutors brought no charges against any institutions of higher learning. This was not, it turns out, a systemic problem involving some elaborate internal conspiracy among college administrators. It’s clear that a few suggestible sports coaches did fall prey to some very bad ideas, but that isn’t the same as a failure of leadership among college presidents or deans. In any very large organization, there is always the possibility of “bad apples” who don’t act in accordance with the organization’s values. The big question is how leadership responds in such situations, and so far, the signs on that front seem to be positive. Stanford, for instance, immediately fired a coach who was implicated in the scandal.

The closer one looks at this story, the clearer it becomes that the true accountability failure here is that of the parents — and also, I think, of our society as a whole.

We as a nation have often tolerated, and even embraced, a “hear no evil, see no evil” mindset when it comes to the aims and choices of people of wealth. We tacitly accept two standards of behavior — one for the wealthy, prominent, and powerful, and another for everyone else.  The Harvey Weinstein case comes to mind. Should we really be all that surprised when that mindset leads some wealthy parents to look for ways to secretly and illegally rewrite the college entrance rulebook — and to set aside questions like “Is this honest?” or “Is this what my family stands for?”

Make no mistake. The mindset that says, “My kids are going to Yale, no matter what, ” is the same mindset that says “I can get away with anything, because I am the head of a motion picture studio.” Both mindsets are failures of the core commitment to sustain a good reputation, and the cover-ups supporting each mindset are failures of the core commitment to tell the truth. That so many parents were (and, we have to assume, still are) willing to violate these commitments without a second thought says a lot about the decline of accountability in our society. And so does the fact that the scams apparently extended over a period of over seven years without any of the parents in question showing evidence of any second thoughts about the qualified, but less wealthy, students they were displacing.

A shameful lapse in accountability for the country as a whole.

I, for one, want to start each day and end each day by saying “I am accountable.” I know that I order to do this I have to keep my commitments, like a commitment to the truth and to a good reputation. I also want to not only set that example for my children but for the other people in my life and in my community. If we all committed to that, then together, we could build a more accountable world.

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September 2019
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