Out and About (Sort of): Academic Scam and Shame by Howard Freedlander

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A week ago at a pleasant lunch in Washington, DC with a college friend, I learned from him about the breaking news regarding admissions bribery at some of our nation’s top universities. Included in this revelation was rampant cheating in college entrance exams and professional help in essay-writing.

My initial reaction was denial, followed by disgust.

Then, last Thursday, a participant at a meeting expressed a decided lack of surprise about the allegations concerning admissions and counseling misbehavior. I was flabbergasted at this response, characterizing it as blatantly cynical.

Another friend ascribed the bribery and manipulation of the admission process to cultural decay pervading our country. Discussion of this analysis warrants another column. It’s worth mentioning, however.

I suspect my two reactions wreaked of naivety. I’ve been living under a rock, I guess. Perhaps I’ve ignored the power of money and influence. That’s not entirely true, however, as I’ve chided and defended myself in the same paragraph.

Here’s what I’ve learned about this shameful episode now besmirching elite schools such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Georgetown and University of Southern California. An unscrupulous college adviser in Boston, capitalizing on the incessant ambition of parents and their children to gain admission to prestigious universities and the perpetual fundraising by nearly all institutions of higher learning, gamed the system to his economic advantage. Now he faces a possible jail sentence.

What I’ve learned over the years as a volunteer fundraiser and friend-raiser for my university is the transactional attitude of many, but certainly not all well-heeled alumni and parents.

The faulty, unsavory logic goes like this: if colleges and universities are constantly seeking incredibly large amounts of money to preserve their fiscal stability, then it only seems reasonable to engage in a quid pro quo. So this errant thinking then prompts parents and alumni to offer huge sums of money for a child’s admission, as we learned the past week.

I despise this mindset. My alma mater will not accept a contribution from a parent whose child is amidst the application process; if this parent is an alumnus and large donor, the school will not accept a donation until the admissions process is completed.

Stories are legendary about longtime givers ceasing their generosity when their child is rejected. I can provide chapter and verse about this common response. I have listened to my share of anger. While I understand that rejection of a child (for anything) is searingly painful for a loving parent, I sympathize only to a small degree.

In the current controversy, the unethical college counselor arranged for someone to take exams for his clients’ children. I’m not sure how that’s done, but I won’t quibble, He arranged for young people to be placed on an athletic coach’s preferred list of applicants—even when the young person didn’t play that sport. The former tennis coach at Georgetown University allegedly engaged in this sordid behavior; his compensation was exceedingly ample.

This mess is abhorrent. No one wins.

Parents able to afford bribes, a college guidance counselor and athletic coaches willing to accept huge sums of money and the young person accepted on false premises—they all have lost their moral compass. I wonder, however, if the participants would agree. They might just bemoan the fact they got caught and say to themselves that they were simply playing the game affordable to them.

While my ire and revulsion are evident, I must admit some reluctance to accept the prevalent condemnation of wealthy people who have provided extraordinary educational and travel opportunities to their children– therefore giving them a distinct advantage over low-income applicants having had exposure to subjects embedded in entrance exams questions and in being fortunate to have impressive resumes.

I have yet to meet parents, regardless of their socioeconomic status, who haven’t extended themselves to a reasonable degree to pay for enrichment opportunities for their children. It’s human nature.

At the university that I attended, 13 percent of recent freshman classes have comprised first-generation, low-income individuals whose parents, I presume, pushed them to apply to this highly regarded school. I would hazard to say that parents of legacy applicants (children of alumni) are screaming at this new reality and possibly withdrawing their financial support.

I wanted to write another column this week. But I couldn’t ignore the crisis of conscience enveloping several major universities. It’s repugnant. It’s an example of money-driven misbehavior that engenders distrust of long-admired schools of higher learning.

Meanwhile, cynicism continues to grow. A transactional approach to college admissions seems distastefully pervasive. Integrity appears elusive.

Maybe it’s beneficial that the college guidance and admission process undergoes examination. My guess is that admission offices and standards of behavior—along with stricter oversight of college guidance advisers—will face intense scrutiny.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

 

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