The Filthy Tragedy of Operation Varsity Blues

Duana Posted by Duana at March 13, 2019 15:41:29 March 13, 2019 15:41:29

“This is a story made for you,” Lainey wrote. Truer words have never been spoken. 

I’m obsessed with schools, with education, with the way wanting ‘the best’ shapes and justifies people’s choices. I’m obsessed with the fetishization of the Ivy League and other ‘elite’ colleges. I spend approximately 28% of my time trying to get my friends to care about these things as much as I do.

Now they care. 

"We're here today to announce charges in the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice."

By now you know the facts – Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin are the celebrity names indicted in a massive college admissions cheating scandal, along with  Loughlin’s husband, creator of the Mossimo clothing brand, and other CEOs and wealthy executives. “These parents are a catalogue of wealth and privilege,” one of the FBI investigators said, which is exactly synonymous with the worst of celebrity culture.

Whether because of their privilege or in spite of it, depending on your perspective, they cheated and lied. So the question remains – why? 

STATS 104: Ivy League Acceptance in 2019

It’s worth underlining just how selective the prestigious schools in question are. Harvard’s admittance rate hovers around 5%, Yale’s near 6.5%, and the ‘easier’ USC is still only 17%. And within that 5 or 6%, priority is given to ‘legacy’ students, high-profile ‘gets’ (including actors and athletes) who are courted by dozens of schools, in some cases to the children of faculty… all before you get to the ‘regular’ applicant pool, facing near-impossible odds. As the kids say, “HYPS [Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford] is a ‘reach’ for anyone.” 

On college-obsessed boards like College Confidential and UrbanBaby, highly-educated parents complain that they were admitted to Ivy League universities with mostly-great scores and grades, maybe a yearbook editorship or star turn on the swim team… and that’s it. These days those resumés would be laughed out of the dossiers Tina Fey carried around in Admission – and parents are MAD. The changes are due to a rise in attendance overall, in international applicants, apps from qualified students who weren’t exposed to the east coast colleges in past generations (and yes, we’ll dig in more here). 

You have to be exceptional to gain admission to an exceptional university these days, and if you don’t have a ‘hook’, you’d better have patented a medical technology, or created Tinder before you were old enough to use it. My favourite story from the last few years is the girl who wanted to bake for a living, but instead of running school bake sales, she spent her high school career interning for the Cake Boss people at her own expense so she could be the top of the self-motivated pile. 

So… what if your kid just isn’t that? 

ECON 205: Wealth & Privilege in Elite University Acceptance

Elite universities have always accepted donations from families, and subsequently admitted students whose qualifications maybe don’t match up to their classmates’. Exhibits 1-??? currently occupy the White House. 

That’s gross, reeks of privilege, and belies the reputation of these schools as merit-based institutions – but those acceptances in exchange for the donation of a library or whatever are offered with the full knowledge of the university’s admissions department, to ‘diversify their student body’ or some other euphemism. 

‘Buying your way into college’ is a bitter pill of a joke because it’s true – and it’s often happening right out in the open, even as underprivileged and underrepresented parents are jailed just for trying to give their children an opportunity to go to better schools, or schools at all. Read more about that here and here

Which brings us to the next ‘why’ that came up in this story, the constant online refrain: “Why not just donate? We know it’s not a meritocracy. Just cut out the middle men and give a building already!” 

Guys… you think they didn’t try? 

There are 33 parents indicted in the case as of right now, and you’ve only heard of 3 to 4 at a stretch. (Plus, you’re not an idiot – we all know there are thousands more quaking in their boots because their ‘side door’ just hasn’t been busted yet.) In short, there are many more parents who would do anything to get their children into school than there are available buildings to be named, or library donations or whatnot – and when you’re Princeton or Dartmouth, you can afford to be selective. Like, even if they did donate $17M for ‘The Lori Loughlin School Of Looking Flattered’, what campus wants that? Not even ASU, the school her husband maligned as not worthy of his daughters. 

Plus, these celebrities found a much more economical option – that still aligned with their “values.”

PSYC 315: ‘I Deserve It’ – How Parents’ Entitlement Ruined Celebrity Children

One of the internet’s most gleeful discoveries yesterday was Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli’s second daughter, Olivia Jade (Giannulli), not-actually-a-coxswain at USC who said she ‘didn’t really care about school’. 

She later apologized, but I kind of wonder why? She was just being honest! She doesn’t care about school, she isn’t academically oriented, and she makes a lot of money from her YouTube channel and endorsements… meaning college isn’t about educating her for an upcoming career, but about ‘an experience’, one she doesn’t even want. She explained on the Zach Sang show (as found by The Cut) that, “Mostly, my parents really wanted me to go because both of them didn’t go to college.”

Oh yes. There it is. 

This isn’t about getting kids into college so they can have successful lives. They already have successful lives, by virtue of being born into incredible privilege. Not only do their parents know that – they know, in their darkest souls, that their children are unlikely to achieve as much as they did, either because they haven’t built the grit that comes from having to struggle, or because, in the case of the Huffman-Macys, it’s statistically preposterous for the level of success (in a luck-filled business) that’s visited both parents to also fall on both children. 

But they can’t bear the thought of that. Of giving their children everything – and still having them fall ‘short’. 

People who are celebrated and honoured really want to believe they earned that success. Nobody wants to think their millions are a fluke, or that they wound up with a beloved role on a long-running show because their competitor was too difficult to negotiate with, or were at the right place at the right time! You can only reconcile astronomical levels of success if you really believe you deserve it, so if you’re a truly amazing human specimen, then your children must be too, right? 

But since those kids don’t have to work and prove it to the world, because you gave them everything so there’s not much to strive for – well, now you’re going to prove it by telling everyone what a prestigious school they got into, even if you have to engineer it by any means necessary. 

SOC 435: The Sociology of Abuse & Denial in Academic Aptitude

Those means, by the way, always included having the kid identified as having special academic needs so that they’d be able to get double time for the exam – which meant they could write it in a room alone, with a rigged proctor. Every time, whether the kid had documented learning difficulties or not. 

It’s a gross abuse of legitimate accommodations and while entitlement of wealth runs all the way through this piece, it’s particularly notable where parents were denied this accommodation two or three times, and pushed for it anyway – and you know this abuse means it will be harder for students who legitimately need this separation to get it in the future. 

But that’s only a shadow of the most tragic part of the whole thing. 

I read all 269 pages of the federal indictment (which I highly recommend, by the way) but it wasn’t until page 259 that my heart broke, to my total surprise and against my will. In a description of a text message from one of the non-celebrity parents with one of the ringleaders of the scam organization, it reads: 

“…ZADEH replied that his daughter was concerned that ‘she did not get in on her own merits’. I have not shared anything about our arrangement but she somehow senses it. She’s concerned that others may view her differently.”

A significant number of online commenters wanted these students expelled (though many have already graduated) because ‘they must have known’. There’s no doubt they did in some cases, like where they were posing for photoshopped ‘action’ sports shots – but in most of the incriminating transcripts, the parents are obsessed with ensuring their schemes for extra time and inflating students scores aren’t revealed to the students. Macy and Huffman are among parents who talk about how their daughters are so diligent and academically oriented that they’ll want to write the test twice (like many students), so how can they create the illusion that she’s doing it ‘on her own’ both times? 

As our friend Lorella pointed out, now everyone knows you, the parents, didn’t think your kid could get the scores they needed for these schools… including your children. Parents schemed and lied, not only to get their kids into elite institutions they weren’t qualified for, but to hide that fact from their children indefinitely. 

Come on. You can see that as dirty and conniving, and it is, but it’s also tragic. Because it’s so obvious that who these kids are on their own wasn’t good enough. Didn’t measure up to their parents’ idea of who they should be.

This is where people will call out the hypocrisy of ‘liberal Hollywood’, where vocally political stars like Macy and Huffman will talk about loving everyone for who they are, and Olivia Jade talks about her parents’ ‘unconditional love’ but they’ll still lie and cheat to get their children to where they ‘ought’ to be. 

But, of course, sympathies for poor little rich girls come at a direct cost – to underprivileged people who don’t have these opportunities to give themselves a leg up on their legs up, and especially to the tens of thousands of people of colour who are told, over and over, that they only got into a prestigious institution because of their race

In admissions parlance, being a URM, or ‘under-represented minority’ is seen as an advantage – the idea being that, in an effort to create more diverse university classes, where there are two academically identical candidates, diversity may also become a consideration. 

Which of course translates immediately into “You’re just here because you’re Black”, or Indigenous, or Middle Eastern. Oh, except if you’re Asian, in which case, you’re over-represented and can be dinged for being too academically capable, and denying your admission will be about your one-dimensional personality, or something.  

Can’t you just hear these parents, talking around their dinner tables? “It’s just so hard for a wealthy white kid these days!” “You have to do what you can for your kids, you have to!”  Justifying their actions, and in the next breath saying the students who got into university legitimately have ‘extra advantages’? 

Yes, you can, because you’ve seen it, and so has everyone else.  

Graduate Studies: Meritocracy Is A Lie

When this story first broke, some of the athletic details initially confused people into thinking that these were scholarship students, since that’s what we’re most familiar with. But of course that’s not the case – these are all students who can pay full fees, and whose parents cheated their way in on top of the implication that, if admitted, they’d make significant donations to the school. 

On the surface, it’s great that they’re not taking away scholarship money – but it means these students are in the ‘regular’ admission pile, and ostensibly got in ‘on merit’. Anyone who’s been to a selective school – or, shout it from the rooftops, had an ‘a-million-people-would-kill-for-this-job’ job – knows it’s not always about what you can do; half the people there are there because someone made a phone call. 

But the insidiousness of the way this went down means privileged people are getting further and further along thinking their achievements are earned. That they deserve to be where they are, and ‘neither Mommy’s fame or Daddy’s money had anything to do with it! Honestly!’

That’s why they get so angry when power structures are challenged. That’s why it’s so hard to change ‘the way things have always been’. The people who will stay on merit aren’t worried about opening the doors to new voices and new ways of doing things – it’s the ones who suspect that Mommy and Daddy had their thumbs on the scales the whole time, who know deep down they’ve never been good enough, who are terrified at the idea that people with none of the same advantages could get to the same place. 

After all why would your parents risk literally going to jail to get you into Stanford, or USC, or Yale, if there was a chance you could do it yourself? Right, they wouldn’t – so you better keep that door shut tight behind you. 
 

Photos:
Frazer Harrison/ Alberto E Rodriguez/ Getty Images

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