Ethical College Admissions: VIPs

Just what was being bought at the University of Southern California, asks Jim Jump.

September 9, 2019

Was the Operation Varsity Blues scandal a victimless crime? Were the colleges targeted by Rick Singer and his clients victims, blissfully ignorant spectators, or unindicted co-conspirators? Is money the ultimate plus-factor in selective college admissions, and do universities use admission slots as a thank you gift similar to a public radio tote bag? Can a bribe be considered a philanthropic donation?

Those questions are all raised by the defense strategy for one of the Operation Varsity Blues defendants, Miami financier Robert Zangrillo. He is accused of paying $200,000 to the fake charity established by Singer and another $50,000 to the athletic department at the University of Southern California to facilitate his daughter Amber's admission as a transfer student.

Amber Zangrillo had previously been denied admission as a freshman applicant to USC, and according to federal prosecutors her father engaged Rick Singer to get her admitted as a transfer. One of Singer's employees allegedly took online courses for her so she would have enough transfer credits, and Zangrillo arranged to have the daughter designated as a crew recruit despite the fact that she had never rowed competitively. She was not admitted as a rower, but Donna Heinel, the former senior associate athletic director at USC who has been charged in the scandal, placed Amber Zangrillo on a "VIP" list sent to the admissions office.

It is the existence of the VIP list that is at the heart of Zangrillo's defense. His attorney, Martin Weinberg, has labeled Zangrillo's $50,000 donation to USC as "routine," describing it as "squarely in line with how USC handles admission for VIP families." Back in June, Weinberg requested a subpoena to acquire records from the university on how many students received VIP consideration between 2015 and 2019, including how many families of VIP admits made donations to USC within a year of admission.

Last week, Zangrillo's defense team released e-mails between officials in Southern Cal's admissions, athletic and development offices to suggest that discussion of potential donations from applicants' families is a common practice. The university acknowledges that many departments on campus can place a "special-interest tag" on applicants, but maintains that admission decisions are made by the admissions office without regard for an applicant's family's ability to donate to the University of Southern California. USC has called the subpoena a fishing expedition and a public relations ploy to deflect attention from the fraud committed by Zangrillo and Singer, and is fighting release of records citing privacy concerns.

Those are the facts, as of this point. But what are the broader issues, and what conclusions can we draw?

First of all, whatever we learn from the discovery for this case does not change the fact that Robert Zangrillo conspired with Rick Singer and others to game the admissions process at the University of Southern California to benefit his daughter (who, unlike some of the children in the Operation Varsity Blues case, was apparently a knowledgeable and willing participant in the fraud). Regardless of whether he believed the donation to USC was normal and business as usual, did he think Rick Singer was running a charity? Did he think that having someone take an online class for his daughter was business as usual, or that she was a candidate for the crew team at USC? It will be up to the courts to determine if Robert Zangrillo is legally guilty or not, but from an ethical perspective he is hardly innocent.

As of the University of Southern California, this continues a run of scandals and negative publicity. First there were stories about drug use by the former dean of its medical school, followed by sexual assault allegations against a former campus gynecologist. Now we have this and other fallout from the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, which has touched USC more than any other institution. The new university president, Carol Folt, probably has days when she pines for the simpler good old days at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when all she had to worry about was Confederate statues and National Collegiate Athletic Association investigations into fraudulent classes for athletes.

I understand the university's desire to quash the subpoena and agree that Zangrillo's legal team is engaging in a fishing expedition, but attempting to prevent release of information is probably a mistake. When an elected official refuses to release tax returns and other financial records, or when a university seeks to keep its admission practices private, it looks like there is something to hide. That something may be embarrassing rather than criminal. USC's claim on the basis of protecting student privacy is more defensible than Harvard University's claim that its admission practices were proprietary trade secrets, but transparency should be a foundational principle for college admission. If we are reluctant to preach what we practice, we probably need to re-think the practice.

Is Southern Cal's VIP list different from what other universities do? Daniel Golden's book The Price of Admission suggested that children of the rich and famous may be a highly sought after population for many colleges and universities. The question is how many VIPs are there in any freshman class, whether they are outliers in the applicant pool, and whether they are admitted at substantially higher rates. Is wealth a plus factor, or is there a separate admission process? USC dean of admission, Timothy Brunold, was quoted as saying that 68 percent to& 83 percent of those on the athletic department VIP list are admitted in a typical year, 4 to 5 times the overall admit rate.

The bigger question is whether philanthropy should be a legitimate institutional priority in the admissions process. Clearly net revenue is an important goal for many admission offices. Should the potential for donations to the university be part of the net revenue equation?

That raises several more interesting questions. If development and revenue are indeed legitimate considerations in admissions, shouldn't they be explicit rather than the "wink, wink … nudge, nudge" dance with prospective donors we now have? Back in March, shortly after the Operation Varsity Blues scandal broke, Michael Cappucci, senior vice president at the Harvard Management Company that manages Harvard's endowment, wrote a Linkedin post proposing that colleges auction off a certain number of admissions spots to the highest bidders. The post was taken down after people found the idea appalling and offensive, which it is. But is it more appalling and offensive than the current system?

The related question is whether donations to a university from wealthy parents whose children are admitted should count as philanthropy. Organizations such as the Council for Advancement and Support of Education are understandably concerned about attempts to limit the tax advantages for those who donate to colleges after admission, but when you spend money and receive a substantial benefit as a result, that's not philanthropy.

There is no question that money talks in our culture and that those with money receive lots of benefits that the rest of us don't. But shouldn't college admission be countercultural?


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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