So far, there’s no public evidence that the stupefying undergraduate admissions scandal has touched graduate admissions.
Still, the case has touched graduate education: Versatile Ph.D., which was a leader in the alternative-academic career-coaching space, and which still rakes in annual fees from subscriber institutions, was purchased last year by the Key Worldwide Foundation. That’s the foundation William (Rick) Singer -- the alleged leader of the fraudulent admissions ring -- started in 2012. His separate admissions business was dubbed “the Key.”
Both the foundation and the admissions business have been implicated in the federal case against Singer and dozens of his alleged co-conspirators, from sports coaches to Hollywood types trying to get their kids into college. And Singer, who is cooperating with federal authorities, already agreed in a plea deal to forfeit the foundation's interests, including those in Versatile Ph.D.
Court documents initially obscured this connection. In a filing dated March 5, which has since been unsealed, prosecutors charged Singer with racketeering and money laundering, among other crimes, and said that a conviction would result in the forfeiture of millions of dollars and foundation holdings such as “Virtual Ph.D.”
That was apparently a typo, as Key Worldwide doesn’t own a company by that name. But it does own Versatile Ph.D., as of last year.
The company was founded in 2010 by Paula Chambers, a film director turned humanities Ph.D. who realized in graduate school that she would be happier working outside academe and created a Listserv for the like-minded. That Listserv eventually became Versatile Ph.D. It racked up paying subscribers as graduate students faced an increasingly rough job market and looked to it for advice, job ads, local meet-ups and a career-finder function.
Chambers sold the company in 2018, as new and demonstrably web-savvier platforms began to crowd its market space.
The eventual buyer -- Key Worldwide -- wasn’t well-known to most watching that space. Some were surprised at the acquisition.
A May 2018 announcement, which has since been taken off-line but is cached here, says that Key Worldwide’s education and its career initiative, PeplWorks, considered the sale “an important step in PeplWorks' effort to improve and expand university career services through the combination of behavioral science, assessments and job match analytics.”
At the time, Versatile Ph.D. said it served 79 universities and more than 85,000 individual members.
Todd Maurer, Versatile Ph.D.’s new president, commented then that the platform was “unmatched in the area of graduate student and early-career Ph.D. career services. We are truly excited by the synergies and opportunities that will be created through this acquisition. We believe that our emerging product offerings, and enterprise networks, will bring a practical and data-driven perspective to V.Ph.D.’s already impactful activities around career discovery, readiness and job access.”
Maurer founded PeplWorks, which his Versatile Ph.D. biography describes as a “predictive analytics start-up that promises to decode human potential and remodel the way education and employment markets work.”
Versatile Ph.D. anticipates that it will “continue under new ownership, in some form, into the future," Maurer said Thursday. "Our services to Ph.D. and postdoctoral students are operating as before.”
As for Key Worldwide, Maurer said that Versatile Ph.D. “operates independently” and does not have any relationship to admissions activities.
“Our continuing mission is to help Ph.D. and postdoctoral students envision, prepare for and excel in professional careers,” he added.
It’s true that Versatile Ph.D. doesn’t deal in graduate school admissions. So perhaps the most interesting questions about this connection center on why Key Worldwide wanted to take on Versatile Ph.D.
Many have speculated that business relationships set up by Singer were part of the way he hid money. But there have been no public allegations that this is the case with Versatile Ph.D. And of course many companies would desire the data being collected by Versatile Ph.D. on which kinds of people with which skills and credentials were interested in and successful at doing what.
Something else to note: multiple news reports have stated that federal investigators were tipped off to the Key scandal by an unnamed party involved in another federal securities case. And a former Key Foundation collaborator whose publicly available résumé says he worked on Versatile Ph.D. was arrested last year for allegedly helping con dozens of investors out of $2.2 million in a scheme involving a mass-production-ready caffeinated chocolate snack that never was.
That former Key Foundation collaborator, Joel Margulies, could not immediately be reached for comment. But his résumé says that from 2014 onward, he worked as a product architect at Key Worldwide. It names Versatile Ph.D. as one of the foundation's products.
In working for Key Worldwide, Margulies says he “researched and developed the algorithm to match the results of psychometric assessments to résumés and job posts for 'right-fit' job matches” to reduce employee turnover costs, and built an “immersive readiness experience for graduate students leaving college for commerce.”
Maurer said Margulies is not affiliated with Versatile Ph.D.
Several businesses who work with graduate students and recent Ph.D.s to find work inside or outside academe declined to comment on the record about Versatile Ph.D. Several of the platform's founding member universities did not respond to a request for comment about their connection to it, or how they’d advise students sharing their data with it to proceed.
Chambers, Versatile Ph.D.’s founder, declined general comment and to answer a specific question about the cost of the sale, saying she’d previously agreed to refer media requests to the new owner.
L. Maren Wood, co-founder of Beyond the Professoriate, a competitor of Versatile Ph.D., said in a statement that Singer and the foundation’s alleged actions are inconsistent with the values of her business and that it’s “unfortunate” that a “well-known business is connected to this scandal and the people involved.”
Many academics already “question the role of private businesses in higher education,” she said, “but the reality is that businesses like ours are essential to the academic community. Every day, we work to support graduate students, postdocs, adjuncts and underemployed Ph.D.s at a critical moment -- when they are on the job market.”
So the news about Versatile Ph.D. “casts a shadow on all of the small businesses and solopreneurs working in this space, and as a consequence, might make it more difficult for graduate students and Ph.D.s to get the support they need.”
Julie Posselt, associate professor of education at the University of Southern California -- which is among the institutions targeted in the admissions fraud case -- wrote an eye-opening 2016 book about the graduate admissions process. (Posselt also has contributed to Inside Higher Ed.) She said this week that she didn't have enough information to infer what motivated the Key Foundation to purchase Versatile Ph.D.
What is clear is that Versatile Ph.D. gathers "copious personal information about people who may feel anxious about or wronged by the faculty job market, just as a lot of high school students feel anxious about the market for college admissions. I want to know how they were using it or may have intended to use it. How are people and companies exploiting the difficulty of accessing higher education and faculty jobs?"
Versatile Ph.D. sent a message to university members late Thursday assuring them of the business's integrity. While Key Worldwide "may have some difficulties in the days to come, I assure you that Versatile Ph.D. will continue as a viable, valuable entity in the higher education marketplace," it said.
Asked about student's concerns about sharing their data, Maurer said via email that "there should be no concern about data being exploited."