Some Things Are More Important Than Money: The Nature of Bribery and the U.S. College Admissions Scandal

For the last two months, it’s been difficult for me to think or post about anything other than Russia’s war against Ukraine—and how this crisis might relate, directly or indirectly, to issues of corruption. But for today, I’m going to write about something a bit closer to (my) home, and substantially lower-stakes: the U.S. college admissions scandal, often known as the “Varsity Blues” scandal, after the code name that U.S. prosecutors assigned to the investigation. A quick refresher: a number of affluent parents arranged for their children to be picked by colleges coaches as athletic recruits, even though these teenagers were not in fact gifted athletes, and in some cases did not even play the sports for which they were recruited; this virtually guaranteed that the children would be admitted to the colleges in question, because those colleges had the practice of giving the coaches substantial discretion in choosing a certain number of recruits each year. (There were other aspects of the fraud, including in some cases cheating on the admissions tests, but the fake athletic recruiting gambit was the heart of the scheme.) The coaches participated in this fraudulent activity because the parents bribed them, via the middleman at the center of the scandal (and the purported “charitable foundations” that he controlled). In some cases, the parents paid monetary bribes directly to the coaches. But in some cases, the parents also—or in addition—made substantial donations to the university’s athletic program or the individual team, in exchange for the coach falsely asserting that their child should be recruited as an athlete.

That last, rather unusual aspect of the scheme—that the payments sometimes went to the university’s athletic program, rather than into the coach’s pocket—gives rise to a question that some of the Varsity Blues defendants have been urging in court: Can a payment count as a bribe (in the legal or moral sense) if it goes to the university? Obviously, this is not an issue in those cases where the prosecution has proven that money or other things of value were offered directly to the coach. But what about those cases that involve donations to the university’s teams or athletic program? Some of the Varsity Blues defendants insist that these donations cannot be bribes—even if we stipulate that the purpose of the donation was to induce the coach to falsely claim that an applicant should be recruited as an athlete, and that the coach did so as part of an explicit quid pro quo. The reason, proponents of this argument insist, is that if the purported “victim” of the alleged bribery (here the university) is also the recipient of the payment, then the payment cannot not a bribe.

This is wrong. Indeed, it is nonsense, and that fact that at least some judges have been entertaining this as a serious objection to some of the Varsity Blues charges reveals a deep conceptual confusion about the nature of bribery and why it is wrongful. Continue reading

Lessons from the U.S. College Admissions Scandal: Why Universities Need to Embrace Anticorruption Measures

In 2019, a college admissions corruption scandal made headlines in the United States and around the world. Richard Singer, who masterminded the scheme, promised wealthy parents that he could get their children coveted places at Stanford, Yale, USC, and other selective colleges through what he called the “side door.” Rather than donate $45 or $50 million to gain an edge in admissions, parents would pay Singer and his foundation to bribe college coaches to recruit the students as college athletes—even though many of the students had never competed in the sport for which they were allegedly being recruited. U.S. federal prosecutors, in the so-called “Varsity Blues” investigation, uncovered this scheme and indicted more than fifty people (parents, coaches, and others). Many of the defendants pled guilty. This past October, in the first Varsity Blues case to go to trial, a jury found hedge fund magnate John Wilson and former casino executive Gamal Abdelaziz guilty of conspiracy, wire fraud, and mail fraud. More trials are likely coming, and more convictions are likely.

Beyond the sensational headlines—which often focused on the wealthy parents, several of whom are celebrities—what broader lessons can we draw from the scandal? When it first broke, many commentators attacked the broader culture of entitlement and privilege in which wealthy parents secure unfair—but in most cases entirely legal—advantages for their children through legacy preferences and favoritism toward big donors. Other commentators drew attention to the hypercompetitive, win-at-all-cost culture fostered by the U.S. college admissions system. Critics pointed to a culture that leads not only to criminal bribery of the sort revealed in the Varsity Blues investigation, but also to less visible forms of dishonesty like college admissions “consultants” who draft essays for pay and students who cheat on college admissions tests, sometimes with the support or complicity of adults.

Those critiques of the U.S. college admissions culture are apt, but there’s another important lesson that emerges from the scandal, one that has received less attention: The scandal highlighted the extent to which universities have failed to address seemingly obvious corruption risks, and failed to implement effective controls for identifying applicants who were bribing their way onto campus. Compared to other large institutions, universities are behind when it comes to establishing effective anticorruption controls.

Continue reading