Distorted Democracy: Wealth, Power, and Privilege in the 2019 Varsity Blues Scandal

Before the turn of the century, social philosopher John Thompson worried that scandals would lead to a loss of trust in public institutions (1997, p. 58). New media made visible the patterns emerging from a structure’s scandals which highlight its institutional faults and failures. The College Admissions scandal of 2019 highlights important strategies that institutions use to distance themselves from a scandal, pretending to be a setting instead of the mechanism through which the actors in the scandal perform. I will first discuss the American education system, which will provide a backdrop for my discussion, as the gatekeeping role certain institutions hold lend logic to the actions of those involved. I will discuss the strategies that colleges have used to distance themselves and scapegoat others instead of recognizing the reasons these scandals keep happening. This scandal holds the potential to be a devastating blow to educational institutions, however, the media is framing it as a celebrity story without sustained investigation and discussion. Changes in visibility and new media have led to a preferred storyline that is already reaching its denouement during the investigation. Finally, the changes in visibility brought on by technology have led to widespread questioning of the fairness of democratic institutions, which are being shown to hold immense power in cementing ideology while providing preference to the wealthy and powerful. The complete erosion of trust that Thompson concerns himself with is here, and it is the role of the media to highlight their complicity in disguising it. 

        The American education system is unique in that certain academic institutions act as unofficial gateways to legal institutions. The current supreme court is made of judges that attended one of two schools: Harvard or Yale (Wan, 2018, para. 2). The danger of this was nicely summarized by reporter William Wan:

It’s not like Harvard and Yale are the only good schools out there, but they become stand-ins for merit and a cover for ideology…The downside to that, unfortunately, is you don’t get a diversity of ideas or broader perspectives…From the age of 18, these people have all essentially done the same thing (2018, para. 5). 

When society’s institutions consist of a non-diverse group, they implicitly favour the ideological biases represented, turning these institutions into de facto echo chambers that keep ideology fixed. Keeping the political elite within elite positions is a method of recreating the current conditions, which prevents diverse voices from seizing power and changing the relations between power and classes. This admissions scandal involved elite American universities, and parents conspiring to have their unqualified children admitted as false athletic recruits, with unlawful assistance on standardized testing (Smith, 2019, p. 25). It exposed the different realities of education between classes, as wealthy parents were sending hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, and were able to fly to LA to take tests under faked conditions at the drop of a hat.

        There is significant evidence to suggest that the universities not only knew about the schemes but made moves to conceal them. Georgetown became aware of the actions of its tennis instructor George Ernst when admissions found irregularities in two tennis recruits in 2017 (Kane, 2021, para. 7). He was placed on leave and left the following year, earning a new position with a positive recommendation from Georgetown’s athletic director (Kane, 2021, para. 8). The language used of ‘irregularities in the applications’ as well as the assertion that neither of the students were admitted shows clear indications of the cheating scheme, and Ernst would later be indicted for his role in the scheme (Kane, 2021, para. 2). Additionally, Stanford announced in 2019 that seven of their coaches had been approached by Singer, remarking: “Look, we work for the trustees of Stanford. At the end of the day, they’re going to decide what gets released and what doesn’t” (Witz, 2021, para. 29). The opacity of university dealings are unacceptable for institutions that produce the next leaders and judges within a democratic society. If certain institutions position their graduates to take on leadership and governance positions, especially ones that will have real effects on the lives of others, we expect them to operate based on merit, admitting the best and no longer being swayed by money. With the broad range of colleges implicated, a pattern emerges for the public to see—that our educational institutions and thus our legal institutions hold a preference for the elite, recreating imbalanced power conditions, with the facade of democracy.

        I find current media culture is complicit in this scandal. As I reviewed coverage, it appeared that very few journalists went through the affidavit and related documents—there has been no discussion about the coverup, or a concerted multiple-issue push to discuss these issues in-depth. This is understandable given the shift in journalism to shorter, dramatized, online stories, and the real social conditions that are removing funding from print and investigative journalism. However, coverage has failed at sustaining this issue, moving on to Olivia Jade’s apology tour while the trial is taking place (Dickson, 2020, para. 4) The change in media to a 24-hour cycle bears some responsibility for this limited attention span, as there is always something new on the horizon to be positioned as the next big scandal, and whoever breaks it first gets paid, encouraging the quick cycle of stories. This scandal holds the power to shake the current academic system and its associated institutions but is not being utilized as such. Instead of journalism being used to incite change, it has devolved to entertainment, with little investigative reporting on a scandal that is instead presented as a celebrity drama.

        This scandal and its subsequent reporting is akin to focusing on one faulty thread in the burning tapestry of democracy, as the issue starts much earlier than college: while only 7% of American students attended private high schools, almost half of the Harvard Admissions class of 2018 was comprised of private school alumni (Murphy, 2021, para. 4). Private high schools are another way of separating the haves and have-nots, allowing specific children to take advantage of social capital like connections which remain mostly white and wealthy. The responsibility that not only higher education institutions hold, but all educational institutions hold—and therefore the government at large holds—is that education largely shapes one’s life, constructing the framework through which they think and relate to the world. Depriving some students while favouring others shows a failure in democracy from the start of a child’s life while placing the onus on individual parents to provide an adequate education, which creates competition among the working class while rationalizing the elite bubbles that wealthy children are brought up in. This serves to simply recreate the current conditions, allowing the powerful and wealthy, who want assurance that they can keep that power and wealth, to place their children in elite positions to justify their affluence. 

        The impact that this scandal could have had has been affected by the 24-hour news cycle and conventions of online reporting which must be attention-grabbing to gain readers. Readers have come to expect certain structure out of scandals, including a conclusion—while conclusions generally reaffirm the status quo—much like episodes of a sitcom, where everything returns to ‘just the way it was. The issue with the celebrity factor of these perpetrators is that people want to hear their side of the story which makes them more famous. Instead of this being reported as an institutional scandal, the celebrity factor of those involved has turned it into a talk show talking point, inspiring curiosity instead of outright disavowal. Current mentions of the scandal are being used to promote Olivia Jade’s performance in Dancing with the Stars, and her mother Lori Laughlin’s new movie (Murphy, 2021, para. 2; Rice, 2021, para. 6). 

        Another hindrance that the celebrity factor has created is connections—I would speculate that a large part of the framing has to do with the power of those involved. Robert Sangrillio was the parent of one student admitted, who also hired Singer’s services to take his daughter’s online classes, all with her knowledge (Lapin, 2019, para 3). He avoided prosecution for his part in the scandal with a pardon from Donald Trump, the standing president at that time, which was supported by billionaire Len Blavatnik, a former Facebook president, and Thomas Barrack Jr, an alumnus and trustee of USC, one of the universities implicated (Hurtado, 2021, para. 5). The wealthy are showing the solidarity of being brought up in a bubble of elite private schools and universities, now holding rank and protecting each other from the fallout of the scandal.

        In conclusion, the importance of this scandal will come with its effects—this could very well be a story about “rich people doing rich people things”, with them going back to their celebrity lives and using the scandal as a talking point for the next year or two. The power of this scandal lies in its roots in the undemocratic education system that cements ideology and provides preference to the wealthy. The positioning of the scandal by the media as a celebrity story instead of investigative-institutional has led to dramatization instead of action, and the celebrity factor of those involved has distorted coverage and accountability. Perhaps we can flip and update John Thompson’s statement for our new media environment: “Those who own the media are unlikely to die by the media” (1997, p. 51).

Reference List

Dickson, E.J. (2020, December 8). Olivia Jade Giannulli’s Apology Proves She Doesn’t Understand Her Own Privilege. MSN. https://www.msn.com/en-us/tv/celebrity/olivia-jade-giannullis-apology-proves-she-doesnt-understand-her-own-privilege/arBB1bKMmS

Hurtado, P. (2021, January 20). College Scam Dad Is Pardoned by Trump Over $50,000 Bribe. Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-01-20/college-scam-dad-is-pardoned-by-trump-over-50-000-bribe

Kane, A. (2021, September 24). Former GU Tennis Coach Agrees To Pleas Guilty in Admissions Scandal. The Hoya. https://thehoya.com/former-gu-tennis-coach-agrees-to-plead-guilty-in-admissions-scandal/

Lapin, T. (2019, March 13). Girl whose family has ties to Hadids knowingly took part in college admissions scam: docs. Page Six. https://pagesix.com/2019/03/13/pal-of-gigi-and-bella-hadid-knowingly-took-part-in-college-admissions-scam-docs-reveal/

Murphy, D. (2021, November 9). Olivia Jade learns ‘hard work really does pay off’ amid ‘DWTS’ elimination. Page Six. https://pagesix.com/2021/11/09/olivia-jade-on-dwts-elimination-and-finding-a-work-ethic/

Murphy, J.S. (2021, June 14). The Real College Admissions Scandal. Slate.https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2021/06/private-schools-competitive-college-advantage-problems.html

Rice, N. (2021, October 24). Lori Loughlin Returns to Acting in First Role Since College Admissions Scandal — See a Sneak Peek. People. https://people.com/tv/lori-loughlin-returns-to-acting-first-role-since-college-admissions-scandal-when-hope-calls/

Smith, L. (2019). Affidavit in support of criminal complaint. Federal Bureau of Investigations. PDF retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/context/college-admissions-bribery-scheme-affidavit/c2ba5e52-6a22-42ed-a0c9-05c83ee5f83d        

Thompson, J. (1997) “Scandal and Social Theory” in Media Scandals, pp. 34-64.

Wan, W. (2018, July 11). Every current Supreme Court justice attended Harvard or Yale. Thats a problem, say decision-making experts. Washington Post.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2018/07/11/every-supreme-court-justice-attended-harvard-or-yale-thats-a-problem-say-decision-making-experts/

Witz, B. (2021, September 27). A Cog in the College Admissions Scandal Speaks Out. New York Times.https://web.archive.org/web/20211012151927/https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/27/sports/stanford-varsity-blues-college-admission.html

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