‘Father Is Surgeon’: How Money Talked in USC Admissions Scandal

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported on emails sent among university officials at the University of Southern California (USC) that demonstrate how just heavily donations by  applicants’ families weigh in admissions decisions.

The messages were filed Tuesday in a Boston federal court by a lawyer for two parents accused in the nationwide college-admissions cheating scandal. He claims USC wasn’t a victim of any scheme, but rather based admission decisions in part on expectations of donations from well-heeled families.

There is a long-held assumption that money influences college admissions, but the 18 previously undisclosed documents, obtained during the discovery process in the case, appear to make the direct connection in stark terms.

They include intricate spreadsheets color-coded by university officials to track “special-interest applicants”—applicants flagged for their connections to USC officials, trustees, donors or other VIPs—with direct references to past and prospective dollar amounts of gifts from their families.

Also included are email exchanges about specific candidates whose qualifications were portrayed as questionable by admissions and other officials but whose family ties and bank funds won out.

“VIP” students were described in spreadsheets with references like “given 2 million already,” “1 mil pledge,” “Previously donated $25k to Heritage Hall” and “father is surgeon,” the filings show.

Now, I’m not opining here on whether this is legal, mind you. I’m merely saying that defense counsel, Martin Weinberg, claims this is just business as usual, standard operating procedure for how USC considers the applications of VIPs. Will this line of argument be laughed out of court?

We’ll see what happens as the claims proceed through litigation. According to the WSJ:

An attorney for Robert Zangrillo, a Miami financier, filed the internal messages as part of his defense against charges Zangrillo made payments to the admitted mastermind of the admissions scheme, William “Rick” Singer, and a Singer associate at USC to sneak his daughter into the school.

In court filings, the attorney, Martin Weinberg, has argued that far from amounting to a crime, the steps Zangrillo took were squarely in line with how USC handles admissions for VIP families.

Unsurprisingly, USC wants to head this off at the pass, and has asked the presiding judge to limit further discovery of similar documents. According to the LA Times:

Weinberg subpoenaed USC for information on all students the university has flagged in recent years as being what the school labels “special interest” and the donations given by their families. USC is fighting the subpoena, calling it in court filings a “fishing expedition” that goes far beyond the scope of Zangrillo’s case. In turn, Weinberg filed the emails Tuesday, in hopes that they persuade a judge to order USC to comply with his demand for records.

If turned over, Weinberg wrote in a court filing, the records would “prove the existence of a university-wide program at USC … where past donations, pledges of future donations, or expectation of future donations based on the university’s belief in a parent’s resources deeply affects the chances for a prospective student’s admission as does a variety of factors other than just grades and test scores, including recommendations on the prospective student’s behalf by persons of power, wealth, or position in the USC community, past or present.”

In a statement, a spokeswoman for USC said the school has made no secret of the fact that it allows officials across its campus to flag applicants for special attention but said the office of admissions alone decides which students are admitted to the selective university.

“Mr. Zangrillo’s filing appears to be part of a legal and public relations strategy to divert attention from the criminal fraud for which he has been indicted by a federal grand jury. USC remains confident that the court will agree with us that it need not produce the information and documents requested by the defendant.”

The emails clearly show USC officials discussed potential donations from the parents of applicants. But it’s unclear exactly what role that played in decisions.

Jerri-Lynn here. Uh huh.

Over to the LA Times:

The head of the USC admissions office said in a court filing that admissions decisions were not influenced by donations.

Jerri-Lynn here. If you believe that, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.

Permit me to quote some further juicy details from the WSJ report:

At times, USC staffers joked about the shortcomings of applicants. In one email exchange included in Tuesday’s filing, admissions officials mocked one applicant’s grammar but agreed he was “good enough to shag balls for the tennis team,” ending with a crass “Beavis and Butt-Head” reference.

The emails suggest USC officials were completely comfortable in shaking down the parents of prospective students for donations in order to secure admission. Per the WSJ:

In a February 2014 email exchange, Donna Heinel, a former associate senior USC athletic director; Ron Orr, a senior associate athletic director for development; and others discussed a walk-on water polo player with whose family the school had been building a relationship for a year. They describe the family as “a high-level prospect with 1-5M potential,” though there appears to be some jockeying over how much of any gift would go to USC’s business school versus its athletics department.

Ms. Heinel told Mr. Orr, “If this is not working out the way you planned, I can have Admissions pull the approval.”

“Really sucks,” he responded later that night, adding, “don’t pull we will guilt them.”

There’s more in a similar vein in both the WSJ and LA Times accounts, but I won’t pile on here.

Plus ça Change: The Rich Play According to Different Rules Than You and Me

This latest disclosure reminds me of the investment analysis scandal, back during the George W. Bush administration. Remember that? This New Yorker account, The Investigation, provides a useful recap.

One detail I remember vividly: how star telecoms analyst Jack Grubman upgraded his recommendation for AT & T shares, from neutral to buy, in November 1999, as a quid pro quo for the assistance of Citigroup chair Sanford Weill in weighing in on the admissions process for Grubman’s twin daughters at an elite Manhattan pre-school:

“On another matter,” Grubman continued, “as I alluded to you the other day, we are going through the ridiculous but necessary process of pre-school applications in Manhattan. For someone who grew up in a household with a father making $8,000 a year and for someone who attended public schools, I do find this process a bit strange, but there are no bounds for what you do for your children.” After noting that he had attached a list of the 92nd Street Y’s directors to his note, Grubman went on, “If you feel comfortable and know some of those board members well enough, I would greatly appreciate it if you could ask them to use any influence they feel comfortable in using to help us as well.”

Officials at the 92nd Street Y confirmed to the investigators that Grubman’s son and daughter started attending the nursery school in September, 2000. One of the Y’s directors, Joan Tisch, said that Weill, who was a longtime friend, had approached her about Grubman’s children and had indicated that Citigroup would be willing to make a donation to the Y, which turned out to be a million dollars, payable in five annual installments. Armed with this evidence, Spitzer’s team confronted the two principals.

Also see Gretchen Morgenson’s account in the New York Times, Wall St. and the Nursery School: A New York Story, as IIRC, she broke the original story.

What Is To Be Done

The college admissions process is obviously deeply flawed, and has been increasingly corrupted and crapified, as have so many key American institutions during my adult lifetime. No doubt this is a feature, not a bug.

I won’t revisit some preliminary and obvious suggestions for reform, as I covered that territory in a previous post, Another Way the Rich Get Richer: US Indicts Fifty for College Admissions Fraud. My recommendations still stand.

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