Operation Varsity Blues: Big universities, broken systems

Operation Varsity Blues: Big universities, broken systems

In a new Netflix documentary, Chris Smith explores the broken US college system which facilitated the fraudulent admissions of dozens of wealthy American students into universities.

Previously and more famously known for his documentaries, FYRE and Tiger King, filmmaker Chris Smith covers another gripping topic that dominated news headlines in 2019 – Operation Varsity Blues. The docudrama is balanced with retellings from people directly involved in the scandal run by US universities and re-enactments of real conversations that were recorded through wiretaps by the FBI.

The operation was orchestrated by Rick Singer, the independent college counsellor who began his business by coaching students and helping shape their university application forms to help them get into their chosen university. From early on in his career as a counsellor, several contributors to the documentary noted the suspicious activity Singer was involved in. In the documentary Daniel Golden, author of The Price of Admission, tells the audience that he heard Singer was “exaggerating and fabricating on kids’ applications” and would even change their “race from white to Latino or African American so they could qualify for affirmative action.” Teen Vogue describes affirmative action as: “[A] policy used by colleges and universities to improve the educational opportunities for certain races, genders and sexual orientations that are commonly and historically discriminated against.”

These small acts of fabrication may seem minor, but they set the stage for one of the most intricately co-ordinated and thoroughly organised college admission shortcuts in history. I was relatively shocked by how many people used Singer’s organisation. However, his operation and the documentary only expose the flaws in the education system that have existed for years. They uncover the painstakingly obvious bias and privileged realities of being a rich family in America.

The creation of elitist universities

As you begin researching potential universities to attend, a definitively ranked table of the best universities is likely to appear high up on the search results page. We take these rankings as gospel –these universities are unreachable for most students but that is unfortunately their appeal.

League tables, good grades, big names. When students are applying to university, they aren’t buying into the opportunity to further their education but instead, they’re buying into the brand. Test prep expert, Akil Bello says in the documentary: “US news started ranking colleges in the 80s based on one criteria: prestige.”

The creation of the league table rankings and Ivy League schools has created a competitive and toxic culture around education. Students put themselves under immense pressure in the hope of achieving the unachievable.

Golden adds that “the more selective they look on paper the higher ranked they are” and many students are “getting in due to preferences that skew rich and white”.

Within the documentary, it’s noted that there are plenty of universities in the US that can accommodate the number of students. However, there is a highly concentrated group of students applying to a small number of universities with a low acceptance rate. These factors have created a system in which the ‘best’ university places are reserved for a small percentage of society – predominantly those who are wealthy and white.

The wealthy way in  

The documentary focused on the relationship between Singer and the parents who paid for their children to get into these universities. Matthew Modine plays Singer in the re-enactments and explains the several “doors” in the admissions process.

The front door is the legal way to get into a university that is solely based on merit and the process hundreds of students go through. The back door is a direct donation to the university, which costs millions of dollars for the top institutions, and Singer explains could cost up to $45 million dollars for Harvard and doesn’t even guarantee admission.

Dom Fou/Unsplash

Finally, the side door, which was created by Singer, would involve paying university sports coaches to recommend the students and present them to admissions as recruits who play “niche sports”. This would involve having contacts at the university who were willing to accept these bribes and Singer would then photoshop students’ faces onto pictures of people playing these sports such as water polo or sailing. In a phone call with a parent enquiring about this process, Singer tells them that “a side door at Harvard is about 1.2 million”.

Singer knows the deals he’s offering both parties are too good to turn down. Coaches at elite universities are getting an extra pay-check for every admission they take from Singer, their clubs are getting more funding and they still continue their jobs. As for the parents, they pay a smaller fee compared to the back door, their children are guaranteed admission, and they get bragging rights amongst their social circles. There’s a mutual interest and benefit for everyone involved in the operation, despite how immoral it may be.

Parents vs children

A particularly interesting angle of the documentary was the parents who willingly bought into Singer’s business and thought they could get away with it.

Amongst Singer’s clients were high profile CEO’s and actresses Felicity Huffman (Desperate Housewives), Lori Loughlin (Full House) and Loughlin’s husband, Mossimo Giannulli. The majority of the media’s attention turned to the Loughlin/Giannulli household because of their high-profile daughter, Olivia Jade, who is a social media star.

Various clips of her vlogs on YouTube are embedded throughout the documentary with the young star openly airing her grievances about school and how her dad “made her go to college”. After seeing her open dislike for education, it inevitably raised questions about how and why Jade and her sister managed to both get into the University of Southern California (USC).

In a $500,000 deal, Olivia and her sister were posed as coxswains on her school’s rowing team, thanks to Singer’s photoshopping skills. Her school counsellor told the USC admissions officer that he “had no knowledge of Olivia’s involvement in crew and highly doubted she was involved in the sport,” a conversation which left him in a contentious confrontation with Mossimo Giannulli.

The details around Jade’s admission felt worse than any other story, especially because of her blatant disinterest in school and college. Despite this, she still had a place in one of the most prestigious universities in the country and took a space that could have gone to a student who had dedicated years of energy and time to their studies. A family who already benefited from being wealthy and white in America further abused their status to manipulate a system that already favours them.

Since the scandal was uncovered, Jade appeared on Jada Pinkett Smith’s Facebook series, ‘Red Table Talk’, to explain her part in the scandal and apologise for her complicity. While she was trying to clear her name, I found it difficult to sympathise with Jade as it felt as though she was using the space to seek validation and rehabilitation from three black women on a public platform – something Adrienne Banfield Norris echoed on the show.

“I just found it really ironic that she chose three Black women to reach out to for her redemption story,” Adrienne Banfield-Norris said on the episode of Red Table Talk.

“I feel like here we are, [a] white woman coming to Black women for support when we don’t get the same from them,” she explained.

She added: “Her being here is the epitome of white privilege to me.”

The blame game 

While watching the documentary, I kept questioning who should be held accountable for this extensive operation. Is Singer to blame for creating this business? Or perhaps the parents for buying into it? Or were the children being deliberately naïve?

After much deliberation and frustration, I concluded that there’s a shared complicity between each party. Singer was wrong to create this business, but he only exploited a broken system that was created by the institutions. There shouldn’t have been a loophole in the first place to exploit, but he found one and used it to his advantage.

While exploring all the news coverage, I always found a recurring theme – the lack of blame or criticism of the institutions themselves. Why are institutions that are praised and highly regarded in society, accepting bribes? Why were the coaches willing to put their morals aside to partake in a business which only helped and benefitted the lives of people who were already privileged? Why, despite all this illegality, is society still engaging in a system that could easily be dismantled by students, parents and educators alike?

The marketisation of universities has enabled education to become a business rather than a public good which should be equally accessible for every student. There’s an irony in the way universities favour wealthy white students, yet Singer would change the race of students on their applications in an attempt to make them eligible for affirmative action. Affirmative action is a policy that had to be created because of the systemic racism which runs deep in society and trickles down into institutions such as universities. But now it seems affirmative action is being abused by white people.

Pixabay/Pexels

The parents who participated in this business are largely complicit for keeping Singer in business. Singer exploited their hardwired insecurities and played into their anxieties of never having attended such prestigious universities themselves, a concept that is explained to the viewer by college counsellor Perry Kalmus. In the documentary Kalmus says: “If you’re a parent and you didn’t go to Harvard, this is your chance to now go to Harvard”. In a letter to the judge, Napa Valley winemaker Agustin Huneeus Jr admitted: “I realize now that cheating on her behalf was not about helping her, it was about how it would make me feel.  In the end my own ego brought me down.”

By guaranteeing admission for these students, Singer sold the parents the dream of attending these universities – these parents are living vicariously through their children. Getting into these universities is more for their own social status, rather than the betterment of their children’s lives.

After seeing how their parents operate, I am struggling to give the students in question the benefit of the doubt about how much or how little they knew about their parent’s involvement in the scandal. In many of the conversations, the parents would raise concerns about their children finding out what was going on behind the scenes, but I was unconvinced that many of the children would have been remotely phased or bothered by what their parents were doing.

Being born into privilege means you inherently adopt the ignorance that comes with the position, but also the power to happily use a system to your advantage. How did the students not find it bizarre that they had been struggling in school, not achieving high scores but still passing their final exam with extremely good grades? I’d like to see a follow up to the documentary where we get to hear the scandal from the perspective of the student’s involved.

This dynamic between students and their falsified grades did leave me with some questions. If these universities have such a low acceptance rate and only accept those with the best grades, why did they help these students who had their exam results falsified? Surely this dilutes the façade that these universities are the ‘best’ in the country and instead they’re just accepting high profile, wealthy students with fairly average grades.

It’s an unfortunate reality but except from some details outlined in the documentary, I was left unsurprised by most of the information Chris Smith discovers in his exploration of Operation Varsity Blues. The commodification of universities, corrupt admission paths and elitism in education are all systems that have existed for years and something that we’ve all probably been aware of. However, with no concrete evidence, it’s a scandal that we’ve been unable to prove until now. If white and financial privilege exists in everyday society, it’s inevitable that it will exist in institutions that champion and cater to these groups. These Ivy League schools only encourage and thicken the disparity that already exists between white students, students of colour and social classes.

Despite this documentary and this scandal, the parents have essentially left court with a slap on the wrist for their crimes. For example, Lori Loughlin was sentenced to two months in prison, a fine of $150,000 and 100 hours of community service. She is now home and is waiting for her husband to finish his five-month prison sentence. Felicity Huffman served a fourteen-day sentence, was given a $30,000 fine and 250 hours of community service. The sentences these parents received show a stark contrast between the way the United States’ criminal justice operates depending on who you are. Being white and wealthy exposes you to a very different justice system compared to the justice system people of colour must face.

We can protest, we can be angry, we can criticise the system, but it does not change the facts. These people will leave prison after a short sentence and will still be rich, privileged and are likely to assimilate back into everyday society with little effort. I dread to imagine how different the documentary and the sentencing would be if this scandal was orchestrated by people of colour.

Vasily Koloda/Unsplash

Education as a whole should not be a business that benefits those who have the most money. A classroom is the place where every young person should be treated fairly and equally. For some students, a classroom is the only space where they’re cared for, nurtured and shaped to help prepare them for the harsh realities of wider society. If we can’t find equality in our classrooms, our school corridors or our playgrounds, where does that leave our lecture halls and university admission offices?

Chris Smith’s compelling documentary leaves the audience on a chilling note:

“Rick’s ‘side door’ into colleges is now closed. The ‘back door’ remains open at many colleges, for those willing to pay.”

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