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The College Admissions Scandal of 2019

Higher education has long been the focus of controversy: specifically, the disproportionate opportunities afforded to members of varying socio-economic classes. While one demographic argues for free and universal access to university, others maintain that such a system would be unrealistic and impossible to sustain. However, regardless of one’s opinion on the future of higher education institutions, it is difficult to deny the fact that an inequality already exists between the influential upper class and the disadvantaged lower classes in college admissions. Wealthier applicants are more likely to have attended more prestigious or rigorous high schools, have had various tutors, and have the opportunity to apply early without the stress of obtaining financial aid (Jaschik, 2019). Additionally, these students from wealthy families are more likely to have the status of a legacy student, which increases the probability of admission (Jaschik, 2019).

Despite this inherent advantage, some individuals elect to utilize power to ensure acceptance through entirely unethical methods. However, the true ethical crime is the corrupt university officials and other employees who accept bribes and allow these individuals to succeed in the deplorable actions. In 2019, a massive example of such corruption was brought to light in what is referred to as the “college admissions scandal” (Jaschik, 2019). This scandal involved several college officials at top-tier universities, as well as the mastermind behind the scheme, William Singer, all of whom ignored obligations to respective institutions in favor of personal gain (Jaschik, 2019). These higher education leaders acted ethically according to ethical egoism, but personified corrupt leadership and failed ethically according to virtue ethics, utilitarianism, and social contract theory.

Factual Description

When authorities uncovered the college admissions scandal in 2019, detail after detail shocked the public. It was discovered that the scheme had been ongoing since 2011, and in that time millions of dollars were paid primarily to William Singer, who then dispersed the funds to university officials (Jaschik, 2019). Singer ran The Edge College and Career Network, a foundation which he utilized in order to mask the redistribution of funds from parents to university officials (Jaschik, 2019). One of Singer’s primary methods of cheating was to falsify standardized test scores, which he accomplished by obtaining fake documents requiring testing accommodations, devising excuses to allow students to take tests in test centers he controlled, having administrators share answers or correct tests, and occasionally even paying Mark Riddell, a Harvard graduate, to impersonate students and take the standardized tests (Jaschik, 2019).

Singer’s other method of fraud was bribing college admissions staff and athletic coaches. He utilized his foundation, which allegedly provided educational opportunities for underprivileged students, to launder money in order to bribe athletic coaches, convincing head coaches and athletic officials to recruit his clients (Jaschik, 2019). Singer even went so far as to create fake sports profiles, which he accomplished through out-right lying and also photoshopping clients into athletic pictures to make it appear as though these students had strong athletic resumes (Jaschik, 2019). The list of university athletic leaders accused and convicted of accepting bribes is a long one, and includes individuals from Georgetown University, Stanford University, Wake Forest University, Yales University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Southern California (Jaschik, 2019). As a result, the accused coaches were all rapidly dismissed from their respective institutions.

Corrupt Leadership

Corrupt leadership is characterized by a situation in which “the leader and at least some of the followers lie, cheat, or steal. To a degree that exceeds the norm, they put self-interest ahead of the public interest” (Kellerman, 2004). When analyzing these situations, the focal point is frequently the leader, or the individual, who “duped” all others. The individual is branded a bad seed, and society quickly dismisses the situation. However, the reality is that leaders do not act in a vacuum. Followers, the organization’s goal, context, and broader culture are all critical components in the leadership process, and, by extension, the phenomenon that is corrupt leadership (McManus et al., 2018).

In a well-constructed leadership scenario, the followers should hold the leader accountable for his or her actions (Kellerman, 2004). In cases of corrupt leadership, the followers have failed to perform adequately in this capacity (Kellerman, 2004). This can occur for one of many reasons, many of which are also related to the context. Often, followers are overworked and therefore not fully engaged with the organization or the leader (Kellerman, 2004). As a result, the leader has more latitude to make self-serving decisions (Kellerman, 2004). In other situations, the followers may be engaged, but are discouraged from acting as a whistleblower (Kellerman, 2004). This is more likely to be the case in organizations at which leaders are aware of the corruption, but do not wish for it to be brought to attention, as it is more beneficial to allow the (potentially profitable) corrupt behaviors than to attract negative public attention and be forced to address the issues. Another possibility is that the followers themselves are involved in the corruption. While it is relatively rare for the majority of followers to be involved, it is exceedingly common for a handful of close followers to be involved (Kellerman, 2004).

The goal, context, and broader culture have interconnected effects on corrupt leadership. For example, if the goal is to profit, then it follows that an individual’s goal could easily shift from organizational profit to personal profit. Similarly, when the context or the surrounding culture prioritize financial success and status, the individual may be more motivated to achieve in that way, regardless of the method.

The college admissions scandal could not fit the description of corrupt leadership more perfectly; the web of lies woven by both clients and Singer was an impressive one. The truly corrupt leaders, however, are those individuals who were employed as leaders in athletics and admissions offices. These individuals were all leaders at higher education institutions, and therefore had a duty to both the institution and the students themselves. Instead of upholding this duty, each one of them made the decision to accept bribes for personal benefit, rather than maintain the integrity of the school or the athletic team.

The critical component of the College Admissions Scandal was the context, which one could say fostered the corruption of the admissions process. As dictated by simple economic principles, the growing demand for university degrees has caused a huge increase in the number of higher education institutions, especially in the past 100 years (Roberts, 2015). Higher education is not immune to the extreme consumer culture of the United States, and as a result, institutions implement huge marketing campaigns to attract the students, as students bring in the money (Edmunson, 2004). Notice, however, that the emphasis of these institutions is not on the education of students, but on the financial aspect of managing the university. It would be negligent not to mention that a huge reason for this financial focus is that the university requires the money in order to provide services to the students (Roberts, 2015). However, large quantities of the money go towards activities meant to attract students (greater funds), but not necessarily benefit the current students of the institution (Roberts, 2015).

Regardless of the motivating reasons behind higher education’s financial focus, it is an attitude that pervades throughout the levels of higher education. Therefore, the attitude of higher education as a whole most likely influenced the professionals’ inclination towards accepting bribes. There is, however, a deeper dimension to this dynamic. Several of the athletic leaders and coaches who accepted bribes claimed that the bribe was a mode of funding the athletic team, which the coaches and athletes are often responsible for doing (Jaschik, 2019). If this is the case, then the athletic leaders were merely mimicking the actions of the institution as a whole: pursuing money in order to provide the students with a service (or in these cases, an athletic team). This is a prime example of the importance of taking context into account. Without this context, the athletic and admissions representatives seemed to be horrible, self-serving people. However, considering the context paints a much more elaborate and complicated picture, it seems more that these individuals were simply acting within the boundaries of the context, both immediate and cultural.

There is one additional major component of the context: the competition for admission into universities. High school students spend the entire four years filling days with AP classes, athletics, community service, and other extracurriculars, as well as obsessing over GPAs and standardized tests. Additionally, these students begin preparing for the application process during 11th grade and spend months of 12th grade impatiently waiting to hear which schools have accepted them. On the university’s side, each school has a team of professionals dedicated to determining which applicants are issued an acceptance, and which are not. Naturally, competition for the most popular schools is most intense, and these acceptance rates are lowest.

It is no surprise that, in this environment of intense stress and competition, there are parents and students willing to do anything in order to ensure acceptance into a prestigious university. This combination of factors and environmental stressors leaves an opening for those who desire to capitalize on the opportunity. In this case, Springer noticed the context and the emotions and desperation which it fostered and chose to take advantage of the situation. While it would be extremist to declare that context causes corruption, it does seem that certain contexts, such as this one, do leave a space which allows corruption to grow.

The Individual Level

The College Admissions Scandal can be analyzed broadly with two approaches. The first of these is to analyze the individuals involved, including what motivated each one, and how every involved party was affected. Essentially, this approach investigates the morality of the leader personally, without taking into account the broader impacts on society in order to do so. Two ethical theories which are most relevant to this analysis are ethical egoism and virtue ethics.

Ethical Egoism

Ethical egoism is the slightly unorthodox theory that the ethical decision is that which best serves the individual, regardless of the effects on others (McManus et al., 2018). This emphasis on self-interest contrasts greatly with other ethical theories such as utilitarianism, justice as fairness, social contract theory, the greater good, and Kantianism, all of which emphasize the role of and effects on the group, or society as a whole, rather than solely the individual. However, ethical egoists maintain that each individual must look out for him or herself (McManus et al., 2018). One argument is that other individuals act only in self-interest, so it is one’s responsibility to act in his respective self-interest (McManus et al., 2018). The right action is whatever is best for the one making the decision (McManus et al., 2018).

According to ethical egoism, and ethical egoism only, the individuals involved in the College Admissions Scandal violated no moral or ethical code. In fact, these individuals acted morally, because each followed the course of action most personally beneficial. The parents and students (those who were aware of the lying and bribery) acted according to ethical egoism by ensuring that the student would be accepted into prestigious schools and onto athletic teams, regardless of the impact on other applicants or the students and athletes already admitted. The admissions and athletic professionals who accepted bribes from Singer also acted according to ethical egoism, as the bribe money was extremely beneficial. Lastly, Singer acted according to ethical egoism in charging families substantial sums of money for his services, thus earning a massive profit for himself.

On the other hand, one could argue that these individuals did not act according to ethical egoism. This could be due to the fact that these individuals were harmed in the long run, and would have been better off not accepting the bribes, as they would not have been convicted of the crimes or lost jobs and status. This is a model of the intricacy of ethical egoism. These individuals were acting according to ethical egoism in accepting the bribes, as that was most self-serving at the time. However, any individual who refused a bribe could also have been acting according to ethical egoism, if the thought process behind the decisions was the expectation that the scheme would be discovered, thus causing more personal harm. Therefore, to an extent, it is dependent upon the individual’s thought process to determine whether or not the act was in accordance with ethical egoism.

Virtue Ethics

Philosophers throughout history have theorized on the importance of different virtues. This has led to the birth of virtue ethics, which focuses on the individual’s disposition and character as that individual performs an action or makes a decision (McManus et al., 2018). Aristotle postulated on his four cardinal virtues, Descartes argued that virtue is one’s free will to exercise good, and Kant defined a virtue as that which is unqualifiedly good (McManus et al., 2018). Benjamin Franklin was also included in this group, as he had a list of thirteen virtues by which he lived (McManus et al., 2018). It is honesty, however, that is one of the cornerstone virtues of many religions, philosophers, and communities (McManus et al., 2018). The goal, according to virtue ethics, is to possess and to act according to certain virtues; this is what is used to evaluate the morality of one’s actions or decisions (McManus et al., 2018). Naturally, acting in ways completely opposite of these virtues would be considered unethical.

In the case of the College Admissions Scandal, the actions demonstrated selfishness, dishonesty, and corruption. These are clearly the opposite of the virtues which are so valued in today’s societies. Honesty and selflessness, two common virtues, were nowhere to be found in the individuals involved in this scandal. No one who possesses such virtues would be capable of lying, cheating, and taking advantage of others to such a degree. Therefore, it is straightforward and easy to determine that, according to virtue ethics, the actions of those in the College Admissions Scandal were completely immoral.

The Societal Level

As previously discussed, to analyze solely the individual in cases of corrupt leadership is to omit the majority of relevant information. Just as the followers, goal, and context must be considered in leadership, the broader societal implications must be considered when investigating the morality of certain leaders or leadership decisions. Ethical egoism and virtue ethics are both important methods of ethical analysis, but one must also include theories which are more comprehensive in considering society’s impact, as well as the reciprocal impact on society. Utilitarianism and justice as fairness are both excellent methods of ethical leadership analysis on the societal level.

Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism, initially proposed by Jeremy Bentham, is the theory that the ethical action is that which maximizes utility and minimizes harm for the greatest number of people (McManus et al., 2018). Essentially, the leader must determine which course of action is most beneficial to the greatest number of members of society (McManus et al., 2018). According to Bentham, this could be determined using utilitarian calculus, a form of mathematics in which the leader tallies the number of positive and negative effects of each option, and that which has the most positive score is the most ethical course of action (McManus et al., 2018).

It is quite obvious that no individual involved in the college admissions scheme was utilizing utilitarian thinking, let alone utilitarian calculus. The sole benefactors of the scheme were the students who were admitted to schools without earning the admittance, Singer, and perhaps the athletic coaches who accepted bribes. However, all other individuals and institutions in the society were harmed. The reputations of the involved universities were tarnished. More importantly, the decision to admit the dishonest students would have impacted other, more deserving, students’ acceptance. Universities can only accept a certain quota of students, and by taking one of those positions, these students prevented other students from being accepted.

Social Contract Theory

As postulated by John Stuart Mill, the social contract theory states that the government has a duty to the people, just as the people owe the society which protects them, but that this should not be a written or formal contract (McManus et al., 2018). Essentially, the leaders and the followers in a society have a duty to each other. The leaders should lead in a way which protects the people and should not take advantage of power for personal gain (McManus et al., 2018). In turn, the members of the society should also uphold the values of the society and act in accordance with the rules (McManus et al., 2018).

If one considers both Singer and the university representatives to be the leaders in this scenario, these leaders failed miserably to act in the interest of all members of the society. These individuals chose to abuse power to promote personal wealth and prosperity, rather than uphold the social contract. However, members of the society, the families who hired Singer, also disobeyed the laws and values, and therefore also violated the social contract of higher education and university admissions. This is similar to utilitarianism, in that the involved individuals completely disregarded all others and the negative repercussions on the less powerful, affluent, or privileged.

An Alternate Approach

In analyzing how this may have been avoided, the immediate response may be “it’s just because bad people lied.” However, as previously discussed, it is not solely the corrupt person who is at the root of corrupt situations. Often, the context plays a huge role. In this case, the culture of higher education and the inequality in the admissions process were huge factors which permitted this scandal to occur. From a theoretical perspective, the best way to avoid this situation would be to go back and utilize the principle of the veil of ignorance to redesign higher education institutions, and specifically the admissions process. The issue is that university admissions are more accessible to the more privileged and designed in a way which inhibits less privileged individuals from succeeding. To utilize the veil of ignorance to redesign the process, each individual would have a say in the design, but would be unaware what position he or she holds in society (McManus et al., 2018). This would encourage each person to ensure absolute fairness for all parties and types of person, as it is impossible to design a system beneficial to oneself (McManus et al., 2018).

Conclusion

There are a variety of methods and theories one can use in order evaluate the morality of an action, decision, or situation. Those which were most applicable to the College Admissions Scandal were ethical egoism, virtue ethics, utilitarianism, and social contract theory. However, ethics and morality or complicated topics, and there are often many unseen factors affecting the situation. The best method of analyzing the morality is to utilize multiple theories, various perspectives, and consider the role of followers, the goal, context, and culture. Often, the context or culture can be allowing the corruption to fester, just as in the case of the College Admissions Scandal.

 

References

Edmunson, M. (2004). Why read? Bloomsbury USA.

Jaschik, S. (2019). Massive admissions scandal. Inside Higher Ed.

Kellerman, B. (2004). Bad leadership: What it is, how it happens, why it matters. Harvard

Business School Press.

McManus, R. M., Ward, S. J., & Perry, A. K. (2018). Ethical leadership: A primer. Edward

Elgar Publshing.

Roberts, D. C. (2015). Deeper learning in leadership: Helping college students find the potential within. Jossey-Bass.

Katherine Claire Vander Vennet

Katherine Claire Vander Vennet is an undergraduate student at Christopher Newport University, where she studies leadership, psychology, and education.

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