Felicity Huffman Is Guilty, but So Are University Shakedown Artists

Actress Felicity Huffman leaves the federal courthouse after being sentenced in connection with a nationwide college admissions cheating scheme in Boston, Mass., September 13, 2019. (Katherine Taylor/Reuters)
To clean up corruption in college admissions, we must target the institutional pay-to-play schemes hiding in plain sight.

Last week, actress Felicity Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in prison for her part in the “Varsity Blues” college-admissions scandal. Back in May, Huffman pleaded guilty to paying $15,000 to a fixer who would “correct her daughter’s answers on the SAT” and “secure an accommodation” so that her daughter had more time to take the test. In addition to the jail time, the former Desperate Housewives star was sentenced to a year of probation, a $30,000 fine, and 250 hours of community service. She has conceded that “there are no excuses or justifications for my actions. Period.” While there has been predictable online outrage that her punishment was too lenient, there’s no question about her guilt.

Meanwhile, as cheating parents and sleazy middlemen are prosecuted for their misdeeds, the campus mandarins who turn a blind eye to or even facilitate admissions corruption have been given a pass. The colleges lauded by Huffman’s indignant critics as custodians of educational opportunity have gotten off scot-free, despite routinely tracking, cultivating, and shaking down affluent donors with the implicit recognition that admission and the prestige that comes with it are what’s being sold.

Just last week, court records from the Varsity Blues scandal’s aftermath revealed some of the ways in which the University of Southern California offered preferences in the admissions process to students whose parents made substantial contributions. In an eye-opening account, the Wall Street Journal described the intricate, color-coded spreadsheets that USC used to track “special-interest applicants,” which were peppered with comments such as “‘given 2 million already,’ ‘1 mil pledge,’ ‘Previously donated $25k to Heritage Hall’ and ‘father is surgeon.’ ”

The ongoing lawsuit against Harvard University’s affirmative-action policies has similarly brought to light missives which show just how explicit the admissions hustle can be, even at the nation’s most respected institutions. In one 2013 email with the subject line “My Hero,” the former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, David Ellwood, thanked a colleague for help in admitting a set of students with very “special” qualifications. “Once again you have done wonders,” Ellwood wrote. “I am simply thrilled about the folks you were able to admit. . . . [Redacted] has already committed to a building.”

In another email from the Harvard suit, Associate Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development Roger Cheever observed, in discussing the merits of another Harvard hopeful, that the student’s family had at one point given Harvard $8.7 million, but had proven “challenging” in recent years. “[Redacted] was a devoted [redacted] Chair and generous donor,” Cheever wrote, but “going forward, I don’t see a significant opportunity for further major gifts.” (“[Redacted] had an art collection which conceivably could come our way,” he noted, almost as an afterthought, coming off for all the world like Tony Soprano surveying the assets of a New Jersey sporting-goods store.)

As the Harvard Crimson drily noted, “The public has long suspected that Harvard favors those who fund it. But blatant examples like those presented Wednesday — the promised building, the ‘conceivable’ art collection, the ‘red carpet’ treatment — rarely if ever become public knowledge.”

This is standard, though usually hidden, practice in higher education. Take the University of North Carolina, where the Development Office promises on its “Major Gifts” page that donors of $5 million or more can “find great joy in sharing special campus access and custom-tailored experiences with their children and grandchildren.” Ohio State President’s Club says that the “benefits” of joining its prestigious ranks include “opportunities for engagement with university leadership.” At UC Davis, donors of $1 million or more even “receive access to a personal assistant provided by the Office of Donor Relations.”

Unlike the documents that surfaced at Harvard or USC, these are not cases of private missives awkwardly being exposed — they’re assurances of special treatment cheerfully posted on the websites of prestigious public universities. All involved share a wink-wink understanding of what the vague talk of “exclusive access” and chances “to interact with University leadership” actually signals: The bigger the donation, the more likely one’s child or grandchild is to receive that thick welcome-to-campus packet in the mail.

The dirty truth is that America’s “nonprofit” colleges and universities are happy to sell fast passes to lucrative careers. In fact, it’s a key part of their business model. University leaders have shown themselves all too willing to sell admission and assorted perks to the one percent — and then to point the finger at American society for the ensuing concerns about inequality and self-dealing. In that sense, Felicity Huffman’s big sin was that she had the poor taste to hire a sleazy fixer rather than to pay USC’s bagmen directly.

What Huffman did was, of course, wrong. She tried to circumvent the rules that everyone else plays by, and she was busted and punished as she should have been. But her crimes, and the media circus that accompanied them, shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the existence of those campus leaders and “development professionals” whose shakedown efforts continue untrammeled. After all, a shakedown dressed up in polished language and given an institutional imprimatur is still a shakedown. If we want to clean up the corruption in college admissions, we must be sure not to overlook the part played by the colleges themselves.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Hannah Warren is a research assistant at AEI.

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