BARR: Let’s Treat The Admissions Scandal As A Criminal Enterprise — Not A Reality Show

Actors William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman arrive at the 23rd Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Font Size:

The college-admissions scandal announced this month involved public and private colleges and universities from coast to coast. It netted the perpetrators tens of millions of dollars, and ensnared media darlings along with working-class individuals. While it may be the largest such scandal in the history of modern higher education, it is not the first and likely won’t be the last.

At the outset, it is important that this “vast college prep conspiracy” be considered and treated solely and precisely for what it is — a criminal enterprise fueled by greed. Grift on a massive scale.

Already, however, some on the Left are shifting the focus from the crass criminality of the scandal’s many participants, to a broader political attack on “privilege” in America. Others, on the conservative side are blaming affirmative action as the predicate for what the federal indictment properly characterized as a “racketeering enterprise.”

While the cheating scandal very well may exhibit elements of “class privilege” and affirmative-action abuse, obscuring the scheme by viewing it through the lens of contemporary public policy debates diminishes its importance and increases the likelihood it will be repeated.

Ten years ago, the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) system was shaken by a massive cheating scandal; orchestrated not by students trying to improve their grades, but by teachers and administrators fearful that lower student scores on standardized tests mandated by the federal “No Child Left Behind Act,” would slow the spigot of federal tax dollars on which the schools had become dependent.

When news of the APS scandal broke, many educators and public officials in Atlanta and across Georgia sought to have it addressed administratively; as a policy failure rather than a criminal enterprise. The pressure to thus downplay the scandal was pronounced. Fortunately, the venue in which the cases unfolded over the following five years remained exactly where it should have been — in criminal court.

Atlanta’s public schools still have not recovered fully from that sordid scandal, but the example set by aggressive prosecution of the teachers and administrators involved — a process free of partisan politics or racial division — remains a gold star in a state not often cited for upholding high ethical standards.

We all should hope that a decade from now, the 2019 college preparatory cheating scandal will be similarly remembered and cited as an example of how greed rising to the level of systemic criminality must be addressed by prosecution rather than policy debate. This is a task far more difficult than it should be, considering that in today’s hyper-partisan climate virtually every matter of constitutional or legal significance is distilled down to an excuse to challenge someone’s racial, gender, political or class worldview.

A review of the indictment unsealed just days ago — charging more than four dozen individuals with fraud, money laundering and racketeering in a scheme to afford children with parents of means an unfair advantage to gain admittance to top-tier universities — makes clear why the criminal process must remain front and center.

The scheme charted in the federal indictment was extensive in every important respect: taking place over several years and with tentacles reaching from university athletic and admission officials, to individuals employed by organizations supposed to fairly administer college entrance exams and even to include high school teachers; all were part of the grift. Virtually no aspect of the college-entrance process was unsullied by the racketeering scheme, including tax laws and various other federal laws designed to ensure fair competition in college admission processes.

The scheme was so brazen and sophisticated that — as detailed in the indictment — the managers of the conspiracy maintained their own “waiting lists,” so that if a child whose parents already had paid bribes (sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars) to secure their admittance to a chosen university ultimately decided not to go to that school, the ringleaders simply gave that “slot” to the child of another crooked parent.

Thankfully, our federal criminal justice system remains largely insulated from the childish vagaries that have infected the parameters of public policy debate in modern America. While it would boost ratings if the scandal were presented as a “reality” show rather than a federal criminal proceeding, allowing it to be trivialized in such way would do great and lasting harm to our nation’s system of higher education.

Bob Barr (@BobBarr) represented Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He currently serves as president and CEO of the Law Enforcement Education Foundation.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.