Parents accept guilt in US university admissions scandal

Stanford expels implicated student, while new scandal highlights equities in sports

April 9, 2019
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Thirteen parents including Hollywood actor Felicity Huffman, along with the former head men’s tennis coach at the University of Texas at Austin, have agreed to plead guilty in the US college admissions scandal.

The 13 are among a total of 33 parents charged last month with paying bribes to falsify student sporting and academic credentials to win their children admission to institutions that include Yale, Stanford and Georgetown universities, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California.

The most prominent of the 13, Ms Huffman, an actor on the Desperate Housewives television series, issued a statement of contrition in which she apologised to numerous parties including the daughter whose SAT score she paid to have increased.

She also apologised “to the students who work hard every day to get into college, and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly”.

Ms Huffman and most of the other 12 parents agreed to plead guilty to a single charge of mail fraud, a generic federal offence that stems from communications used in the scheme. The charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, although prosecutors agreed to endorse a far smaller time in return for the pleas and public admissions of responsibility. Sentencing dates were not set.

Michael Center, the former Texas tennis coach, joined the parents in pleading guilty. Many of the bribery cases alleged by the FBI involved coaches of relatively low-profile college sports accepting payments in return for falsely designating a student applicant as a candidate for a sports scholarship.

Mr Center was charged with accepting $60,000 (£46,000) in cash for himself, plus $40,000 for the university’s tennis programme, in exchange for claiming interest in admitting a Texas applicant who was not a competitive tennis player.

Leaders of colleges implicated in the scandal said that they had no prior knowledge of the bribes, and they immediately suspended or fired coaches charged in the case.

The institutions also began reviewing the statuses of implicated students. In the latest such move, Stanford announced that it had expelled a student who had claimed falsely to be a competitive sailor.

“Any credits earned have also been vacated,” the university said in a statement. “The student is no longer on Stanford’s campus.”

Yale also has expelled a student implicated in the case. Other colleges have acknowledged reviews of such students, while releasing few details.

The first guilty plea came from the alleged ringleader, William Singer, a Los Angeles-area college admissions consultant who arranged the bribes, ranging from tens of thousands of dollars to $6.5 million, to help wealthy parents win their children admission to top US universities. The children in many cases were not aware of the cheating on their behalf.

The US Justice Department announced the guilty pleas as another college scandal raising questions of equity, involving basketball players, began expanding. It centres on claims by Michael Avenatti, a lawyer known for representing pornography actress Stormy Daniels in a lawsuit against President Trump, that sportswear maker Nike distributed tens of thousands of dollars in illegal payments to encourage star players to attend Nike-aligned colleges.

Nike has declined to comment on the allegations, although Duke University has said that it will investigate Mr Avenatti’s assertion that Nike sent some money to the mother of Zion Williamson, one of the top players in US college basketball.

Unlike the admissions scandal, however, basketball players such as Mr Williamson enjoy broad support, given long-standing criticisms of the NCAA – the governing body of college sports – over its refusal to share with players the wealth that they generate for US colleges.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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