US admissions scandal trial win tied to university complicity

Sole courtroom victor in three years of prosecutions says jurors needed to hear that institutions went along, and then believe that nobody was hurt

June 27, 2022
Tennis ball hitting the net for a fault
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After scoring the only court victory in the US college admissions scandal trials, the attorney for the victorious parent said he won by giving jurors clear proof that elite institutions trade student admissions for philanthropy – and a dubious assurance that nobody gets harmed.

The attorney, Roy Black, explained in an interview that his client, Amin Khoury, openly acknowledged using his family’s status as billionaire donors to help his daughter win admission to Georgetown University and other top-ranked institutions.

But he won the court case, Mr Black told Times Higher Education, by leaving jurors with no doubt that such behaviour is legal and that universities willingly participate in it.

“The rich kids are going to get admitted,” he said, “because they are targets of the fundraising machine of the university.”

Mr Khoury was accused in the trial of winning his daughter’s 2015 admission to Georgetown – which typically accepts only 17 per cent of its applicants – by paying the university’s tennis coach $180,000 (£150,000) to have her presented as a recruit for the team.

His trial was the concluding act in a three-year series of prosecutions involving 57 parents, coaches and other participants. Nearly all pleaded guilty, and few even dared risk a trial in court, where none had previously been successful. The convictions typically led to jail sentences of a few months.

The scandal sparked political outrage outside of courtrooms, including talk in Congress of legislative repercussions. All that subsided as colleges and universities denied institutional culpability and promised they would make any necessary fixes on their own.

Mr Black told THE that he won Mr Khoury’s acquittal by carefully studying the previous court cases and learning from their jurors the limits of what upsets people. One key lesson, in his telling, was that individual stories are more compelling than big-picture statistics.

Mr Khoury therefore didn’t deny the payment was made to the coach, Gordon Ernst. Mr Black instead conceded that wealthy applicants – such as Mr Khoury’s daughter – regularly fill seats at prestigious universities that don’t necessarily reflect their academic accomplishments. He then focused jurors on the idea that Mr Khoury’s daughter, despite enjoying that wealth privilege, did not literally take a spot at Georgetown from anyone else.

He did that with data on yield rates, emphasising to the jurors that the Khoury daughter was in an entering class at Georgetown where – as often happens at universities – at least a few vacancies are left when not every admitted student accepts their offer.

To help tell that and other aspects of his story, Mr Black persistently used subpoenas to pull records from Georgetown. He counted 52,000 pages of documents in total, getting some during the trial, and paying his staff to read them overnight in time for the following day’s arguments.

"I went to school on what happened with the earlier trials,” Mr Black said. “I saw what the problems were at the earlier cases,” he said, referring to evidence of institutional involvement in the bribery process, “and figured this is what we had to really push for.”

Key findings from that process, he said, included email exchanges describing the Georgetown admissions office seeking Khoury family donation records immediately after admitting the daughter; the head tennis coach at Wesleyan University discussing with a Khoury representative how big a donation would be necessary to consider the daughter for admission there; and the Khoury representative having a similar consultation with a Boston College trustee.

The university representatives in such cases, Mr Black said, knew that the Khoury family – wealthy from the aircraft construction industry – regularly made donations to higher education, including a celebrated $50 million (£41 million) gift to Northeastern University.

The evidence presented at trial also showed that Mr Khoury’s daughter had high-school grades and standardised test scores well below the averages of successful Georgetown applicants, and had tennis skills well below the norm for the university’s team. Georgetown was shown by the documents to be more interested in the Khoury family money than in grades or tennis ability, while falsely denying that reality, Mr Black said.

Federal prosecutors have argued throughout their pursuit of the scandal that universities as institutions have the right to set their own policies for admissions – even if it means favouring students based on their wealth – but that individual employees do not on their own. On that fundamental position, Mr Black said he agreed. “These are private businesses,” he said. “They can do that.”

Ernst, the tennis coach, pleaded guilty to fraudulently receiving millions of dollars in payments for helping applicants gain admission to Georgetown. He faced a jail term of between one and four years.

The university told THE that it never received or benefited from any money provided by applicant families to Ernst and would not let it affect any admissions decision if it had.

“Since 2017, when first discovering irregularities with its tennis programme, Georgetown has taken significant steps to prevent coaches from abusing its admissions process,” the university said. “This includes pausing any conversation about a gift with any prospective donor who is a relative of an applicant for admission to the university.”

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