On an internal spreadsheet marked “special interest,” University of Southern California officials catalogued in exhaustive detail the fundraising possibilities associated with certain well-connected applicants for admission.
One candidate promoted by USC athletic officials was linked to a “250,000 signed pledge,” newly disclosed court records show, while the file for another listed a “25,000 check and more later.” A third was connected to a larger sum: “$3 mil to Men’s Golf.”
The spreadsheet and other documents illuminating the intersection of fundraising, athletics and admissions at USC were filed in federal court this week by defense attorneys for a parent accused in a college admissions bribery scandal. The records confirm anew an open secret of admissions: Colleges and universities track with zealous care the applications of children of donors and potential donors.
Prominent schools, including Harvard University and the University of Virginia, in recent years have been forced to acknowledge the practice, following the disclosure of internal records about “watch lists.” The disclosures have proved awkward for schools that want to expand outreach to students from lower-income and middle-class families whose parents did not go to college and are not in position to donate.
Universities insist that the prospect of donations does not wield undue influence and that admissions officers have the final word on who gets in.
The USC records made public Tuesday show that the admissions office at the private research university in Los Angeles rejected a fair number of special-handling applications backed by USC athletic officials. The emails in the filing “demonstrate that no Athletic Department official has the authority to compel admissions decisions,” USC said in a statement.
The records were filed in U.S. District Court in Boston by attorneys for Robert Zangrillo, a Miami businessman who has pleaded not guilty to fraud conspiracy and money-laundering conspiracy. He is one of 34 parents charged in the sprawling “Varsity Blues” scandal, which centers on a scheme orchestrated by admitted mastermind William “Rick” Singer, a California admissions consultant. He helped children of clients obtain fraudulent SAT and ACT scores and use fake athletic credentials in applications to selective universities.
Prosecutors allege that Zangrillo conspired with Singer to help one of his daughters transfer to USC as a purported recruit for the rowing team. According to an indictment, Zangrillo paid $250,000 in the alleged scheme, which included a $50,000 check to “USC Women’s Athletics” in September 2018 — after USC admitted her.
In the court filing Tuesday, Zangrillo’s attorneys argued their client had done nothing wrong or even all that unusual.
“The notion that Robert Zangrillo’s $50,000 check to USC, made after his daughter’s admission, was a ‘bribe’ is legally wrong — there was no quid pro quo corrupt agreement between Mr. Zangrillo and USC that brought this relatively ordinary gift to a university into the orbit of the federal criminal law,” the attorneys wrote. “It was a donation indistinguishable from the vast numbers of other donations by parents of students made to USC and apparently to other universities and colleges nationwide.”
Zangrillo’s attorneys obtained the USC records through pretrial discovery and are seeking further documents. USC is fighting that. “Mr. Zangrillo’s filing appears to be part of a legal and public relations strategy to divert attention from the criminal fraud for which he has been indicted by a federal grand jury,” the university said. No trial date has been set for Zangrillo.
The court records depict a relationship between admissions and athletics at USC that is sometimes cozy, sometimes arms-length. In 2014, a senior USC athletic official named Donna Heinel emailed the admission dean, Timothy E. Brunold, to promote an applicant whose family was on the radar of university officials. “Appreciate it … they came through Athletics due to father endowing our community service position for 5 mil,” Heinel wrote.
Hours later, according to the records, Brunold replied: “I have just been directed to admit this student to the spring semester. Someone on my team will put that decision on today and the ball will get rolling for her.”
Heinel, whom USC fired in March, has pleaded not guilty in the Varsity Blues case to conspiracy to commit racketeering. Brunold has not been charged.
Also in 2014, records show, Heinel emailed Brunold a “VIP list from Athletics” that included notations of “long time donors.” One VIP was so plugged in that the application received special handling, the list said, through “every code known to man.” Brunold replied: “Thank you Donna — we’ll be sure to track these and handle them with care.”
But in 2015, Brunold cautioned Heinel there were limits on what he could do. “I don’t have much maneuvering room this year,” he wrote, according to the court records. He told her that the incoming class would be smaller than in previous years and that he was seeking to maintain high SAT scores.
USC declined to make Brunold or other USC officials available for comment Wednesday. (Frederick J. Ryan Jr., publisher and chief executive of The Washington Post, is on the USC Board of Trustees.)
“The Office of Admission has no role with respect to donations — it does not track donations; it does not know how much the family of an applicant has donated; and it does not focus on donations in deciding whether to admit an applicant — including those whose applications have been marked with special interest tags,” the university said last month in a court filing.
Nina Marino, an attorney for Heinel, said Wednesday that the documents make clear “there was an aspect of USC admission that was directly linked to donations.” She added that Heinel “did not create this system” and “did nothing wrong.”
Advocates for disadvantaged students said the documents underscore a reality they have long known: The admissions process is tilted toward children of privilege. Affluent applicants can hire tutors, attend excellent high schools and take summer trips or internships. Sometimes, their parents donate to colleges they want to attend.
“It’s honestly not a surprise,” said Steve Stein, chief executive of SCS Noonan Scholars, a nonprofit group based in Los Angeles and Boston that helps talented students from low-income families connect with top colleges, including USC. “There are lots of systemic barriers and challenges our students face to getting into any of these schools. It’s unfortunate. But it’s something our students have to deal with and overcome."