The scandal around rich people buying college admissions for their underqualified children is disgusting and disheartening for everyone, but especially for those of us who teach and study at universities. My own University of Southern California is described as the “epicenter” of a crisis involving bribes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. While it is tempting to say that the scandal involves only nefarious individuals, and that we can address the problem with a fine tuning of the bureaucracy, the problem is much deeper. There is an illness in higher education, and its name is corruption.
Corruption, in its most effective version, is an open secret — the “old boys’ club,” the “smoke-filled room” or the “network.” We accept that this is the way things are, until a brazenly illegal act of corruption exposes the status quo of legalized corruption. This is what has happened with the bribery scandal, which is only a symptom of an illness that has grown deeper and more pervasive over the past few decades in academia. Treating the symptom without understanding the illness will cure nothing.
Universities are noble enterprises built on the basis of the pursuit of truth and knowledge. But like all of our most noble enterprises, universities can be undermined by our own weaknesses, our susceptibility to temptation. In this case, the temptation comes from too much money and its attendant pathologies: greed, power, status and celebrity. I am proud to be a professor at USC, where the faculty and students are impressive, competitive and ambitious — and where the school has made efforts to work with the local community, providing admissions for neighborhood students and committing to socioeconomic diversity among its students. But USC is also close to Hollywood and the celebrity culture captured by one of the students, an Instagram “influencer” with 1.3 million followers, ensnared by the Varsity Blues scandal. (She had said online that she found school boring and looked forward only to the football games and the parties, suggesting that to her and other elite students, universities are merely finishing schools and vanity projects.)
And USC suffers from the same desire to climb the rankings as other schools, which drives it to raise billions in a fundraising arms race. The rankings also reward “selectivity,” which is why schools try to gain as many applicants as possible, knowing that they will reject most. No wonder parents are desperate enough about the admissions system to reach for various forms of corruption: coaching (expensive), bribery (even more expensive, and obviously illegal), and the ultimate power play, the massive donation (the priciest, the most visible, the most lauded and therefore the most acceptable form of corruption).
In this way, universities are no different from those of us who obsess over our personal rankings: How many Twitter followers we have, how many views on YouTube and, in this case, the prestige of our degrees. The mania about status is a marker of our new Gilded Age, one based on a star system. In this winner-take-all society, stars are overpaid and the rest are underpaid. Billionaires are the celebrities, the millionaires service the billionaires, the middle class shrinks and desperately tries to retain its status and the poor watch with ever increasing resentment at the spectacle of the rich rewarding the rich. The parents who bribed the coaches understand this and want every possible edge for their children. Even the parents who follow the official process increasingly think of themselves and their children as consumers.
Relegating the noble goals of knowledge and truth to a secondary status after the pursuit of money and consumption has led to the university’s corruption. Universities protest that they do believe in higher values. But who is naive enough to believe that a school cares more for these than for the football team, when the football coach is the highest-paid employee of the university (as is the case at Stanford, University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Texas at Austin, three of the universities involved in the admissions scandal)? Likewise, who believes that the billionaire donor who gives hundreds of millions to name a building or a school for himself really cares more for the educational mission than for his vanity?
This is why corruption in America’s university system cannot be addressed purely by reform (although that would be a start). The system is shaped by outside influences like celebrity, power, money and spectacular entertainment. So what can administrators, and all those whose lives intersect with higher education, do to meaningfully change their schools in the new Gilded Age? Here are a few paths:
First, acknowledge that the problem of corruption even exists. Adding more layers of bureaucracy with ethics and compliance officers is merely playing whack-a-mole. The patient will not be cured until the patient admits to the illness that can be treated. This extends from university presidents to boards of trustees to each and every one of us who benefits in some way from the corruption, including administrators, full-time faculty, alumni and students.
Second, increase transparency and expand democratic governance, because corruption grows in darkness and secrecy. This would mean reforming boards of trustees so that they are not composed purely of the corporate class of billionaires and millionaires. Including faculty, students, staff and community members as trustees would help to ensure that fiduciary and administrative responsibilities are more democratic. As for university management, faculty, staff and students are often sidelined in favor of a professional, nonacademic class of bureaucrats. But the excluded people are the heart of the university, and they need to serve on committees, have oversight responsibilities and help determine university policy and direction through empowered academic senates (at my alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley, undergraduates can serve on university administrative committees, and the UC system has a student regent on its Board of Regents). When faculty, staff and students aren’t allowed to serve, they feel powerless and have no incentive to do things like report on corruption and abuse.
Third, university presidents must take the lead in negotiating an arms treaty. Universities are held hostage by magazine and other rankings, which drives them to practices like artificially inflating the competitiveness of their admissions systems. Universities should uniformly refuse to participate. By giving the ranking systems information, universities aid in their own commodification.
Fourth, star donors should stop paying for gigantic edifices. Instead, they should donate their money to scholarships for students in need. This will have much more human impact, whereas everyone knows the edifices are, at their foundation, about ego and reputation.
Fifth, get big money out of college sports. The bribery scandal revolves around minor sports, but major sports like football and basketball have regularly led to various ethical collapses in the past few decades, like the protection of football and the legacy of Joe Paterno over the lives of children at Penn State, or the “epidemic of academic fraud” involving athletes at more than a dozen universities. Sports have a noble place at a school where the Greek ideal is to test both body and mind. But big money has corrupted bodies and minds, too, pressing unpaid players toward injury while denying them full access to an education. This is where alumni and students are implicated. Too many of them treat big money sports as a religion, enabling rot within the university. “That rot,” sportswriter Dave Zirin tells me, “is expressed most clearly in the taking in of billions of revenue for football and basketball while predominantly black athletes are left holding an empty bag.” The head coaches in the five major college athletic conferences earn more than their schools spend on all athletic scholarships combined.
Sixth, taxpayers should agree to be taxed enough to benefit education at all levels, including higher education. Overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges in the 2017 school year was nearly $9 billion below its 2008 level, after adjusting for inflation. Public universities have had to increase tuition and pursue donors, leading to all the problems that elite private universities have. If taxpayers are upset at seeing the rich buy college seats, legally or illegally, they need to recognize that they have abdicated their collective responsibility by not demanding greater public support for a more equitable and just educational system. Falling public support for higher education is a cost that is transferred to students, who have reduced access to education, are burdened with greater debt loads and are increasingly taught by poorly paid adjunct (nonpermanent) faculty who make up more than 70 percent of college teachers.
Seventh, students and parents should stop seeing themselves as consumers and universities as brands with luxury amenities. Universities are spending enormous amounts of money on ever more spectacular dorms, restaurants, recreational centers and the like, responding to the marketplace of consumption. Students walk away with huge debts that have financed these luxuries, which have nothing to do with education. Universities should do their part and stop providing these luxuries, even at the cost of not attracting as many students. Parents and students who complain about rising university costs should know that they are complicit when they demand frills that have nothing to do with education.
Eighth, reduce costs and pass the benefits to students. Presidents, the managerial class and faculty stars are overpaid (I speak as one who has entered this stratum in the past couple of years). The accelerating costs of tuition are related to how universities have added layers of management and pursued expensive faculty. What if — allow me this fantasy — a university’s president, senior administrators and full professors agreed to a 10 percent cut in salary, all of which would go to fund scholarships for needy students? Perhaps such a powerful symbolic move by the most rewarded stratum in a university is unlikely in a capitalist marketplace. And yet we have the example of Gregory Fenves, who turned down a $1 million salary to become president of UT Austin, accepting $750,000 instead. That is still a great deal of money. But we live in a capitalist system where we value getting the most money we can, rather than being happy with enough money. That, too, is a kind of corruption we pass on to students, who are smart enough to watch what we do and not just listen to what we say. And we — the adults — have not done enough.
Finally, after admitting to corruption, university leadership should take the lead and do what the faculty have demanded for years: Commit universities, first and foremost, above money, reputation or ranking, to their noble mission, the light of which still remains, the pursuit of truth and knowledge. We cannot be resigned to less.