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Not Just a Few Bad Apples?

Are we so distracted by the salacious details of the recent admissions scandals that we are overlooking the institutional failures that allowed them to happen?

The scandal’s toxic brew of tabloid ingredients (celebrities, money, fraud, athletics) has stirred up public discussion of all sorts of issues with higher education, most of which involve the dubious morality of different types of privilege and influence in admissions decisions. Athletic ability, charitable donations, legacy status, high-priced private counselors, expensive SAT prep tutoring, merit aid vs. need-based aid - - all are legitimate subjects for criticism and debate, and have been widely discussed. In an ideal world, students with talent and a strong work ethic would have access to educational opportunities best fitted to their interests and abilities, regardless of their ability to pay. We don’t live in that ideal world. We should still strive for it.

But let’s think about the institutional failures that permitted the current scandal to occur. It’s wrong to falsify student credentials – whether that means fabricating an athletic resume or fixing SAT or ACT test results. Agreed? Let’s stipulate that the alleged behaviors of the accused coaches, athletic directors, college counselors, and test-score manipulators are despicable, as are those of the parents who purchased their services and of the students who played along with their schemes. As a long-time college administrator, however, I have to wonder if arrogance, complacency, and systemic failures aren’t also factors in creating this mess.

Several of the institutions involved in this scandal (including my own alma mater) were quick to insist that they were the victims of these frauds – and to some extent I suppose this is true. But surely they are also culpable for creating and tolerating an admissions process so easily corrupted by what (so far) seem to be a few bad apples. How is it possible that supposedly sophisticated and complex institutions – among the best in the world – could delegate such fundamentally important decisions with such sweeping reputational implications to a coach – or to any other single individual? Any credible system of internal controls would demand multiple levels of applicant review, just as a comptroller’s office would require at least two signatures for major financial transactions. The managers of standardized testing services are equally remiss. It beggars belief that a few rogue actors could profit so easily and handsomely from system failures without being detected by internal controls.

Within days of the scandal’s arrival on the front pages, I received communications from two college and university presidents informing their communities of next steps.

The first, and most reassuring, (from David Greene of Colby College) made it clear that no applicant is admitted without at least two admissions officers reviewing their dossier. When I worked at Colby (and other institutions) I know that applications were reviewed and decisions made by a committee. Such a system may not be foolproof, but it is pretty darn close.

The second institution’s president said that the University had hired an independent investigator to conduct a thorough review of the systems, policies, and processes that had allowed fraudulent credentials to tip the scales for candidates. This seems to be the best next step given the circumstances, but would it have been necessary if the university had been at least minimally diligent in the first place? Importantly, such an independent investigation can illuminate the possibility that there are more bad actors in the system. If this turns out to be the case, the reputational damage to the institution will be even greater.

When I served as President of Muhlenberg College, the board and I devoted extraordinary time and attention to issues of risk management, compliance and internal systems. At the time, I thought it was overkill. Now I realize that it was an essential investment in the College’s reputation for integrity and academic quality.

I suspect that we will be hearing more sordid revelations about this issue in the weeks and months to come. I hope I am wrong.

Did you hear from the leadership of your institutions about how they are addressing these issues? I hope you will share what you have learned, and would love to hear your comments on this post.