Admissions Scandal Hits Close to Home

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The historic Healy Building on the main campus of Georgetown University, one of the schools affected by the FBI investigation. Courtesy Georgetown University.

Both residents of and visitors to Georgetown are used to thinking of the historic, upscale village of ours as a somewhat leafy place, quiet and safely removed from the roaring storms of divisiveness, controversy and scandal that roil the rest of the country.

In recent months, these controversies have had a common denominator. They are swirling around the nation’s foundational institutions: the practice of our electoral politics, our frameworks of organized religion (in particular the Catholic Church) and our systems of public education and higher learning.

Earlier this week, the front pages of the country’s newspapers and the lead stories on national and local television news, not to mention the buzz on the social media, were all about … college admissions.

What appears to be a major scandal has a mastermind and string-puller at its center and comprises a host of wealthy parents — celebrities, quasi-celebrities (like actress Felicity Huffman and former television star Lori Loughlin) and others willing to pay big money of the bribery sort to get their kids in the highest of higher education institutions.

It involves complicated schemes centering around athletics at schools including the University of Southern California, UCLA, Stanford, the University of Texas and Yale.

And it has ensnared Georgetown University, in the person of Gordon Ernst, a former university tennis coach who has been, according to reports, charged with racketeering and conspiracy. Ernst is said to have pocketed $2.7 million during his tenure, mainly for designating students as recruits for the Georgetown tennis team to facilitate admission to the university, according to the Georgetown Voice.

In a letter to the Georgetown University community dated March 12, Lisa Brown, the university’s vice president and general counsel, and Erik Smulson, vice president and senior advisor to the president, wrote:

“Mr. Ernst has not coached our tennis team since December 2017, when he was placed on leave after the Office of Undergraduate Admissions identified irregularities in his recruitment practices and the University initiated an internal investigation. The investigation found that Mr. Ernst had violated University rules concerning admissions, and he separated from the University in 2018. The University was not aware of any alleged criminal activity or acceptance of bribes by Mr. Ernst until it was later contacted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, with whom we fully cooperated in its investigation. Mr. Ernst’s alleged actions are shocking, highly antithetical to our values, and violate numerous University policies and ethical standards.

“Now that the government’s investigation has detailed the extent of the alleged fraud, we are reviewing the details of the indictment and will be taking appropriate action. We have no indication that any other Georgetown employees were involved.”

At all the schools, a total of 50 people — 33 parents plus coaches and others — have been charged in what was described as a bribery scam, initiated by one William Singer, described by the Washington Post as “the scheme’s chief architect” and “a well-connected college admissions adviser.”

The charges were announced by U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling in what the FBI named “Operation Varsity Blues.” The scheme included falsifying records, admission information and test results, as well as designating students to be athletes when they were not.

More indictments and charges are expected in what remains an ongoing investigation, apparently unprecedented in its scale and scope.

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