“It’s not what you are that counts, but what people think you are.”
Historians attribute those words of wisdom to Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., father of President John F. Kennedy and Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy. And they explain to a great degree the Kennedy family’s use of press agents and public relations consultants to construct and present to the world a fabricated and misleading image of itself.
In 1940, John Kennedy’s senior thesis at Harvard, after an extensive and anonymous rewrite by journalist Arthur Krock, became a published best seller titled Why England Slept. In 1957, Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for writing Profiles in Courage even though ample evidence existed that the book was primarily composed by his speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, and a professor at Georgetown University who once taught Jacqueline Kennedy.
As president, he was able to pose — with the abundant help of a compliant and willfully blind media — as a devoted husband and father presiding over Camelot on the Potomac despite the fact that he was known to be a voracious and reckless philanderer whose unhinged satyriasis and sense of entitlement and invincibility resulted in his sharing a mistress with Chicago mob boss Sam “Momo” Giancana.
In 1951, Ted Kennedy, the future Liberal Lion of the Senate, was expelled from Harvard after he was caught arranging for a friend to take a Spanish test in his place. Since the Korean War was underway, and he had lost his student draft deferment, Ted enlisted in the Army for four years. His father got the enlistment reduced to two years and had Ted assigned to a ceremonial honor guard at NATO headquarters in Paris. After returning from Europe, he was readmitted to and graduated from Harvard.
In July 1969, at Chappaquiddick Island, then Senator Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge into the water. Leaving his passenger, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne in the car, he swam to safety and did not report the accident until ten hours later. The delay eliminated any chance of rescue and survival of Ms. Kopechne. Faced with the senator’s likely criminal prosecution, the Kennedy family advisers and public relations strategists closed ranks and helped him obfuscate the damning facts and spin his way to political salvation.
I cannot help but think of the Kennedys’ sordid history, their fictitious achievements and fabricated public personae as I read the media’s fulminations and cries of moral outrage over the recent federal indictments of two Hollywood actresses and other wealthy parents who paid a corrupt college admissions company to help their children cheat their way into universities such as Stanford, Yale, and my alma mater, Georgetown. The scheme involved payoffs to proctors of the college SAT and ACT boards who provided correct answers and assistance during the testing procedures. Payoffs were also made to university coaches and athletic directors who used their recruiting authority to secure acceptance of students who had been provided with fake athletic records. According to the indictments, the defendants’ children were falsely portrayed as either accomplished scholars or gifted athletes or both.
If these allegations are true, then it appears that the defendants have taken a well-worn short cut to success. As the Kennedys so amply demonstrated, the use of phony credentials, fake achievements, and outright deception is a proven means of successful self-promotion.
To date fifty individuals have been charged. But the prospect looms of more indictments to come. Media reports indicate that approximately 800 families used the corrupt college entrance company to place their children at various schools. Presumably those parents and anyone affiliated with those corrupt placements will be investigated and arrested.
In addition, there is potential trouble ahead for the institutions identified in the indictments. For example, did the charged coaches and athletic directors act alone or were they abetted by others at their schools? Are those already charged in a position to trade information about the knowledge and participation of admissions officers and others in return for prosecutorial leniency?
Following the indictment of Georgetown University’s tennis coach Gordon Ernst, a university spokesman wrote, “Ernst has not coached our tennis team since December 2017, following an internal investigation that found he had violated University rules concerning admissions.”
Later, Georgetown issued another statement that the “Admissions Office discovered irregularities in the athletic credentials of students who were being recruited to play tennis. This triggered Mr. Ernst being put on leave in Dec. 2017, an internal investigation, and Mr. Ernst’s separation with (sic) the University in 2018.”
The statement said that the internal investigation was conducted to “determine why students who were not tennis players had been admitted to Georgetown through Ernst.” It described Ernst’s alleged criminal acts as “an unprecedented breach of trust” and stated that the school “cooperated fully with the government’s investigation.”
But when Ernst’s resignation was announced on July 1, 2018, Georgetown issued a press release expressing gratitude “for the many efforts Gordie has made over the years to create a first class tennis program at the University, both athletically and academically.” It made no mention of any misconduct, and remained on the Georgetown Athletics website until this week when the indictments were made public.
Shortly after Ernst’s resignation, the University of Rhode Island hired him to coach its tennis team. But when the indictments were announced this week, URI placed Ernst on administrative leave and announced that, before it had hired Ernst, URI’s athletic director “personally called Georgetown’s athletic director in July 2018 and received a positive reference check from him.” In short, Georgetown appears to have engaged in a deliberate cover up that allowed Ernst to potentially continue the recruiting scam elsewhere.
So Georgetown has some explaining to do starting with what did Georgetown know, and when did it know it? How did the university learn of the irregularities that led to Ernst being investigated? What did Georgetown’s internal investigation find? How did Ernst get away with recruiting fake athletes? Were other Georgetown employees involved in the scam? When Ernst was caught, was he questioned about his motive for recruiting unqualified athletes? If so, what was his explanation for why he, the tennis coach who presumably wanted to produce a winning team, had recruited tennis players who didn’t play tennis? Were the unqualified student athletes and their parents questioned? Did Ernst disclose compromising or embarrassing information about others who may have been involved? Why did the university publicly and meretriciously praise Ernst when he departed, and why did Georgetown’s athletic director give URI a positive reference for Ernst?
And, most importantly, why didn’t Georgetown proactively and on its own initiative report Ernst to law enforcement? In its public statements, Georgetown claims that it didn’t become aware of Ernst’s “criminality” until it was contacted by the Justice Department. But in light of its internal investigation and termination of Ernst’s employment, that claim stretches credulity to the breaking point.
It is only fair to note that Georgetown may not be unique among the institutions named but not charged in the indictments. But the other universities certainly have some explaining to do and some serious questions to answer about how they unwittingly or otherwise allowed the scamsters to operate on their campuses.
The ongoing criminal investigation and coming indictments are just the beginning of the schools’ difficulties. As night follows day, two civil lawsuits have been filed against the universities named in the indictments.
In the first case, Stanford students Erica Olsen and Kalea Woods have filed a $5 million class action against Georgetown, Yale, Stanford, USC, Wake Forest and other universities claiming they never would have incurred the cost of applying to those schools if they had known their admissions processes were “rigged by fraud.”
Olsen also alleges that she “did not receive what she paid for — a fair admissions consideration process.”
Woods alleges that the USC admissions process was “an unfair, rigged process, in which parents could buy their way into the university through bribery and dishonest schemes.”
Both plaintiffs claim their Stanford degrees have been devalued by the cheating scandal because potential employers may question whether the plaintiffs were admitted to Stanford on merit or for having rich parents.
In addition, a California parent has filed a $500 billion lawsuit claiming her son was denied admission by some universities because the indicted wealthy parents believed it was “OK to lie, cheat, steal and bribe their children’s way into a good college.”
The legal theories underlying these lawsuits appear to be shaky at best, but those civil actions come on the heels of the indictments, the continuing criminal investigation as well as an already pending action by Asian-American applicants who were denied admission to Harvard. The confluence of these civil and criminal actions combined with the prospect of more indictments and lawsuits to come has the potential for creating a perfect legal storm which could result in highly damaging and embarrassing discovery and disclosure of the policies, criteria, and practices by which the admissions committees at the sued universities decide which applicants will be accepted and which will be rejected.
If that happens and the outside world gets to see how the academic sausage factories really operate, the devastation to the higher education business model may be so profound as to hasten the already approaching day when the ruinously expensive and technologically antiquated bricks and mortar four-year college goes the way of the dinosaur.
George Parry is a former federal and state prosecutor who practices law in Philadelphia. He is a regular contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer and blogs at knowledgeisgood.net. He may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.