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How Higher Ed Institutions Can Respond to “Operation Varsity Blues”

Heather Salko, Esq.
October 2020
Measures to prevent an admissions scandal like “Operation Varsity Blues”

In March 2019, the FBI revealed an investigation into a college admissions scheme where parents paid to have SAT scores altered or falsified athletics credentials to gain their child’s admission to elite universities. About 50 arrests were announced, including the alleged “ringleader,” a private admissions counselor who created the scheme, handled test altering, and bribed athletics coaches and administrators.

The scandal associated with “Operation Varsity Blues” is expected to have long-term impacts on institutions and their admissions practices. To ensure your college or university takes measures to prevent similar fraud, consider the following actions.

Admissions Practices

When conducting a comprehensive audit of your admissions process:

  • Review the process from beginning to end. Closely review document security (to be sure nothing can be altered) and decision-making. Hire an outside firm or consultant to test for vulnerabilities.
  • Scrutinize admissions decision-points and examine who has influence over individual decisions. Require the agreement of more than one decision-maker at these crucial points.
  • Identify situations or activities — beyond athletics — that receive special admissions considerations. Examples may include your orchestra or theater program. Observe how decisions are made and reviewed by the admissions department and senior administrators. Take steps to ensure a powerful coach or staff member doesn’t wield unchecked influence over the admissions process. Evaluate whether special considerations should continue or how to strengthen controls.
  • Review whether your application requires a separate attestation — beyond what the Common App requires — regarding truthfulness of the application and supporting materials. Specifically reserve the right to rescind admission if you find that an applicant submitted false or fraudulent materials. (Also determine whether your student discipline policy lets you discipline a student who lied during the admissions process but has since matriculated.) If you later discover that some admissions material was falsified, the attestation and disciplinary policy may provide the ability to rescind an admission or discipline a student. Schools involved in Operation Varsity Blues dismissed students who participated.
  • Follow a process when seeking to rescind admission or dismiss any student you determine participated in a fraudulent admissions scheme. Dismissed students sued seeking to take disciplinary action.

Athletics Recruiting

Because of the scheme’s focus on fraudulent athletic recruiting, conduct a separate review of athletics department recruiting processes. Coaches are often granted significant latitude in recruiting student-athletes. Add safeguards such as:

  • Require that more than one decision-maker vet and approve recruits to determine if they meet team needs and playing level. Also, decision-makers should include someone who is not that team’s head coach or assistant coach.
  • Conduct a comprehensive review of Athletic department compliance policies and follow up to address deficiencies. Demonstrating that you take all aspects of compliance seriously will discourage employees from attempting to skirt your system.
  • Review department personnel to identify vulnerable or disgruntled employees. Some coaches implicated in the scandal received significant monetary bribes. Those coaches or other personnel who are lower-paid or unhappy in their positions may be more vulnerable to exploitation.
  • Identify instances of athletic recruits not practicing with or competing on the teams for which they were recruited. While that fact itself is not unusual, a comprehensive review may reveal troubling patterns that should be investigated.

Employee Policies

Review personnel handbooks and policies, paying close attention to codes of ethics and prohibitions against illegal or fraudulent behavior. Also review your protections for whistleblowing.

  • Consider strengthening or directly addressing fraud.
  • Review and revise, if necessary, policy language on employees accepting gifts or donations.
  • Consider your mechanism for fielding anonymous complaints or concerns. Some employees may be reluctant to come forward about wrongdoing by powerful coaches or other figures.
  • Ensure your institution has qualified investigators at the ready if you receive reports of admissions or other recruiting irregularities.

Crisis Communications

Create a plan for responding if your institution is named in a corruption scheme.

  • Review your crisis communications plan. Specifically consider how your institution will communicate the actions it has taken to address admissions process vulnerabilities.
  • Consider how your institution would respond to reports that admitted or current students (or their parents) participated in the scheme. While privacy law will limit what you can say about individuals, be prepared to field questions about how your institution intends to address allegations of wrongdoing.

Train

Regardless of whether you make changes to policies or procedures, conduct training for the admissions department, advancement, athletics, and other constituencies that may exert special pressure on your admissions process. Training should cover your institution’s admissions process and policies as well as employee ethics and behavior policies and expected practices.

  • Set the tone from the top. Begin with a message from your President that clearly sets expectations: (1) the admissions process will be conducted with integrity; (2) improper, unethical, or illegal behavior will not be tolerated; and (3) employees will be disciplined appropriately for policy violations.
  • Detail admissions policies; relevant athletics policies, or policies on recruiting other “special category” students; employee rules, ethics requirements, and expected behavior; and how to report concerns or suspected policy violations.

 

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Beware Retaliation Against Whistleblowers

Additional Resources

Harvard Graduate School: Education Report on Admissions