On March 12, Operation Varsity Blues exposed your run-of-the-mill C-list celebrities, financiers, Division 1 coaches and educational consultants as a motley coterie of fraudsters and racketeers that spun a scheme of idiotic deceit all because some parents wanted their unqualified kids to attend some elite universities and said “sure, let’s commit some crimes.” This may read like a tabloid-ready tale with a week-long shelf life at the grocery store checkout line, but it is a complex narrative that fuses the sad state of American public life with the rot of self-entitlement and the deterioration of elite apparatuses: This is a scandal befitting our time.
We are living in a renaissance of the American scam. Large-scale scams, from Bernie Madoff’s infamous Ponzi scheme to the dumpster fire of Fyre Festival, regularly captivate the collective American conscience while perpetually dominating social media feeds and news cycles. Meanwhile, more quotidian scams, like mounting credit card fraud to Nigerian prince solicitations, are normative aspects of the digital age. At the gravitational center of the college admission scams is a zeitgeist of corrupted capitalism and a status-driven economy enabled by technological disruption. Reality distortion tools like Instagram have fueled the murky influencer ecosystem, turning an anybody into a somebody one #sponsorship and VSCO filter at a time. Get-rich-quick tech methods like cryptocurrency initial coin offerings are notoriously fraud-prone but attract billions in funding. The most fitting emblem of this moment is the snake oil salesman sitting in the Oval Office. This portrait of scam renders core tenets of the idealized American ethos — hard work, merit and respect for the rules — as optional. The question is: optional for whom?
Perhaps it’s not so much a question of who rather than what lead such behavior to become available to some people. This phenomenon of self-entitlement is fundamentally rooted in inherent human inequity; those who are of greater worth as defined by the social metrics of the time are enabled to believe they are deserving of such worth and more. Over the millennia, every major economic and technological revolution has exacerbated this pre-existing stratification of human society. From the first divisions of labor along the ancient shores of the Tigris and Euphrates to the Second Industrial Revolution, each round of labor and class segmentation driven by economic development further stratified disparities of wealth and social capital that translate into inequities of power and access.
The current iteration of society in the United States is a direct descendant of this legacy. Deeply widening disparities in health, wealth and education outcomes reinforce notions of worthiness and deservingness by virtue of privilege in class, race and geography. And it is by virtue of such privilege that the switch flips for some of its recipients: The dictum of “because of I earned it” is corrupted into “because I can.”
The elitist system enables this rot. As a beneficiary of this system, I’ve seen firsthand in my home community and social circles how it allows for gross self-entitlement to persist beyond the headlines: ghostwritten personal statements on college applications, dropped DUI charges, covered up assault. Elitist scamming and grifting is a flagrant dismissal of social ethics and a betrayal of the people who play by the rules and earn their way regardless of where they start.
The college admissions scandal perpetrators are cheats whose actions most heinously undermine the actual merits of families and students — true scholars, athletes and artists of authenticity — that are where they are because of what they achieved. As a former college athlete, it is demeaning to hear your sport — a lifelong passion and dedication — be dragged through this scandal and degraded as a boutique activity because a spineless coach sold out the sport’s reputation to line his pockets from parents of silverspooned YouTubers. It is no surprise that the backlash of elitist structures and the people who abuse them is a global cause célèbre. Changes are needed at the top, but rooting out elite corruption starts first by forcing accountability and excision.
The indictments and complaints against fifty people charged in the largest college admissions bribery scandal in United States history is a start. There cannot be selectively applied legal and ethical codes in our criminal justice system based on status or class — equal protection means equal treatment. The people who are unfortunate witnesses must speak truth to power and reject association, even at risk of personal alienation. Institutions, particularly those of higher education (University included) and business firms, must improve their due diligence in verifying qualifications and holding accountable those who commit fraud. The scam against American norms stops when principled ethics and honest work are celebrated while those who cheat and abuse the system are exposed; let’s get to work.
Reid Secondo ’16 GS can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.