Sandra Erez launches a series on the college admissions scandal with timely musings on the long-running bribery scheme that has led to the indictment of more than 50 prominent business leaders and Hollywood actors.
“Everyone has got a text these days and understands the clever stuff,” from the prize-winning Aristophanes play, “Frogs” (405 BC), referring to the audiences’ questionable level of literacy
Prologue: The Symbiosis
Democracy and theater have been inextricably intertwined since 6th century BCE, when the aristocrat Cleisthenes amended the Athenian constitution and replaced the elite tribal rulers with a lottery-based governing body. Although democracy’s true purpose was to siphon the power from highly corrupt Athenian aristocrats and divert it to the common people, it was within the context of the newly founded annual theater festival where democracy really made its stunning debut. Like budding actors waiting in the fledgling wings of the democratic stage, the citizen-spectator would emerge to play his own role in the production by serving as the conduit of communal self-awareness.
Usually taking place in March/April (that fits with our current story!) and funded by the state (that kind of fits with our story), the entire polis would come together on the side of a hill both to be entertained and to learn something through these springtime theatrical performances. Now that the citizens attending the performance were the self-same individuals in charge of enacting new laws and other state affairs, it was logical that they were invited to question the political, cultural and moral dimensions of everyday life.
Parode: The Price of Admission
Flash forward a few thousand years, and the 2019 college admissions scandals jolts the audience out of its complacency like a Zeusian thunderbolt on a clear day. Set in the tilted amphitheater of modern American life, the citizen-spectators are once again offered up a chance to reinstate the dual relationship between entertainment and education that was so precious to the Ancient Greeks. The gods have favored us and replaced the indispensable Greek chorus with a vociferous and voracious global social media playing to a Full House (pun intended). As the collective voice of anonymous citizens Twitter and titter away against a heaving backdrop of supposed morality and justice, this is Greek revival at its best! Hope those goats move and I can get a good seat…
Episode: Beware of Geeks Bearing Gifts
In the classic Greek plays, tragic characters often suffer and die – either for crimes they unwittingly commit or owing to a family curse they must bear. In the case of this college admissions scandal (dubbed by the FBI as “Operation Varsity Blues”), it would be a herculean stretch to call this scandal a tragedy. After all, our protagonist, William (Rick) Singer, was happily enjoying the life of a Greek god, gallivanting on Mount Olympus alongside his highfalutin supporting cast – all of them sipping from the grapes of wrath. Sensing fertile ground for quick profit, the main protagonist hatches a plot to defraud college admissions via well-placed satyrs who are either looking to get their offspring into the best schools or become as rich as Hades. As Act 1 rolls into Act 2, test scores are fraudulently inflated, coaches are bribed and undeserving feet step over ivy-covered thresholds. By the time Act 3 rolls around, a sordid tale of conspiracy, fraud, bribery and money laundering has played out to the staggering tune of over $25 million, involving 11 universities and 750 families. As classic Greek drama would have it, fate intervened and brought about their swift downfall from grace, with indictments of more than 50 people – among them parents, prominent business people and star-studded actors. It seems that as the lid sprung open from Pandora’s box, it succeeded in unceremoniously bringing the curtain down before the final act was done.
Stasimon: It’s All Greek to Me
The ancient Greek philosophers who sowed the seeds for Western intellectual thinking were well-aware of the fragility of human truths in a dynamic universe. So why does this drama shock? Watching the gleeful spectators cheer when yet another bunch of elites fall from grace, one would think the vast majority of our moral and ethical population was fast asleep, snugly tucked in their dorm beds – while one lone mad genius was burning the midnight oil, disproving the simple mathematical equation: hard work plus perseverance equals a college education. Remember that pearl of wisdom? The stark truth is that society was, is and always will be afloat in a murky sea of corruption and wrongdoing – making it the individual’s choice to take the moral high ground (or not). If the tragic flaws of hubris and arrogance are inherent to human nature, is anyone safe? I’d better consult my Varsity Blues playbook.
Lesson #1: History Repeats Itself Ad Nauseum
Operation Varsity Blues is not shocking because it involves crimes and wrongdoing, but because it shatters the deep-seated illusion that some values (and people) would always be held sacred. The pursuit of education has always been considered a lofty goal and is expected to carry with it the utmost esteem and honor.
But academia has not been immune from the same unethical behavior that has hit the rest of modern society – it has just been harder to speak out against the powerful and monolithic forces cemented into the brick walls of the alma mater. For years now, university leaders – including coaches and support staff – have been accused of lacking moral standards evidenced by numerous scandals where protocol is sent in shame to the back of the class so that opportunity can claim the prized front seat. Equating morality with intellect will no longer make the grade – not in academia, nor in corporate business or even charitable, nonprofit organizations. The song of the “sirens” has shattered that myth and dashed it to pieces on the rocks.
Compliance Takeaway: Make sure you have a clear picture of reality in your organization via empirical software solutions that reflect what’s going on beneath the surface. For example, a whistleblowing portal solution or incident management system that is open to everyone for submissions. If you can’t perceive what is happening because there is no integrated, safe reporting solution, you also won’t be able to use the lessons and experience of the past to shape the future.
Lesson #2: Mathematics – Irrational Numbers can be Dangerous
Rick Singer, the mastermind behind this collegiate scam, had a thriving business going. He managed to convince parents to pay him ridiculous sums of money to help their children cheat on the SATs and even more irrational sums of money to bribe coaches to get those kids into the college of their choice. He never thought he would get caught – even though he left a trail of evidence brighter than Hermes. While laughing at admission boards’ stupidity, he was able to convince his bribe givers and takers that “everyone cheats – regular families, and everyday people, like me and you.” Out of the mouths of babes. The culprit that admitted Rick to the school of hard knocks, was not the FBI, but another fellow cheater and friend, Morrie Tobin. A financier, Tobin was under investigation in a securities fraud case and was previously approached by Singer to see if his services could be of assistance. Desperate to reduce his jail time, Tobin was able to temper his own irrational numbers by “singing” to the federal authorities. Irony at its best.
Reminiscent of jolly old ancient times, it brings to mind the tale of Hippasus, Pythagorus’ faithful disciple who in reality, was not so faithful. Hippasus worked tirelessly to disprove his master’s theorem that all numbers can be expressed as a ratio of integers. And one day, lo and behold, while blasting the whole number ratio theorem to hell, Hippasus was credited with discovering irrational numbers. Sorry, Pythagorus. However, it should be mentioned that owing to lack of an active witness protection program, Hippasus was rumored to have been drowned at sea. His heretical challenge was apparently too much for the ruling academic authorities.
Compliance Takeaway: Have a code of conduct in place that is staunch and clear enough to defray any attempts at a general lowering of values/ethics because “everyone is doing it.”
Second Takeaway: Watch for irrational numbers in every area of the organization, and make sure the ruling authorities have someone watching them as well. Irrational ain’t irrational for nothing, so get to the root of things.
Lesson #3: Comparative Literature – Tales of Woe from Ancient Greece to Modern Sicily
Back in the days when classical Greek drama was watched raptly by sandaled crowds, it was the job of the Greek chorus to loudly express a range of emotions and make snide comments relating to the moral issues of the day playing out onstage. Now that we have social media taking over that coveted role of verbose judge and jury – not much has changed – tweeters are calling for heads to roll and hemlock to be drunk by the highest officials. After all, racketeering, wire and mail fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice is not usually a degree one expects to earn in the pursuit of higher education.
Gasp!!! went the chorus.
But seriously, anyone familiar with mafia prosecution cases would know that a piece of U.S. legislation is in place to combat bribery and corruption, even in erudite areas of society. Enacted in 1970 and signed by Richard Nixon (talk about a Greek tragedy), RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, was originally used to prosecute organized crime such as the Italian Mafia. Over the years, it took on a wider application in the lofty interest of inclusion: extending the national palette from blue collar crime to white. So, with enough evidence in hand, it was inevitable that the long arm of RICO would manage to reach into the musty nooks and crannies of the college spires without ever having to step foot in the admissions office.
Compliance Takeaway: Don’t wait to implement compliance-related training until you suspect someone is cooking the books (anti-bribery, corruption, money laundering, etc.). If training is already implemented, make sure it is compelling and relevant, with real-life examples, not just dry legislation to read and tick the box. Anywhere there is people, there is greed – so at least know your risks and what they will cost you in the end. As said in the famous Greek tragedy Medea, “It’s human, we all put self-interest first.”
Exode/Closing Act: Hubris and Pathos – College Roommates Forever
Now, while the marathon of Varsity Blues cases march to court, we see not much has changed since ancient days. True, classic Greek plays have given way to multimedia true crime mega productions, but human avarice and intrigue still draw the crowds. I can only imagine that Netflix is already working on this school-bribery-sports-crime series with a cast of well-known characters and plenty of on-and-off the court drama. Yet no matter how entertaining the series will be, for most of us, it will be a bitter pill to swallow.
Maybe I will just calm myself down by paraphrasing Rick Singer in a 2010 reality TV video about cutthroat college admissions: “…It’s just a game, that’s all it is.” But for those of us abiding by the rules in the playbook, it’s way worse than that. It’s a sham with no winners and little poetic justice. The only remnant that remains is hubris and pathos… and once again, the power of governing back with the elite members of society.
P.S, I only hope that if Cleisthenes is rolling in his grave, he has a good view of the amphitheater…