Wealthy and famous institutions of higher learning, including the one where I work, are in a crisis of their own making. Universities exist for the production and dissemination of ideas, and make hiring and admission decisions toward that end. At the same time, elite educational institutions have irresponsibly positioned themselves as something entirely different: as the arbiters of applicants’ intrinsic merit. Like a soccer team scoring an own goal, they are hurting themselves with their clumsiness and overconfidence.
Soccer is the right analogy, as it happens. This week, the U.S. Justice Department unveiled 50 indictments in a brazen bribery scheme that, according to prosecutors, involved kickbacks to athletics coaches at Stanford, the University of Southern California, and a number of other competitive schools. At Yale, where I am on the faculty and supervise one of the undergraduate colleges, the former women’s soccer coach, who resigned in November, has pleaded guilty to wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. He had sought to arrange the admission of two would-be Yalies in return for cash.
The athletics bribery scandal is only the most recent embarrassing episode regarding university admissions. A trial over affirmative action at Harvard last fall revealed a number of awkward undergraduate-admissions policies, including “tips” for applicants with connections, a “dean’s interest list” for applicants with even more connections, and substantial traffic between the university’s fundraising office and its admissions department. In 2016, the basketball coach of the University of Pennsylvania pleaded guilty to engaging in essentially the same kind of bribery scheme federal officials have now uncovered again. (He now serves as the assistant basketball coach of the Boston Celtics.)