How Operation Varsity Blues Exposes the “Side Door” Accessible to the Privileged (White) Few
Image Source: Getty / Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe
Netflix’s Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal has further exposed the largest college admissions scandal to date, bringing attention to the pervasive nature of how rich, primarily white parents schemed a system that was already skewed in favour of their children. Education is perceived as the great equalizer within society, but Rick Singer’s “side door” for the wealthy serves as another example of how money and power create more inequities on an already unlevel playing field.
Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal shines a harsh light on Singer (played by Matthew Modine). The mastermind and orchestrator of the scheme, Singer networked with parents who were willing to do anything to get their children into top-notch colleges and universities. In a press release, writer and producer Jon Karmen stated, “It was interesting to learn how Singer would work with these parents. He would often make them think there was no other way to get their kids into these schools without using his scheme.” The desperation of the parents who participated in the scheme shows what little faith these parents had in their children, even though their kids had all the tools handed to them from an early age: access to private schools, private tutors, test prep, and more.
Of course, parents bribing colleges is nothing new; making hefty donations to universities is known as the “back door” method. (This is what Jared Kushner’s family did, donating $2.5 million dollars to Harvard to guarantee his acceptance.) Enter Singer with his “side door” to college admissions, a special arrangement whereby parents donated to Singer’s foundation and, in return, their kids received access to his network of psychologists, proctors, coaches, and school administrators who then proceeded to work the system on their behalf. Unsavoury tactics ran the gamut from diagnosing applicants with learning differences, to receiving test accommodations, taking standardised tests for applicants, to brokering spots on athletic teams.
Coastal elites from Wall Street to Silicon Valley took part in the fraud, making payments to Singer’s foundation in exchange for access and reassurance. Felicity Huffman notably paid for her daughter’s SAT scores to be doctored, while Lori Loughlin paid $500,000 to get both of her daughters into USC as rowing recruits (neither of them ever played the sport). Ironically, many of these parents espouse a belief in the value of diversity, equity, and inclusion, at least publicly, yet their actions belied their true values; they view sending students of colour to these institutions as an act of charity, and not an inherent right.
One of the most disturbing parts of Operation Varsity Blues is the revelation that some white students posed as Black students on their applications to take advantage of affirmative action. Further, Singer’s fictitious foundation that “accepted” the bribery payments were ostensibly created to support Black and Brown students in underserved communities to have more college opportunities. The irony of white families using Black and Brown students as scapegoats for their privilege is an embarrassment of abominable riches. These white families ended up receiving more opportunities and access, speaking to the power of whiteness within education.
Image Source: Netflix
As a diversity practitioner working within independent schools where the competitiveness between students during the college admission process is both the norm and expectation, I’ve seen firsthand how this scandal impacted students of colour, something never addressed in the lead story. Every year, when college acceptances came around, whenever the students of colour, specifically the Black students, got into schools, it was always met with, “You only got in because of affirmative action,” negating the hard work of Black students as well as the undue pressure the burden of representation placed on Black students within elite, white spaces. But, when white students would get into the very same schools, many, with the help of Singer, were met with celebration and praise of how smart and deserving they were, when in fact many were unqualified to get into those schools.
“Seeing the hard work and merit of Black students be reduced, oversimplified, and attributed solely to their race was both infuriating and unsettling.”
Seeing the hard work and merit of Black students be reduced, oversimplified, and attributed solely to their race was both infuriating and unsettling. Much of my time was spent toggling between affirming the worth of the Black students while also educating the white students (and their parents, too) on why these comments were demeaning and untrue, realizing this narrative was being fed from home.
The heavy burden of racism that the Black students had to carry was both unfair and egregious. What should have been a time of excitement to celebrate the achievement of getting into college (remember, not long-ago Black people were not even allowed to attend college), was marred with sadness and disappointment. For many Black students, this was a defining moment in which they understood the meaning of the AAVE (African American Vernacular English) phrase, “We have to be twice as good to get half as much.”
Much of the discussion within Operation Varsity Blues focuses on the corruption of the scandal itself; however, the documentary also highlights the competitiveness within rich, privileged, and white parent circles. As text prep expert Akil Bello shared in the film, “when you reach a certain level of wealth, there’s a relentless pursuit of the trappings of power.” These parents wanted bragging rights, to show off their position at the top of the privilege hierarchy, a place where the college to which their child has been accepted is a part of their social status just as much as the car they drive or the house in which they live.
“I think when this scandal first broke, it really brought home the role money can play in admissions,” Karmen affirmed. Wealth and access made it possible for the operation to continue for as long as it did. This is how the rich maintain their strongholds within society by keeping a tight grip on elite spaces, including entry into prestigious colleges. Reminder: colleges and universities, especially private and elite ones, were created for the white and privileged. It wasn’t until 2017 that Harvard accepted a class of students that wasn’t predominantly white.
There is a dangerous cycle of privilege wherein both the parents and applicants learned how the game was played but did not view their participation in the scandal as morally wrong because their entitlement told them that their children deserved to attend the college of their choice, even if they were unqualified for admission on the strength of their own merits.
Image Source: Getty / Pat Greenhouse / The Boston Globe
We see this phenomenon most prominently with Olivia Jade, daughter of Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli. Once a popular YouTube star, Olivia regularly took to social media to share how much she hated school and really had no desire to attend college. Her fans were confused by her online celebration of being accepted to USC, though she failed to mention that she was admitted to the school as a “rowing recruit.” Months after the scandal broke, Jade took her victimhood tour on the road to share her part in the scandal on Red Table Talk. When asked why she specifically reached out to Red Table Talk to publicly speak publicly on the scandal for the first time, she responded, “I wanted to be somewhere where I didn’t feel attacked, and maybe I could feel more understood.” She assuaged her guilt by using the platform of three Black women – another flex of her privilege with the expectation of free Black labour.
While some cases are still pending, many of the parents who were indicted have since served their light sentences, with Felicity Huffman receiving two weeks and Lori Loughlin two months, respectively.
When asked if these indictments would stop parents from cheating in the future, Cliff Mason, II, JD an independent school educator and advisor, responded in an interview with POPSUGAR with, “Absent accountability measures in place to deter misconduct, people will act without integrity. For example, the epidemic of police killing unarmed Black citizens persists because the system mischaracterized as ‘justice’ allows officers to act with impunity. When the parents involved in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal receive only a mild reprimand, it perpetuates our understanding of two justice systems operating in society and encourages other wealthy parents to follow the model they have established. Why? The reward grossly outweighs the risk.”
After a summer of outcries for racial justice following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, more colleges and universities are having a reckoning of their own. Finally, they have begun to take measures to account for the seismic inequities they have historically supported, including doing away with the SAT for the current admission cycle, as well as going on record to state their desire for a student body that reflects the wider world. While these proclamations are gestures of good faith to do the right thing, they also may place further pressure on rich, white parents to devise new ways to cheat the system, as they might come to fear even more racial diversity, or “the browning of America,” and its impact on the future of college admissions.
Moving forward, white parents need to consider how their everyday actions perpetuate this inequitable system. Acknowledging privilege is an important first step, but then they must consider how they choose to act with the privilege they have. Stop placing undue pressure and expectations on your children, measuring their success by where they are accepted into college. Instead, the yardstick of success should be based on finding a school that will help their child reach their fullest potential, where they can thrive, not just survive, having nothing to do with the name or prestige of the school.
It has been two years since the scandal, and it seems as if so, much has returned to business as usual. Colleges have made changes to their admissions processes; however, the system still benefits those for whom it was designed. “Hopefully, this film can bring these issues back into the spotlight and spark a larger conversation about the inherent inequities in a system that favours the wealthy,” Karmen said. It remains to be seen if rich, white parents are having conversations on how they can give up their privilege instead of abusing it. If not, a better and more convincing Rick Singer 2.0 is surely lurking in the shadows to sell a new “diagonal door” scheme for college admissions to the highest bidder.