College entrance scandal

The news this week is full of discussion about an illegal college entrance scheme for children of wealthy parents. Basically, the parents make a charitable donation to a 501c3 organization set up to launder these nefarious payments, then the scheme’s inventor would take actions to ensure the wealthy students’ entrances into their preferred schools. The types of benefits ranged from paying coaches to get students into obscure athletic teams for sports they didn’t even play, to literally faking test scores.

The best hot take I heard was along the lines of, “Wow, the privileges of whiteness and wealth aren’t enough for some of these folks. They want the playing field tilted even further in their favor.”

The issue has got me thinking about credentialing. It seems to me that much of the impetus behind this kind of fraud is about building one’s pedigree, resume and credentials. This makes sense in the context of Yale and Stanford, two of the schools mentioned in reporting on the matter. But how does that make sense for UCLA or USC? Large state schools are typically not that hard to get in to. Wait, how dumb are these rich kids? They need scams to get into state schools? Yikes.

It could also be argued that the drive behind this scheme is the experience that the student has as a student — that the education, opportunities, communities, etc. at Yale and Stanford are materially better. Again, this makes sense at an elite school, but not at a state school.

In my first semester as a visiting assistant professor at Davidson College (a small elite liberal arts college outside of Charlottee, NC), I was told I had to attend Fall Convocation. In this ceremony, the faculty wore their academic robes and regalia, every sash, rope, badge and medal an emblem of academic credentials. As someone who never coveted academic prestige, I wore a plain black borrowed robe and felt bad about it. Maybe I should have been more conscious of these things as a student? I wasn’t as concerned with collecting awards and distinctions as I was having an experience. There is privilege in this.

During that Fall Convocation, an ornate wooden scepter was on the stage, presented to us all, wielded by the dean of faculty during a moment girded by prayers and meaningful latin phrases. It occurred to me at that moment what an incredible house of cards the whole higher education pyramid is. Here we sit, wearing our monk’s vestments, propping up the institution with reverence to the ancient scepter, giving blessings to the inculcated.

The parents and students in attendance are the central audience for this performance, but it’s designed to affect me too. The magic scepter and robes symbolize the long lineage of authority that stems from the first professors to us, and from us onto your students. The ceremony consecrates the agreement between us. Our predecessors must have known.that the enterprise was shaky. Why would anyone trust us with their children? Why would they pay us to tell their children what we think? Why should these young people respect us? How can I convince people that I should be respected and believed?