Clear your schedule: another season of “Varsity Blues” is officially underway. No, not that one – we’re talking about something much more engrossing. Last week, former Stanford University sailing coach John Vandemoer was sentenced to six months of home detention and two years of supervised release for his role in the infamous college admissions scandal. But he was just the opening act; this summer, 14 more defendants will appear in court, including former Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman (who will be sentenced on September 13). The feature act will appear on September 19, when William “Rick” Singer, architect of the bribery scheme, is scheduled for sentencing. Singer was the charismatic “college admissions advisor” who made $25 million by selling access to elite universities through the “side door.” Over 20 of his clients, wealthy parents worried their progeny couldn’t make it through the proverbial front, have already pleaded guilty and are scheduled to be sentenced in the coming months, promising even more media attention. Then, of course, there’s the upcoming trial of Lori Laughlin, whose image as a wholesome Hallmark star was shattered when federal prosecutors alleged she and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, paid $500,000 to have their two daughters falsely designated as University of Southern California crew team members (neither daughter participated in the sport).
Read more: Ironic Lessons Learned From the Higher Ed Bribery Scandal
If all this sounds salacious to you, that’s by design.
If all this sounds salacious to you, that’s by design. Federal prosecutors knew exactly how much attention this story would provoke. They made the reveal of the investigation codenamed “Operation: Varsity Blues” a must-see event, billing it as the “largest college admittance scam ever charged by the Department of Justice.” The inclusion of actresses Laughlin and Huffman ensured that this story would find its way to the front pages and the top of your Facebook feed. For those too young to remember Aunt Becky or Lynette Scavo there was Olivia Jade, Laughlin’s Instagram influencer daughter whose USC account was put “on hold” while the university reviews her case. Be honest; why are you reading this story right now? We all share a weakness for gossip, especially when it involves the rich and beautiful getting their perceived comeuppance.
But how or why we came to this story is less important than what comes of it. As Renato Mariotti of the New York Intelligencer writes, “a lot of the value of this massive federal investigation lies in the debate that it generated — including all the outrage that it generated on traditional and social media.” The high visibility of this case is increasing public pressure on colleges and universities to be accountable in ways less “clickable” stories never could. The coming wave of convictions and trials is almost certain to increase public anger. That’s a good thing; sometimes sustained public outrage is the best way to provoke ethical reform.
Read More: 6 Steps for Improving Ethics & Compliance Training for the Millennial-type Learner
It wasn’t until the public outcry of the #MeToo movement that companies began to change and update their compliance policies.
There is recent precedent for this. Sexual harassment has long been a well-known problem, especially in the film and television industry. But it wasn’t until the public outcry of the #MeToo movement that companies across the board began to change and update their compliance policies. According to NAVEX Global’s 2019 Definitive Corporate Compliance Benchmark Report, over three quarters (77%) of businesses have changed their approach to sexual harassment prevention as a result of the #MeToo movement. Harassment-specific training and policies are now in place in over half of all organizations surveyed – something which could not have been said just a few years ago. Companies with advanced compliance programs have been especially responsive; two-thirds (66%) of these companies report executive buy-in to their anti-harassment approach, which studies show is the most effective way to counter ethics and compliance risks.
There is every reason to believe that “Varsity Blues” can do for the Dean’s office what #MeToo did for the boardroom. Sustained public attention to the issue of bribery and corruption in higher education may be the best way to convince administrators that this is a serious problem worthy of their attention. That’s what federal prosecutors were counting on when they handed down these indictments. "This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” said Andrew Lelling, the U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, when announcing the charges. “There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy, And I will add there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”
Keep watching to see if he’s right.