Ripple Effects of an Academic Crisis

(Photo Credit: National Lampoon’s Animal House, Universal Pictures, 1978)

(Photo Credit: National Lampoon’s Animal House, Universal Pictures, 1978)

There is a metaphor in the law called “fruit of the poisonous tree.” Simply stated, it describes evidence that is obtained illegally. If the tree is tainted, then anything and everything — such as fruitful evidence — that comes from that tree is tainted as well, and cannot be used. Even if that evidence could convict or exonerate someone. It’s simply inadmissible.

Which brings us to two questions no one has yet fully addressed about the widespread college admissions cheating scandal, known euphemistically as “Varsity Blues”: First, what should happen to the students who gained admission to colleges and universities and medical schools through the illegal acts of their parents? Should they, too, be deemed “inadmissible?” Should the students be penalized, especially if they had no knowledge or participation in the illegal acts of their parents? Is this what’s meant by the sins of the father, and should the inequity of those parents be visited upon the heads of their (perhaps) otherwise innocent sons and daughters?

As a crisis manager whose clients over the years have included major colleges, universities and medical schools across the country, I have helped selected bastions of academia wrestle with even thornier problems. And it’s not easy. Peoples’ — innocent peoples’ — lives are on the line.

Some might say it’s a dilemma worthy of Solomon. Maybe.

But consider this: What happens to the innocent children of, say, bank robbers? If the parents are later caught after the crime has been committed, and the children had no knowledge of the crime or any direct or indirect participation, do the kids get to keep the loot or the things the loot bought if their parents are later carted away in handcuffs? Certainly not. How is that any different from the college cheating scandal? I submit it’s not.

But wait, you may cry: What is there to be given back? Actually, quite a lot. For starters, there’s the admission itself, which has a substantially high actual and intrinsic value, especially from an “elite” school. Should the student be permitted to stay in school?

No.

I hear talk from schools saying each instance will be decided on a case-by-case basis. That is a fool’s path that will lead to bigger and more complex crises down the road.

And it is a certain route to negative press and major litigation. Why would any school want to open itself to that hornet’s nest?

Expulsion, for starters, should be a no-brainer, across the board. If the student herself did the actual cheating and was caught, she would be held accountable and most likely expelled and no one would question that decision. I submit the same rules — and punishment — should apply. And if you think about it, what punishment could be worse than parents having to explain to their child that they were kicked out of school because their parents cheated to get them in? What possible “extenuating circumstances” could exist that would justify allowing any of these scarlet letter students to remain at school?

And how do you remedy the pain and suffering of those otherwise qualified applicants who were denied admission to their dream school because a cheater took their spot? You cannot, except perhaps by making a comeuppance example of those scions of the wealthy and entitled. And that example is expulsion, pure and simple.

Second, the schools that were involved have a new and even more onerous crisis burden. They have unwittingly devalued their own best prize: a diploma. What makes one school’s sheepskin so coveted over another’s is the perceived difficulty in obtaining it. School’s go out of their way each year to boast about their low acceptance rates. This year, for example, for the class of 2023, Harvard (not named thus far in the cheating scandal) had nearly 43,000 applicants, and its acceptance rate stands at an all-time low 4.6 percent. Yale (which was named in the recent Justice Department announcement) boasts a low 6.3 percent acceptance rate out of more than 35,000 applicants. That hard-to-come-by degree has historically been worth big bucks in the job market. But if it should become viewed as merely an expensive plaything acquired by overly-rich and overly doting parents for their otherwise unworthy kids, its value would drop sharply and fast.

And what about those who have already graduated? Should they be spared repercussions? You can answer this yourself: What should happen to a lawyer who in later years is found to have paid someone to take the bar exam in his stead? What would the Bar Association do? There would certainly be a proactive move to disbar the cheater. And how would you feel if you learned that a doctor who was about to operate on you cheated to get into medical school? Has your confidence level just plummeted as you are being wheeled into surgery?

The ripple-effects of this academic crisis will be felt for many years to come. All schools — whether named in the indictment or not — face a crisis of confidence. Schools that were named need to shore up their weaknesses and let the world know the changes they’ve made for the overall integrity of the institution. They need to assure the world that going forward, admission to the school cannot be “bought” by wealthy miscreants. They also need to announce that they have ousted those who obtained admission fraudulently.

Schools not named should tread carefully and not give in to the temptation to brag or boast that they or their faculty were not involved. I don’t believe any school is completely innocent, and it’s awfully messy to have to recant a statement with egg on your face.

For I am confident that at some point, some disgruntled disappointed college applicant will peddle a tale of skullduggery in the admission process of even dear old Faber College that not even “double secret probation” can cure.

Colleges and universities have to work hard to rebuild their now-tarnished reputations, as do the “legitimate” students and graduates. This will not be easy given the information age in which we now live. For, in the pitched battle between perception and reality, perception always wins.