College Scandal Parents Say ‘VIP List’ Proves Admissions a Game
(Bloomberg) -- An admissions official at the University of Southern California rejected the idea that students can buy their way in but acknowledged that some applicants are “of special interest” to the school.
Testifying at the first trial of parents caught up in the “Varsity Blues” bribery scandal, Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Rebecca Chassin told a jury about a “VIP list” of applicants given special consideration for athletic prowess, their parents’ wealth or their social connections.
“There is a VIP program at USC, correct?” attorney Robert Sheketoff asked Chassin, a witness for the prosecution, during cross-examination on Tuesday. Sheketoff is defending former Wynn Resorts Ltd. executive Gamal Abdelaziz, accused of paying $300,000 in bribes to get his daughter into the university as a basketball player, though a former classmate testified she didn’t even play well enough to qualify for her school’s varsity team.
“There is a process by which students that are of special interest to constituents around campus will receive a look before their decisions are finalized,” Chassin said. “I stated that we do not make offers of admission in exchange for money.”
Sheketoff asked if applicants on the very-important-person list could help with a $6 billion USC fundraising campaign.
“Many of the students are on there because of the hope that they will, you know, contribute to the university financially,” said Chassin, who has worked in admissions at USC for two decades. “Some of the students are not on there for that reason. We don’t really separate that out in the admission office -- we just know that someone around campus is interested in this.”
He asked whether a student on the list was three times as likely to win admission to the university as a regular student.
“I don’t know the data,” Chassin said.
She did testify that athletes recruited to the school by coaches had an 85% to 90% chance of being admitted, compared with 15% for an applicant in the general pool.
Turning the Tables
Such special considerations may not be a closely guarded secret in American college admissions. But lawyers for Abdelaziz, 64, and private equity executive John B. Wilson, 62, tried to turn the tables on federal prosecutors Tuesday by brandishing the VIP list. They are trying to convince the jury that their clients thought they were merely playing the donation game when they worked with William “Rick” Singer, the admitted mastermind of the biggest college admissions scam the U.S. says it has ever prosecuted.
Wilson is accused of paying $200,000 to win his son’s admission to USC as a water polo player and another $1.5 million to get his daughters into Stanford and Harvard universities as athletes.
None of the schools or students in the case were charged.
Lauren Bartlett, a spokeswoman for USC, declined to comment.
Lawyers for both parents -- the first two of six to go to trial after 33 pleaded guilty -- have argued that Singer duped their clients into believing they were simply donating to USC and that hundreds of parents had successfully used his strategy, sanctioned by the schools. At the trial, now in its second week of testimony in federal court in Boston, both attorneys questioned Chassin about why the school kept a VIP list and whether it swayed admissions decisions.
Sheketoff asked Chassin if she remembered if she and her associates on the school’s athletic admissions subcommittee, or SubCo, had discussed “an East coast student” whose father committed to giving $500,000 to USC, or a “walk-on golfer” -- one who joins the team without being recruited -- whose parents donated $3 million. Both were on the list.
“I don’t remember every single student from hundreds of SubCo meetings we had and what information that was available,” Chassin said.
Michael Kendall, a lawyer for Wilson, asked Chassin if the subcommittee considered donations that parents of athletes might make to the school, noting that the VIP list included such estimates.
“We were sometimes aware that there were students who were also of interest to other folks around the university,” Chassin said. But she said “we were focused solely on the students’ athletic talent.”
Advantages of Wealth
USC says it began cooperating with the Boston U.S. attorney’s office after it learned of the misconduct, and performed an internal review that resulted in the firing of the men’s water polo coach and an athletic administrator, both of whom have pleaded not guilty in the case.
Chassin testified on Tuesday that USC also expelled some students or rescinded admission offers after concluding they had violated university policy. But she said she spoke to Abdelaziz’s daughter after the charges were announced in 2019 and the girl was surprised to learn her profile included faked athletic information Singer provided. She is currently a senior at the university, Chassin said.
Prosecutors called Chassin as a witness to prove that the defendants engaged in a scheme that harmed the schools. She testified that admissions officers had no idea the process had been corrupted.
At one point Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Frank referred to a Twitter post by a vice provost at another university that said “the admissions process favors wealthy students” and “people who actually do admissions for a living already know this.” Frank asked Chassin why she had re-tweeted the post.
“Do you believe that wealthy people have advantages in applying to college?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “The schools they attend, the type of curriculum they might have access to, perhaps having parents who may be more educated, having the ability to hire tutors or test prep -- a lot of help in the application process.”
She added, “We don’t believe that most affluent students are misusing their advantages,” but if some are, “it’s a problem.”
The case is U.S. v. Colburn et al., 19-cr-10080, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).
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