This past week, news broke of a sweeping criminal conspiracy in the world of college admissions. Through an organization called “The Key”, William Singer committed widespread fraud by falsifying his clients’ test scores and applications in order to gain admission to elite universities across the country. Singer bribed SAT proctors to correct student’s answers to achieve a desired score. He bribed college officials to falsely claim that they were recruiting a student. He called these avenues to admission the “side door”–the front door being ordinary, regular admission, and the backdoor being buying admission through mega-donations.
Needless to say, Singer’s services were not cheap. Ranging from $15,000 to more than a million dollars, his fraud was only available to those children who already had every conceivable advantage in applying to college. Their parents were CEOs, partners in major law firms, fashion designers, and famous actors. They had attended private high schools and had private tutors. They could afford to pay full tuition at any university they might choose to attend. Yet their parents felt compelled to use the “side door” in order to guarantee that their child was admitted to Ivy League schools and prestigious universities.
This story is deeply troubling, as it reflects the sort of moral decay that has become commonplace among the rich and well-connected. It reflects a prevailing mindset of “me first”. So what if my child, who has never played soccer, will be fraudulently taking the roster position of someone who practiced every day for 12 years–me first. My daughter wants to go to Yale, and if bribing the soccer coach is what it takes to get in, that’s what it takes.
Perhaps more insidious than Singer’s “side door” of outright bribery is the “back door” that is completely legal: the use of money and legacy at a university to attain admission for one’s child. Universities thrive on the donations of their alumni, but their swelling endowment often comes with an understood price: admitting the children of those alumni when the time comes. Unlike Affirmative Action, which then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions tried to outlaw just last year, this practice of “legacy admissions” has gone completely unchallenged as a means of circumventing the supposedly meritocratic process of college admissions. The fact that Sessions and other lawmakers would seek to challenge Affirmative Action, which seeks to diversify the ranks of elite college and universities by giving special consideration to the under-privileged, while allowing legacy admissions to continue unabated belies their supposed intention to create a level playing field for college applicants.
Both the ‘side door’ and ‘back door’ to elite colleges exist as a means for wealthy parents to intervene in the college process to increase, or guarantee, the likelihood of their child’s admission. Again, this “Me first” mentality is all too familiar in our society, from the Oval Office to the home. As a society, we have been groomed to view someone’s success as a result of their upstanding character, when studies show that the exact opposite is often true. Recent studies have shown that there exists a “dark triad” of personality traits—narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism—that are mostly highly correlated with success. These traits are not only tolerated but deliberately sought out by some corporations, as they employ the sort of thinking that prioritizes personal success at the expense of others.
Nonetheless, we would do well to foreclose those ‘side doors’ and ‘back doors’ in our society that allow the less qualified and more privileged among us to rise to positions of power. The more that our society resembles a meritocracy, the more that those who rise to power will reflect those values, and the more they can encourage others to set their sights on success by modeling their behavior.
Reorienting our ideas of leadership and the qualities that make one a leader is a responsibility that may fall to women. The past few decades have seen an enormous spike in women rising to leadership roles, and the sunlight of our presence in positions of power has already proved a very effective disinfectant. The cultural phenomenon of the #metoo movement demonstrated how sexual predators had been allowed not just to linger, but to thrive, despite multiple accusations of misconduct. Further, a new wave of congresswomen like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has ushered in much-needed conversations on issues like climate change and income inequality. It is painfully clear that women’s moral clarity is long overdue in the public sphere; now, as we continue to expand our influence, we would do well to reward the behaviors of ethical, moral leadership, rather than those of the “dark triad” that disguise a naked desire for personal gain. Then, and only then, can women effectively reorient the moral compass of the nation to point in a direction that is more reliably ethical.
© Carmen Schaye