In her book “Let Me Tell You What I Mean”, Joan Didion in an achingly wistful fashion recounts her feeling of desolation upon receiving a letter of rejection from Stanford University. In an essay titled “On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice”, which every parent ought to read, Didion mulls on how she contemplated suicide while sitting on the edge of her bathtub with an old bottle of codeine-and-Empirin. Sanity prevails in the end as she brushes away the ominous thought. Upon hearing the news that her daughter’s application to Stanford was rejected, Didion’s father just shrugs and offers her a drink. “I think about that shrug with a great deal of appreciation whenever I hear parents talking about their children’s “chances””, muses Didion.
Director Chris Smith of “American Movie” fame brings to bear in a brilliantly matter-of-fact yet devastating manner, the infamous college admissions scandal that rocked and shocked the United States. In an original Netflix documentary titled, “Operation Varsity Blues”, Chris Smith showcases the brazen and seemingly inconceivable “side door” scheme perpetuated by the now convicted “education and life coach” Rick Singer. Matthew Modine, who essays the character of Rick Singer to un-distilled brilliance, boasts to one of his high profile clients, “if you want to use my side door at Harvard, it is $1.2 million. But if you wanna go through the backdoor, Harvard’s asking for $45 million.” Neither the scheming counselor nor the willing parent even considers the “front-door” option which has students getting into Ivy League Institutions through talent and grit alone.
Celebrities, business tycoons and magnates and fashionistas made a scramble for the Rick Singer’s side-door. When the scandal was unearthed and the dust settled down, Singer has pocketed approximately $25 million between 2011-18. Most of the money went in bribing college administrators and coaches. Singer had opened a jaw-dropping 761 side doors when the penny finally dropped. Throughout the documentary, Modine works the phones with a single minded determination bordering on the obsessive. Regaling his impressed and astonished potential clients with his modus operandi, Modine furiously works through 21 hour workdays, jet setting from coast to coast. The documentary also depicts Modine establish a for profit education counseling company “The Key”, in addition to setting up a nonprofit foundation “The Key Worldwide Foundation” that is exempt from tax. This is exactly what Singer did. Depending upon the institution which a parent wishes his or her child to secure admissions in, Singer named a price and the amount was wire transferred into the foundation’s account. The money was then channeled to enrich various “point men” such as Yale University Football coach Rudy Meredith and USC Water Polo Coach, Jovan Vavic, who were hand in glove with Singer.
Amongst the people who participated in this insidious scheme were Hollywood celebrities, Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin; founder and chairman of International Dispensing Corp, a food and beverage packaging company, Gregory Abbott; CEO of a boutique marketing company Trendera, Jane Buckingham; owner of a family wine vineyard in Napa Valley, Agustin Huneeus Jr; and senior executive at TPG private equity firm William McGlashan Jr. As Perry Kalmus, an independent education counselor bemoans in the documentary, “the running line in our industry is like, ‘the parents are applying to college’. The kid is the vehicle through which they apply to college. Chris Smith dexterously employs the wiretapped phone calls of Rick Singer and weaves a story line in a totally non-linear fashion based on such phone calls. Smith also succeeds in getting a firsthand testimony from one of the accused in the case, who incidentally was also the one who was let off with the lightest indictment on account of being held not maliciously culpable. Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer holds forth about how Singer pumped funds into his sailing programme but where the funds were actually utilized for enriching the very purpose for which it was reluctantly made available.
Smith also chillingly portrays the role played by Mark Riddell in the entire grandiose scheme of things conceived by Rick Singer. A Harvard graduate himself in addition to being a former director of college entrance exam preparations at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, Riddell was paid $10,000 for each of the harmonized ACTs or SATs which he was required to edit for the students. Riddell frequently flew from Florida where he was residing to various test centres in Texas and California. At the test centres he doubled up as a proctor before manipulating applicant’s answers to arrive at a ‘predetermined’ score.
“The word prestige means deceit in French” explains John Reider, a former Admissions Officer at Stanford. Prestige that is generally attached to admissions into the hallowed portals of Ivy League institutions, according to Reider is just an “imaginary illusion.” In an era where education symbolizes more badges of honour than an infusion of character, and where – as Michael Sandel illustrates in his brilliant book, “The Tyranny of Merit” – entry into an elitist Ivy League Institution becomes the very end, rather than a mean, Chris Smith in a breathtaking manner blows the lid open to reveal a broken system that exploits anxieties of parents and the angst of children to the hilt thereby birthing a form of corruption that is not just endemic, but institutionalized.
The insipid and almost laughable nature of “punishments” imposed by the Department of Justice on the perpetrators of the Operation Varsity Blues scam will only lead to an intermittent lull in proceedings before there arrives more grist for a perpetually working mill. Meanwhile the likes of Chris Smith still go about their work unstintingly in trying their best to throw some sand in the gear. May The Force Be With their ilk!