The University of Southern California’s campus was unusually quiet this week. As undergraduates took off for spring break, a group of high schoolers hoping to one day replace them toured the Gothic-inspired red-brick quadrants and manicured lawns near downtown Los Angeles.
But behind the scenes, USC was in the midst of a frantic damage-control exercise.
The school is at the centre of a $25m bribery scandal alleged by federal prosecutors on Tuesday in a criminal complaint that documents, in agonising detail, how dozens of wealthy US families bought places for their children in top universities with the help of a crooked admissions consultant, William “Rick” Singer.
USC admitted more of Mr Singer’s clients — many of them falsely depicted as student-athletes — than any other school mentioned in the complaint. This week, it fired a senior associate athletic director, Donna Heinel who, authorities allege, was on Mr Singer’s payroll at $20,000 a month, and its acclaimed water polo coach, Jovan Vavic. Two former USC coaches have also been charged by authorities.
USC on Thursday said it would toss out any current applicants tied to Mr Singer while beginning the messy business of determining what to do with those previously admitted.
“We are going to conduct a case-by-case review for current students and graduates that may be connected to the scheme alleged by the government. We will make informed, appropriate decisions once those reviews have been completed,” it said in a statement. “Some of these individuals may have been minors at the time of their application process.”
One current USC student, Milton Dimas, a child of Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants who will be the first member of his family to graduate from college when he receives his political science degree later this year, seemed clear about the fate of the students involved.
“Truthfully speaking, if you come from a background like this, and your parents have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to go to an institution like USC, maybe USC was not the school for you,” he said. “Maybe you should consider giving that up to someone who has really worked hard.”
Mr Dimas also expressed disbelief at suggestions that the wealthy scions of prominent families did not know their university places were being illicitly bought.
“In my head I’m thinking: How could you not know?” he said.
For USC, the admissions case hit while the school was already struggling to recover from scandals that have prompted questions about its direction and led last August to the resignation of its president, Max Nikias. “This is a sensitive time for USC,” one internationally renowned faculty member confided.
Yet while the admissions scandal may be a black eye for the school, it is also a vivid — if unintended — indication of its recent success. In the criminal complaint, USC has joined the elite likes of Yale, Stanford and Georgetown as schools targeted by Mr Singer’s clients.
Through pages and pages of recorded phone calls, the court papers show parents’ palpable desperation to win places for their children at what was long regarded as more a party school with a top American football team than a rigorous academic institution. Its old nickname: the “university of spoiled children”.
One such parent was Jane Buckingham, a Los Angeles marketing executive who appeared to view a place at USC for her son as something akin to a miracle.
“I need you to get him into USC, and then I need you to cure cancer and [make peace] in the Middle East,” Ms Buckingham begged Mr Singer, who has pleaded guilty and has been co-operating with the government.
Ms Buckingham allegedly agreed to pay $50,000 to Mr Singer to doctor her son’s entrance exam. Other parents paid far more.
The actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, designer Mossimo Giannulli, are accused of handing over $500,000 for Mr Singer to usher their two daughters through a “side door” by making them appear like prized rowing recruits — even though they did not actually row. (If he could not help, Ms Loughlin worried in an email, her daughters might have to attend Arizona State University.)
“It’s a great school,” one college counsellor said of USC.
It is certainly a popular one: After attracting just over 10,000 applications in 1991, USC last year drew more than 64,000, a school record. Its admissions rate has narrowed over that time from 70 per cent to a stingy 13 per cent. Student test scores on entrance exams are now among the nation’s highest.
It was set on its current course by Steven Sample, who took over as president in 1991 determined to raise the ambitions of what was then regarded as a regional school. Mr Sample guided USC through the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots, which raged uncomfortably close to its downtown campus, and widened its horizons. His successor, Mr Nikias, took the baton in 2010 and launched a globe-trotting fundraising campaign the next year that eventually hauled in more than $7bn.
USC has used its riches to poach top researchers from other schools, spread scholarships among a more diverse group of students, and embark on a building spree that has included a $700m campus extension and the creation of new academic departments.
One is the USC Jimmy Iovine & Andre Young Academy launched by a $70m joint gift from the music producer and top rapper, Dr Dre.
“[That is] where he really wants to go,” William McGlashan, an executive at private equity firm TPG, said of his son in a phone conversation with Mr Singer last year, according to the complaint. TPG on Thursday said it fired Mr McGlashan for behaviour it deemed “inexcusable and antithetical” to the firm. Mr McGlashan said he resigned.
USC has also become a leader in medical research, with support from billionaire Eli Broad, among other powerful benefactors.
“Within higher education, USC has become a Cinderella story, met partly with awe but also some envy among presidents,” Jeff Selingo, former editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education and author of several books on the subject, observed in 2017.
But the obsession with fundraising led some to question whether senior administrators had lost their bearings. One of the school’s top academic recruits, Carmen Puliafito, the dean of the medical school, was discovered two years ago in a hotel room with a young woman who had overdosed on drugs. The school was slow to dismiss Dr Puliafito, a star fundraiser, even after further revelations in the Los Angeles Times about his use of amphetamines. Months later, there was an outcry after USC quietly cut a deal with a school gynecologist accused of fondling female students over a 30-year career.
Mr Nikias, who began addresses with the rousing call “It’s a great day to be a Trojan!” — a reference to the school’s sword-and-sandal mascot — stepped down last August.
“Instead of cultivating an environment of reflection and reasoned debate, the university sprinted toward growth,” William Tierney, a professor of education, wrote in the LA Times last year in the midst of those crises. He faulted the school’s administration for emphasising “financial and reputational results”.
Reached in India via email on Thursday, he wrote to the Financial Times: “The latest scandal is tied to all the others largely because of the previous administration’s desire to improve dramatically in a very short time.”
With the latest scandal, Shany Ebadi, a Los Angeles native on course to graduate this year, was struggling to reconcile the different facets of USC.
On the one hand there is the “Trojan family”: “This extended network of people in any industry you can imagine that would always be willing to support you after graduation — that’s something that we’re told a lot, from freshmen orientation to graduation,” she explained.
While Ms Ebadi had enjoyed her studies “tremendously” and described her political science professors as “wonderful”, the bribery scandal had reinforced her view that the institution was “largely dependent on the wealthy and the upper class.”
She said: “It is confusing to me why these really wealthy people, who I would think would have the networks already, would pay so much money to get their kids into USC.”