Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Doc Watch: Operation Varsity Blues - The College Admissions Scandal

Watched:  03/22/2021
Format:  Netflix
Viewing:  First
Decade:  2020's
Director:  Chris Smith

Full disclosure:  My current role is in IT management at a major American university, and part of my portfolio includes Admissions.  I haven't worked for this office very long, just about a year and a half.  But I do interface continually with the folks who process, review and make admissions decisions.  

If you followed the story of actresses Lori Loughlin or Felicity Huffman as they were exposed and charged with participating in, essentially, a massively scaled bribery scandal in which coaches provided entrance to kids as walk-ons to their teams in exchange for cash, you know the broad strokes of what broke in the news back in 2019.  

Digging a little deeper with this documentary, Operation Varsity Blues (2021), there's absolutely more detail and an explanation of both how it worked and a suggestion of how large-scale the scandal probably really was (very, very large), that gets away from popular actresses, who were merely a couple of clients among an unknown and perhaps unknowable roster of people who paid to get their kids into schools.  It tackles large issues in the US, from wealth disparity and opportunity tied to wealth, to how we think of prestige univeristies.  To how university development (ie: fundraising works), the importance of that fundraising in this day and age, and the bizarre loops people will take to ensure their children succeed despite themselves - and why.

I'm not sure it does enough of it justice.  The doc could have easily been a 10 hour doc on the current state of college admissions, development, athletics, and still not gotten around to the actual scandal.  And the scandal was... so simple, it feels complex.  You pay a guy to pay the coaches a bribe to let their kid into the school as an automatic admit.  

The doc centers on Rick Singer (played in re-enactments by Matthew Modine, who sells it), who somehow made dozens of connections with university coaches, especially in lower-profiles sports, and talked them into playing along.  And not at schlubby 3rd tier schools.  Harvard, Stanford... I am well aware that the University of Texas saw the head tennis coach lose his job over this.  (UT is a very good school now, for all my fellow Longhorns for whom this is news) - all included.

But it never cracks who Singer is, only taking a weirdly pedestrian "his parents got divorced, so that must have driven him to this" arm-chair psychologist's approach.  But the man is an oyster, it seems.  Even the closest to a friend/ ex-romantic interest of his they could dig up was basically still saying "yeah, he just worked all the time.  I dunno."

There's also a coach who maybe - if you buy his story, and I have no idea - didn't realize he was doing anything shady.  And may have uncovered a whole operation at Stanford that managed to remain covered by throwing him to the wolves.

Like I say, this went well beyond Aunt Becky - fabulously wealthy financiers, attorneys, etc... people you and I never heard of were wrapped up in this.  And many are played by actors you kinda/ sorta recognize as the film uses real transcripts to script the scenes as they talk bluntly about their children not being quite good enough.  Or, even, stupid.  But, hey, I am sure all of our parents had some choice words for us as we cost them a million bucks at some point.

There's also practically nothing about how the FBI went about their business.  Which is.. odd.  My feeling is, there's going to be another doc about this in 5 years that's actually much more detailed.

Why I think it's worth watching the film is less the details of the scandal, and more about the forces that drove the scandal.  Parents who aren't interested in their children's welfare do not go to the lengths these parents did.  But it also speaks to how we view these particular institutions that we'd drop as much as a full cost of attending just to sneak in, when the kid could get in to plenty of other schools.  What drove the choice?  

Moreover - what does it even look like to apply to college anymore that people hire and run businesses as private "counselors" - the guise Singer operated under.  Maybe more importantly - if we have "standardized tests", of what value are they if the privileged can take a course specifically on how to take the test - a course which *guarantees* a certain score or point growth?  
And... I think it's what is all of this doing to 17 year olds?  (also, stop recording yourself opening your admissions portal, kids.  That's gonna end in heart break)

The movie wants to take on privilege and America's myth of bootstrapping vis-a-vis the power of wealth, but has too much to do to ever get real footing, when this could have been a lesson in power disparity that would hit home for millions of Americans - especially those who have bought into the idea that college admission is an even playing field (minus the folks maybe buying the school an athletic facility or something).  And we aren't even touching the notions of how anything that looks like it might equally benefit someone who isn't white drives some folks insane.  That's all sort of mentioned in passing, but... it's real, folks.

As I said at the top, I work in college admissions - sorta.  And, yes, parents are crazy.  That's probably all I really need to or should say.

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