Editor’s note: This story was revised on May 1.
It’s the sort of scenario that begets higher-education nightmares: A rogue athletic coach conspires to defraud a university by sneaking in unworthy applicants in exchange for large payoffs, resulting in scandal, condemnation and a stain on the school’s reputation.
That more or less describes what happened on March 12 when the U.S. Justice Department brought criminal charges against 50 people, including the head sailing coach at Stanford, for their part in what the FBI says was a nationwide bribery scheme aimed at gaining admission into some of the country’s top colleges and universities. The Stanford coach, John Vandemoer, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering that same day and was immediately fired by the university. Coaches and administrators at several other schools, including USC, Yale and Georgetown, were arrested as part of the FBI investigation, code-named Operation Varsity Blues.
Vandemoer accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in “donations” to the sailing program from a fake nonprofit organization operated by the scheme’s mastermind, California-based college counselor Rick Singer. In exchange, Vandemoer agreed to pretend that two prospective Stanford applicants, Singer’s clients, were competitive sailors as a means of boosting those students’ chances of admission.
As it happened, neither of those students was admitted to Stanford, but the university did receive three donations from Singer’s foundation totaling $770,000. In addition, Stanford learned that one current student also had been a client of Singer’s, but had no recommendation from the sailing coach or connection to any other athletic team. One of the donations from Singer’s foundation was made several months after that student enrolled. On April 2, the university announced that it had determined that some of the information in the student’s application for admission was false, that the student’s admission had been rescinded and that any credits earned had been vacated.
Multiple news reports on May 1 revealed that a Chinese family had paid $6.5 million to Singer in hopes of securing admission to Stanford for their child.
In an update on the university’s website, Stanford said it had been unaware of these new details, and clarified that it did not receive $6.5 million from Singer, or from a student’s family working with him.
“As we reported previously, and as federal court proceedings have made clear, the total amount that came to the Stanford sailing program through Singer’s foundation was $770,000. This consisted of $110,000 and $160,000 associated with two students—neither of whom was admitted to Stanford—and $500,000 associated with a third student. We do not know whether any of the $770,000 was part of the $6.5 million reportedly given to Singer,” the university said in its update.
‘The integrity of our processes, and the ethical conduct of our people, is of paramount importance to Stanford.’
After learning about the conspiracy and Vandemoer’s guilt, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell communicated early and often about the scheme itself and the university’s response. On the same day the Justice Department announced the charges, Tessier-Lavigne and Drell published a blog post titled “The sailing case, and our resolve.”
“To the two of us, this is nothing short of appalling,” they wrote. “Let us be clear: The conduct reported in this case is absolutely contrary to Stanford’s values, and to the norms this university has lived by for decades. Today’s news is a shock exactly because it so clearly violates our institutional expectations for ethical conduct.”
They declared that Stanford would divest itself of all monies received from Singer’s foundation and introduce new safeguards to ensure the integrity of its admissions process.
Those measures include:
• A member of the executive leadership of Stanford Athletics will confirm the athletic credentials of all recruits a coach identifies before those recruits are passed along to the admission office.
• Every applicant involved in the athletic recruitment process in this year’s applicant pool was reviewed to confirm the legitimacy of his or her athletic credentials. A separate review confirmed the credentials of all members of the sailing teams who had received an athletic recommendation during the admission process, dating back to 2011, when the FBI says the broader scheme began.
• An external review will be conducted of procedures the university follows in providing an athletics department recommendation, as well as procedures involved in accepting gifts for athletic programs.
• Stanford verified that the university has received no other contributions from the foundation implicated in the FBI investigation and confirmed that no one in this year’s applicant pool is associated with a contribution from that foundation.
The fraud scheme prompted dismay throughout the Stanford community. Vice President for Alumni Affairs Howard Wolf, ’80, responded to hundreds of emails from alumni. Although many of the emails expressed gratitude that Stanford had reacted swiftly to address the matter, according to Wolf, many others were critical. Much of the feedback centered on the role of athletics in the admissions process; other concerns included the effects of legacy status and donations to the university on admissions decisions. Wolf shared the predominant themes from the emails with both the president and the provost to provide a window into the character and substance of alumni sentiment.
“Our resolve in these matters is as firm as ever. The integrity of our processes, and the ethical conduct of our people, is of paramount importance to Stanford,” Tessier-Lavigne and Drell wrote. “We take these issues deeply seriously, and we will continue pursuing them mindful of our obligations as stewards of this institution, on behalf of everyone associated with Stanford.”
The full contents of the president’s and provost’s blog posts, an FAQ about the admissions scheme and other university statements on the matter are available at alu.ms/admissions-scheme.
Kevin Cool is the executive editor of Stanford. Email him at email@example.com.