Thursday, March 14, 2019

Poisoned Ivy

     So that's why my boys didn't get into Harvard...
     Because the slots that should have gone to them were snapped up by the spawn of rich celebrities who bribed coaches to pretend their couch potatoes were athletes, and other venal acts of fraud and criminality.
     A spot in a top college projects whoever snags it to the fast-track to success. But those exclusive colleges bat away 95 out of every 100 students who apply, forcing them through an obstacle course where all sorts of secondary hurdles besides academic excellence suddenly loom in importance. If the college has accepted kids from 49 states, and needs someone from South Dakota so they can boast students "from all 50 states," then suddenly South Dakotans go to the top of the stack. If the band needs a xylophonist, suddenly xylophonists start to sparkle. Not to mention all the attempts to create a diverse student body. As Orwell said in Animal Farm, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." Not to forget money: they have to remember to let some students in whose parents can actually pay the tuition. For starters.
    As Frank Bruni pointed out in Wednesday's New York Times, it isn't that much of a stretch from giving a college $2 million and having your kid waived in—legal!—to bribing a coach to pretend he's on the water polo team—illegal!
     I don't want to excuse the underhanded tricks used by parents to try to jam their kids into the best colleges.  It hasn't been so many years since my boys went through this, and I remember the frantic, what-can-I-do?!? approach to their quest.
Harvard Lampoon (photo by Harrison Roberts)
     But I had a few advantages. First, I had sought the advice of Bill Savage, NU literature professor, master of all things Chicago and, not incidentally, someone involved with the college selection machinery. He gave me what I consider the No. 1, key bit of advice for a student or parent contemplating the college process, which is: Don't get your heart set on a certain school. That's a recipe for disappointment. What happens is, a student, or her parents, or both, decide that they don't get into Boola Boola University then their lives will be ruined. When in fact they might have a better experience at a different college.  
     He also counseled against the general, I'm-gonna-die tone of despair that parents bring to the process. That doesn't help. Important decisions, yes. Key forms and essays and hoops to leap through or, often, not. But the whole upper echelon college thing is also a framework of values that is only of vast importance if you believe it is of vast importance. Donald Trump went to the Wharton School, and look how he turned out.
     Oh, and the boys didn't get into Harvard because neither of them applied. I can't speak for them, but that might be my fault. We visited Cambridge when they were in their mid-teens, and I steered us over to the Harvard Lampoon castle, a quirky building supposedly paid for by William Randolph Hearst and designed as kind of Dutch revival sphinx. I explained how, while researching my pranks book, I had spent a few days there happily poring over their archives, and what fine fellows the Lampooners were.
    Our timing was off. We arrived during some kind of Bacchic revel—maybe because it was Friday. A round metal pool had been set up in front of the castle, students were splashing around in it, drunk, and firing off fireworks. My boys were aghast. We fled.
     Just as well. The older boy went to Pomona, a liberal college in California routinely ranked higher than Harvard. And the younger boy went to Northwestern, applying early admission, because that's where his dad went. Bribes were not necessary.


  1. What comes to mind when speaking of cheating to get into top notch colleges is the difficulty many of us have with avoiding really terrible grammar schools for our kids. In Chicago of course, it's mostly racial, but black parents also want their kids to get a good education and not be forced into a gang, but often they've little or no choice in the matter, especially if they're living on the margin. Seems to me that schools in the ghetto need twice as much money as those in better neighborhoods, but people with money want it spent on their kids not other people's kids.


  2. The most bizarre part of this minor scandal is that almost everyone who paid the bribes could've easily bought their kid's way into the school of choice by just donating the money to the school.
    And the two numbskull actresses didn't even have to bribe the school with cash, if they offered to teach an acting class while their daughters were in school, the school probably would've admitted them.

  3. Point of order. According to Lawrence O'Donnell of MSNBC, Harvard not part of current scandal. He claims Harvard has large(st?) percentage of non paying students, I guess indicating that they shoot more for diversity than profit from the present student body. My increasingly imperfect memory does seem to recall that Harvards endowment is among the top 3-5 in the country, so alumni are paying the freight for many current undergraduates. You might have been better to cite Yale in this piece but then you couldn't use the humorous photo. If you didn't use Yale because the boys applied there, I salute your journalistic integrity.

    1. Salute accepted. The Times mentioned Harvard in their story .

    2. Harvard's endowment is tops in the US at about 40 billion.

      Aside to Neil: My daughter's number one choice was Pomona. She was a bit upset, but not quite heartbroken when she wasn't accepted. About a month later she was accepted at Harvard, and will be graduating in May.

    3. Pomona wait-listed me, which came as a surprise, because I didn't think I'd even be accepted at all. I would have gladly worked for a year in order to eventually go to California, and get as far away from an abusive father as possible .

      But Uncle Sam had other ideas, so to avoid an extended Southeast Asian vacation, I spent that year at a small right-wing college in the Midwest. It wasn't much more than a glorified prep school with ashtrays. Before I transfered to a large state school, I met the woman who is now my wife. Sometimes, things work out for the best, even if you don't always get what you originally wished for.

    4. Waiting for Press Reader to load todays SunTimes I read the NYT story you cited. They did not report Harvard as part of the current scandal, but as recipient of a large donation from the Kushner family. Whatever, could the Times find some Harvard/Zuckerberg castoff to fix the PressReader edition. It should be easier to deliver my E-issue to Florida than my print version to the suburbs.

  4. And if the Times jumped off a bridge? I’m no Crimson booster (being far too dim witted for those hallowed halls), but top-lining them when they’re not part of this scandal seemed ... off.

  5. Granted you can't believe everything you read on line but Harvard has a 37 billion dollar endowment fund. Supposedly the largest endowment fund. They could let their students go for free.


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