Joshua Kim: “Varsity Blues” and the failure in the fallout

Thursday, October 3, 2019 - 12:05pm

On March 12, one of the greatest — if not the greatest — scandals in academia was unceremoniously unveiled to the world after a federal indictment, confirming a suspicion many people had regarding the American college system. Despite their championing of merit, selective colleges at their core are subservient to corruption, privilege and wealth. At the time, 50 people were implicated in the scandal ranging from coaches, college prep executives and actors. Now, the fallout is finally being seen, and it’s a slap in the face in the name of justice. 

Felicity Huffman paid $15,000 to artificially alter her daughter’s SAT score. Undoubtedly, her actions are morally abhorrent. Thousands of students every year dedicate themselves to studying and preparing for these standardized tests, sacrificing their already small amount of free time in the hopes of raising their scores. Huffman rooted her actions in a familiar sense of desperation to secure a better score for her daughter, to which prosecutors hit back stating that “all parents want to help their kids get ahead...yet most manage to steer clear of conspiracy, bribery and fraud. By means of her privilege and wealth, Huffman was almost able to completely bypass this dedication and hard-earned merit. Her actions undoubtedly undermine the integrity of the college preparatory system as something that genuinely prepares students for college.

On May 13, Huffman pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.” Now, according to 2019 federal guidelines, her charges would entail a punishment spanning four to 10 months in prison. Huffman’s bribe was marginally smaller than others implicated in the scandal including Lori Loughlin’s alleged $500,000 bribe to the University of Southern California. So, what is the punishment? Five months? Maybe even the bare minimum — let’s say four months? 

14 days.

Felicity Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in prison. Fourteen days in prison, one year of probation, 250 hours of community service and a $30,000 fine. The government asked for one to 15 months of imprisonment, but Huffman was still able to pass by with just a slap on the wrist. Sure, probation is commonplace for those who plead guilty. But, for a woman worth nearly $20 million, a $30,000 fine is nothing. Fourteen days is nothing compared to what the federal guidelines suggest. Two hundred and fifty hours of community service when it comes to celebrities has become so menial that it's hard to even gauge if it’s a punishment.

At first, the college admissions scandal served as a hallmark, reminding the American public that privilege will continue to overrule the hard work of those with true dedication and merit. 

However, let us not forget the accomplices in this entire scandal: the colleges themselves. Though all of these colleges should be ashamed to even have their names mentioned in this scandal, these specific shameful colleges are the University of California-Los Angeles, University of California-San Diego and the University of Texas at Austin all public schools. These schools have been funded by the government, and under that pretense, they are supposed to be different from the elitist snobbery of private schools. 

But, of course, private schools are equally guilty in the scandal. When the scandal broke, I hardly blinked an eye when the University of Southern California was implicated in the bribery scandal, seeing that they’re already comfortable taking upwards of $77,000 a year from their students. For private schools, this scandal was merely a confirmation that the system was designed for the over-privileged and underqualified cowards bred by America’s richest and most famous. Seeing these public schools proclaim themselves separate from the bureaucratic corruption many assumed was present within private schools is sickening.

With Huffman as the first indicted celebrity in the case, there is hope that the other high-profile offenders like Loughlin suffer a greater punishment than Huffman's. However, now it has also become a mockery of the punitive aspect of criminal justice and an embarrassing slap in the face to those who actually believed the wealthy and the privileged would be subjected to the hard hand of justice. 

Joshua Kim can be reached at joshica@umich.edu.