By now we’ve all heard about it. Twitter’s been trending all week with hashtags from #collegescam, #OperationVarsityBlues to #AuntBecky.
On Tuesday, the United States Department of Justice accused more than 50 people — including 33 parents and 13 college-athletics coaches — of a nationwide scheme to get their children admitted into prestigious colleges. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg because Lord only knows how many thousands more there are, shaking in their designer boots, yet to be caught.
The alleged ringleader behind the scheme is William Singer, who has pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering conspiracy, money-laundering conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Over the last eight years, parents (including actress Lori Loughlin and Hollywood couple Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy) allegedly paid anywhere from thousands to upwards of a million dollars to score their kids’ admission into some of America’s most prestigious schools. Singer used his fake charity to funnel bribe money to coaches and test administrators.
Not another headline — this is personal
When I first heard about the college admissions scam I was shocked, though not surprised. Privilege begets privilege. It’s not a new phenomenon. Like most of us, I’ve known about college donations and legacy admissions, though never heard anything quite to this egregious extent. And the more I learned, the more I was triggered. I didn’t quite expect my emotions to run so deep — but it has literally felt like a proverbial slap across the face.
I think the timing of this story is partly why it hit such a nerve. Just last week, I spoke at an International Women’s Day event, and a significant part of my talk was the power of education and breaking the cycle of poverty. It was an extremely emotional day as it was the first time I was sharing my family’s history and their relationship with education. Even my father attended (the sole male in the room), recognizing the profound moment for our family.
Looking through the lens of ‘The Broken Ones’
“Ours is a battle — not for wealth, nor for power. Ours is a battle for freedom, for reclamation of human personality.”
— Dr. B.R. Ambedkar
Though our story dates back much farther, I’ll begin with Govind Solanki. He was born in 1912 in a small village in Gujarat, India. He was born into a very poor and very low caste family, in fact, lower than the lowest caste — below the caste system — he was what was called an ‘Untouchable’. While originally caste was based upon a person’s work, it soon became hereditary. Each person was born into an unalterable social status. Because of Solanki’s low status in society, he was not allowed to attend school. If lower caste children wanted an education, they had to sit outside of the school and listen — their mere shadow was seen to be tainted, so the children had to lay face-down at a distance when an upper caste person passed by. They were often humiliated and ridiculed so gravely that most of them chose to work instead, avoiding the degradation on the school ground. Uneducated, Solanki worked a meagre job, remained in poverty and was struck with illness at a young age.
It eventually led to his early death, leaving behind a young widow and four children. He did not have a strange incurable disease. He had asthma. Asthma. A very treatable illness, even then. But poverty doesn’t afford such “luxuries” as medication.
By the next generation, conditions for Untouchables or Dalits (‘the broken ones’) improved slightly in an era of segregation. The children were allowed to attend school, though forced to sit in the back of the classroom. They were also not allowed to drink from the school water well. Despite all of this, Solanki’s son, Vimal, did well at school. He finished primary school, went on to high school in a nearby village and then went a big step further and got his Bachelor of Science degree. He was the only child in his village to get that far with his education at that time. In 1976 he married a beautiful Indian woman who was studying in England at the time. Her family had fled to East Africa in search of a better life, away from the chains of the caste system. The pair resolved to never suffer the same fate as those before them — adamant that the one thing that could change their destiny and break the cycle of poverty was education. His wife studied fervently and became a midwife and Vimal too furthered his education with another degree.
That man, Vimal Solanki, is my father. This is our family’s story and there are many like it.
My family has been deeply affected by caste, classism and racism. They have borne witness as the upper crust made “donations” to slot their children into the best schools, while they struggled for entry to any. There were no leg ups for them. Theirs was a corrupt social structure specifically designed to kick down the impoverished and keep them there. Painstaking hard work, drive and determination have gotten them to where they are today. Early on, they instilled that same work ethic in my brother and myself. Education is paramount — but it has to be earned to be meaningful.
Knowing is not half the battle
Having overcome the chains of an elitist power structure, my parents have held a somewhat idyllic hope that opportunities in the western world should allow any of us, with drive and determination, to rise to the top.
Though at our core, I think every marginalized person gets that the playing field is not level. And yet while we see that privilege offers a head-start, we also believe in the possibility of winning the race. Like my parents, I catch myself falling into the pipedream that anything is possible with hard work — because I want to believe it. Well, quite frankly this scam sucked the life out of my “you can do anything” balloon.
The cruel joke of meritocracy
Both in Canada and the U.S. university admissions are heavily swayed in favour of the wealthy. The U.S. attorney Andrew Lelling said himself in a news conference earlier this week: “We’re not talking about donating a building … We’re talking about fraud” — ironically pointing to the well-known legal schemes allowing access to entry for the elite.
With admission rates hovering around five to six per cent for Harvard and Yale and priority given to legacy students, athletic recruits and high-profile wants, the odds look grim for the average applicant.
WATCH: The U.S. college admissions scandal unfolds
As a parent myself, I understand our desire to do anything possible to give our children the best we can — but putting ourselves above the law seems like terribly misguided judgment, not to mention bad parenting. Adding insult to injury, these wealthy families have access to tutors, test programs and all the other luxuries to prepare for admissions prep that most other children aren’t afforded.
Ironically, Singer’s so-called charity was supposed to be helping “underserved kids.” And we should really focus some of our outrage on those taking these bribes — the coaches and administrators — as they are the keepers of these schools and should be held to highest account.
Becky with the good heir
While I actually hold some shred of sympathy for the “Operation Varsity Blues” kids who may not have known about their parents’ scheming — the real victims in this are those deserving, over-achieving and underprivileged children whose possible ticket to redefining their families’ legacies was instead given to these teens.
I also feel deeply for the many people of colour who are told time and time again that theirs was not an admission of merit, but one of race.
And I am deeply saddened for the marginalized people who are actually sitting in jails today, in the hopes of giving their children a better education or any education at all. Because when it’s all said and done, I’ll be surprised if Loughlin, Huffman or any of these high-rolling “Desperate Parents” face jail time for their crimes.
Bringing down the house
There’s a reason it’s so difficult to topple these existing power structures. Those who have earned their way to the top through hard work and commitment aren’t afraid of putting a hand out to lift up their sisters or saying yes to affirmative action because they understand all the parts of the equation. Perhaps those over-privileged and underwhelming talented may want to “keep things the good ol’ way” because deep inside they know they’re not good enough and the only way to keep the facade alive is with their pocketbooks.
While my family legacy may not reek of wealth, it also doesn’t hold the filthy stench of foul entitlement — and for that I am grateful.