BALTIMORE — Among my best friends in high school was Mansfield (Sonny) Newsom, who sat directly in front of me for three years by dint of alphabetical order. I cannot recall a day in which Sonny wasn’t reading some serious book freshly borrowed from the library, nor an afternoon in which he wasn’t running varsity track or cross-country.
He was serious college material.
So it wasn’t surprising, in our senior year, when our homeroom classmates were talking about college prospects, and Sonny let slip that he’d be going to the University of Michigan.
As it turned out, he was lying to save face. At one of our class reunions, some years later, he confessed he’d never gone to college. He went straight into the U.S. Navy, served a long hitch, came out and became a computer whiz.
“Never had the money for college,” he said softly. “But everybody else was talking about it back in high school, and I was too embarrassed to tell the truth. I made up the part about Michigan because I had an uncle who lived there.”
The lying about colleges continues now, but Sonny’s story was the scruffier side of today’s unfairness. Families with lots of money have been caught cheating, spending big money to get their under-achieving kids into prestige universities they don’t deserve to attend, such as Yale and Georgetown.
It’s not enough for these kids to go to any old college. With these families, it’s got to be a college with cachet, some place to boast about to other folks whose kids “only” made it into some pathetic state university.
Affirmative action for white people, Bill Maher called it this week. For the record, Sonny Newsom was black. Also for the record, the parents of these spoiled rich kids are white.
But race is only one way we measure privilege in this story. This is about dozens of rich parents, including celebrities such as Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, who paid big-money bribes to get phony results on their kids’ SAT or ACT exams.
Sometimes a smart person would sneak in and take the test for these kids. Sometimes a co-conspirator would serve as proctor, or guide the students to the right answers. Sometimes the wrong answers would be corrected after the tests were taken.
In other cases, college applications were padded with phony achievements, and coaches paid to fake athletic participation – in some cases, by photo-shopping athletes’ bodies onto kids’ faces when they never even played the sport.
Federal prosecutors have called it the “largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice.”
In some ways, modern cheating is just a variation on a long-running theme. Kids with wealthy families have always had advantages. They start with expensive pre-school and nursery school and 12 more years of private schooling. They get expensive counseling for their SATs. They can afford today’s crippling college tuition. And maybe they’ve got parents handing over hefty donations in advance of the kids’ formal applications.
There’s a line from an old “Taxi” sitcom that sums up some of it. Remember Jim Ignatowski? He was the drugged-out cabbie from a rich family who’d somehow managed to get into Harvard. How did such a miracle happen?
“It’s very easy,” Jim explained. “First, have your father finance a gymnasium.”
So we now have these parents facing the possibility of serious criminal charges. We have these kids, who have now been shunned by their college classmates as the newest details have emerged – even though, we’re told, there were cases where the kids weren’t even aware of the parental deceptions that got them into such colleges in the first place.
We’re drawn, inevitably, into questions of fairness in America. The kids with money find a way into the top schools, and a degree from the top schools goes a long way into getting the top jobs, which pay the biggest money. The circle is completed. The same people keep winning the battles of class warfare.
But where does conscience come into play?
In the same high school spirit that my late friend Sonny Newsom felt compelled to tell a protective lie, I faced one of my own. My parents had a friend with connections to Columbia University, with its top-flight journalism school. My grades were decent, but not good enough for Columbia. The friend said it didn’t matter – he knew somebody on the board of trustees who could put in the fix and get me in.
I said no. I don’t pretend to be saintly, but it offended my 17-year old self’s sense of right and wrong. I knew that my enrollment would block some other kid, legitimately deserving of a spot, from getting in. I’ve never bothered to tell the story before, because what decent person wouldn’t do the same thing?
It turns out, a lot of people, in their indecency.
Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of five previous books, including Michael Olesker’s Baltimore: If You Live Here, You’re Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins Press.