Penn not among schools named in nationwide college admissions scandal

Julie Coleman and Deena Elul

March 12, 2019

The University of Pennsylvania was not among the higher education institutions named in court documents unsealed by the Justice Department on March 12 charging 50 people — mostly parents, including two celebrities — for taking part in a far-reaching bribery scam to get prospective students into elite schools. This news comes only days after former Penn coach Jerome Allen testified that he took part in a similar bribery scandal in order to help a current Penn senior gain admission to the University.

Among the 50 individuals charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering and fraud are famous actors, college coaches, and university administrators. The alleged crimes included cheating on entrance exams and bribing college officials to falsely identify students as part of athletic recruitment, the Washington Post reported. Peer institutions, such as Yale University, Stanford University, Georgetown University, and the University of Southern California, were named in the legal documents unsealed by a federal court in Boston.

Although Penn was not mentioned in the Federal Bureau of Investigation affidavit, it has been the recent focus of bribery allegations similar to some outlined in the court filings. Former Penn men’s basketball star and coach Jerome Allen testified on Oct. 5, 2018 in Miami federal court that he received hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from Philip Esformes. Allen claimed Esformes offered him more than $74,000 to list his son, current Wharton senior Morris Esformes, as a recruited basketball player in order to guarantee Morris’ admission to Penn. He pleaded guilty in October 2018.

Allen led the men’s basketball program for six years between 2009 and 2015, and left Penn to become assistant coach for the Boston Celtics. He was reportedly suspended from the Celtics for two weeks following his guilty plea. As part of the plea deal, Allen will repay $18,000 on top of a $202,000 fine to the federal government.

In response to the Allen case, Dean of Admissions Eric Furda said in October 2018 that safeguards must be put in place to ensure similar situations do not happen in the future. He suggested new professional development and training for all staffers in both the Admissions Office and Athletics Department to avoid future bribery scandals.

Television stars were also implicated in what prosecutor Andrew Lelling described as the largest-ever college admissions scam prosecuted by the Justice Department, according to the Post. Actors Felicity Huffman, famous for her role on “Desperate Housewives,” and Lori Loughlin, who was a star of “Full House,” were charged. William Singer, a college admissions advisor at the center of the fraud case, is set to plead guilty this afternoon, the Post reported. Most people charged disguised their bribes as charitable donations. Of the 50 people charged, 33 were parents of college hopefuls.

Brian Taylor, managing director of Ivy Coach, a New York-based college consulting firm, said he was surprised by “the sheer magnitude of the scandal.”

“It would be naïve to think this is the only scandal that is potentially out there, but I don’t think this is something that is widespread,” said IvySelect College Consulting Founder Michael Goran, who is a 1976 College graduate.

Georgetown University’s former tennis head coach Gordon Ernst, who was charged in the case, was previously head coach for men’s tennis at Penn from 1998 to 2000. Singer allegedly paid Ernst $2.7 million in bribes, and in exchange, Ernst designated at least 12 applicants as recruits for the Georgetown tennis team. The bribes were falsely labeled as “consulting fees,” the court documents allege.

One of the witnesses in the case is a former head coach of the Yale women’s soccer team, Rudolph Meredith, who allegedly received a $400,000 bribe to pretend a student was a soccer team recruit to help her get admitted to the university. Meredith pleaded guilty to the charges almost a year ago.

Andrew Belasco, CEO of college consulting firm College Transitions, said the scandal fits in with general trends of families feeling pressured to get their children into an increasingly small number of competitive schools. He cited “questionable behaviors,” such as parents making large donations to increase children’s chances at admission, which he said are common at Ivy League schools.

“You’re coming from a pretty unregulated industry where there are people that do engage in questionable practices,” he said. “We have seen more and more parents overstepping their bonds, crossing their boundaries, but never anything like this.”

Neither the students nor the universities implicated in the bribery scandal were charged. Prosecutors determined parents were the primary perpetrators of the scheme.