LOS ANGELES — On the palm-tree-lined campus of the University of Southern California this week, a tour guide proudly pointed out to prospective students the university’s six Heisman football trophies and award-winning faculty, testaments to the stellar reputation the school has fought hard to build.
Yet only a day earlier, USC had emerged at the epicenter of an unfolding college admissions scandal involving federal charges of bribery, cheating and parents who were willing to pay thousands of dollars to get their underperforming children into some of the nation’s top universities.
Of the nearly three dozen parents named in court documents unveiled this week, more than half are accused of bribing their way into the elite private campus in the heart of Los Angeles. Four USC athletics officials are charged with taking bribes, more than the number named at any other school. Donna Heinel, one of the university’s top athletics administrators, helped get more than two dozen students admitted as athletes, federal prosecutors charged, although none of them were qualified to play competitive sports.
Reeling from what was only the latest scandal to unfold over the past two years, campus officials insisted this week that USC was a victim in the bribery and cheating case and vowed to reject any applicants involved in fraudulent admissions.
“This will not set us back in any way,” Wanda Austin, the interim president, said in an interview. “We have parents who set a horrible example, and employees who clearly acted in a way that showed they need to be fired.”
The campus today is far different from the one students encountered decades ago when the school was better known as a home for the children of Los Angeles’ wealthy elite, snidely referred to as the “University of Spoiled Children.” In the 1990s, the university began an extensive overhaul, building on its reputation as an athletic powerhouse and ranking academically among the nation’s top-tier schools.
It recruited star faculty, including six Nobel laureates, and raised standards for admission, admitting last year only 13 percent of those who applied. The campus also made a major investment in its athletic programs, winning national football championships, while also drawing top athletes to play tennis, water polo, volleyball and track.
But a series of corruption scandals has torn through the university, threatening those years of image building.
In 2017, the medical school dean was fired over accusations of drug use and prostitution, and his successor resigned after allegations of sexual harassment. After yet another scandal emerged in 2018, involving a campus gynecologist accused of sexual misconduct, the university’s president, C.L. Max Nikias, was forced to step down. Then at the end of last year, the dean of the business school was ousted over the mishandling of workplace misconduct claims.
How the university built itself up only to be undermined by such profound internal turmoil has left students, parents, faculty and the vast Trojan alumni network wondering whether the university can manage to maintain its stature. It has also prompted many to begin asking: Has the push to raise money to boost the school’s programs gone too far? Is everything at USC for sale?
Josh Meltzer, who graduated in 2002, said he has been alarmed by the “apparently constant lack of ethical and responsible leadership” in the past several years.
“USC prides itself on creating this massive Trojan family, and alumni are constantly asked to support the university with donations, but it’s hard to imagine doing that right now,” Meltzer said. “When I was a freshman I looked around at our class and was proud it certainly wasn’t all rich kids — we were coming from a lot of diverse backgrounds and had done really well in high school.”
Austin has vowed to have more accountability and transparency and said that the school would reject any current applicants who are connected to the bribery scheme. She and others at the campus have expressed shock at the brazen willingness of parents, as described in the charging documents, to subvert the admissions system.
In one conversation referred to in the indictment and captured by a wiretap, a Beverly Hills marketing executive, Jane Buckingham, discussed how to get her son into USC with William Singer, the admissions counselor who has pleaded guilty to organizing the bribery and cheating scheme. She admitted that it was a reach.
“I need you to get him into USC, and then I need you to cure cancer and [make peace] in the Middle East,” Buckingham said.
“I can do that,” Singer replied.
Yet even the chairman of the university’s board of trustees, Rick J. Caruso, a Los Angeles real estate developer, emerged with a personal connection: As prosecutors announced that Hollywood star Lori Loughlin was being charged with bribing her daughter’s way into USC, the daughter was on Caruso’s yacht, sharing a spring break vacation in the Bahamas with Caruso’s daughter.
“My daughter and a group of students left for spring break prior to the government’s announcement yesterday,” Caruso said in a statement. “Once we became aware of the investigation, the young woman decided it would be in her best interest to return home.”
The bribery allegations, he said, were “just unthinkable.”
Mark Piccirillo, who was visiting the campus from Dallas this week with his daughter, a high school junior, said he was disappointed but not surprised to learn about the bribes. He said the case affirmed his long-held belief that the system was rigged in favor of the rich and privileged.
“The one thing that bothers me about the whole thing is it’s hard enough to get in regularly,” he said. “My guess is this is the tip of the iceberg.”
The center of the scandal swirled around the school’s athletics department, which over the years has been the most visible way the school presents itself to the world. As the bribery case made clear, the system to recruit student athletes — who are already sometimes held to lesser academic standards than other students — can be subject to manipulation.
“The fact that there is this entirely separate system for athletes’ admission and recruitment that frankly lends itself to corruption and abuse is really disturbing,” said Ariela Gross, a law professor at the university. “There’s the broader class issue of wealthy people buying access or stacking the deck in normal, legal ways.”
At one time, there was no better symbol of the renaissance at USC than the football team.
The Trojans, behind a charismatic coach, Pete Carroll, eagerly filled the professional football void left in Los Angeles by the departure of the Rams and the Raiders.
Carroll, who was hired in 2000, built a juggernaut, winning 45 of 46 games at one point with teams that were as entertaining as they were dominating, routinely packing the cavernous Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
As the building boom in and around campus took root, investment continued in athletics, which, thanks to football’s rejuvenation, had seen revenues double to $76 million over an eight-year period. A long-awaited basketball arena, a state-of-the-art tennis stadium and a glistening new administration building were built, fortifying programs like water polo, tennis and track and field, which continued to chase national championships and produce a steady stream of Olympians.
But football was hit by its own recruitment scandal nearly a decade ago.
The team’s stars back then were treated as such, receiving the Hollywood treatment.
Snoop Dogg hovered near the end zone during games and ran pass patterns at practice. Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx and Spike Lee stood along the sidelines, regularly flanked by professional athletes.
But it came crumbling down in 2010 when the NCAA, after a clumsy, contentious and lengthy investigation into whether football and basketball players had received illegal gifts from agents, hit the school with crippling penalties.
The university moved swiftly to recover. Nikias succeeded Steven B. Sample as president that same year and began building the school into a fundraising powerhouse. For the past several years, it has been one of the top universities in annual fundraising, along with Harvard and Stanford, raising $6 billion in a recent campaign.
Nikias used the NCAA sanctions as the impetus to clean house — firing the athletic director, Mike Garrett, himself a former Heisman Trophy winner. Nikias also beefed up the rules compliance office, hiring a prominent Los Angeles lawyer, and soon had a nine-person staff.
“We’re going to have a culture of compliance,” Pat Haden, the replacement USC athletic director, told The New York Times at the time. “We’re going to think about it in the morning, think about it before we go to bed. We’re going to have issues but we’ll fess up and be better than the way before.”
As part of the restructuring, one administrator was soon thrust into a more prominent role — Heinel, a former college swimmer.
Heinel now stands accused of collecting more than $1.3 million in payments directed from parents through Singer between 2014 and 2018, and drawing $20,000 per month from Singer since last July through a sham consultant agreement.
Heinel, who came to USC in 2003, was fired Tuesday along with Jovan Vavic, the hugely successful water polo coach who was charged in the current affidavit with accepting $250,000 from Singer. Two former USC soccer coaches — Ali Khosroshahin and his assistant, Laura Janke — have been charged with taking $350,000 from Singer. So, too, has Bill Ferguson, the Wake Forest women’s volleyball coach, who led the men’s team at USC for a decade before leaving in 2016. He is accused of accepting $100,000 from Singer.
The recent scandals haven’t appeared to dim the university’s powerful lure for prospective students. This year, USC received close to 66,000 applicants, its largest pool ever, with the highest collective GPAs and SAT scores ever recorded.
Yet in the aftermath of the latest news, many faculty and students said they felt betrayed and angered.
“I’m infuriated by what happened and what she did,” said Tom Walsh, a former USC track and cross-country coach, who left in 2013 after 19 years at the school, referring to Heinel. “I felt like our program, we got denied a few people that we thought were going to get into our program, legit track and field international stars. Now, you look back and wonder why they didn’t get in. Did they make space for these phony people?”
Summer Dahlquist-Tookey, 18, a freshman, said that for her, the indictments had only underscored the role money played in the admissions process. “From the moment I stepped onto USC’s campus, I noticed how wealthy most of the students were,” she said. “I have classmates who have the same last names as buildings on campus. Once we hear that, we basically know how they got in.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.