USC at core of bribe plot
By BRIAN MELLEY
Monday, March 18
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Roy Nwaisser has four degrees from the University of Southern California and is a superfan of its storied football squad — he hasn’t missed a home or away game in 27 years.
But his devotion has been tested by a series of scandals culminating with the school’s starring role in a massive college admissions bribery case that is the latest disgrace threatening to tarnish USC’s hard-fought reputation as an academic, as well as athletic, powerhouse.
Hours after that news broke Tuesday, Nwaisser turned down a request to speak at an alumni fundraiser in Nevada.
“I can’t in good conscience promote the university until they clean up their act,” Nwaisser wrote to the group. “If people want to donate their money they should give it to institutions with fewer scandals and less corruption.”
It’s been a bruising two years for the university in the heart of Los Angeles. The president who helped boost the school’s endowment by raising $7 billion stepped down amid investigations into a medical school dean accused of smoking methamphetamine with a woman who overdosed, and reports the school ignored complaints of widespread sexual misconduct by the longtime campus gynecologist.
Meantime, an assistant men’s basketball coach pleaded guilty to charges stemming from a wide-ranging FBI probe of corruption in college hoops.
This week’s announcement of federal criminal charges over admissions cheating also targeted prestigious schools such as Stanford, Georgetown and Yale, but no other institution was implicated as much as USC.
Prosecutors say wealthy parents either paid bribes to have a college counselor rig standardized tests or get their children admitted as recruits of sports they didn’t play.
More than half the 32 parents charged were trying to bribe their children’s way into USC. One of those parents, Homayoun Zadeh, is a USC dentistry professor now facing termination.
To gain access for their two daughters, actress Lori Loughlin and her fashion designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, paid $500,000 to have them labeled as crew team recruits at USC, even though neither is a rower, prosecutors said.
The school fired senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel and water polo coach Jovan Vavic, who won 16 national titles. Both were accused of taking bribes. Two former USC coaches also were named in the scheme.
In a letter to the campus, interim President Wanda Austin twice emphasized that prosecutors alleged the school was a victim of employees who purposely deceived it. In a follow-up, Austin did not use the word victim and said the school was cooperating with prosecutors and conducting its own investigation that could lead to further discipline.
USC plans to redirect donations that were part of the scheme toward scholarships for needy students, Austin said. It would also deny admission to applicants accepted through the scheme and review the cases of students and graduates who fraudulently gained admission.
A university spokesman declined requests for interviews.
Jeff Hunt, a crisis management expert who helped Penn State after a child sex abuse scandal involving assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, said USC’s damage control must include disclosing everything it can no matter how embarrassing.
“This is a crude way of saying it, but all of this could be kind of packaged together by saying that we had a period of time where culturally we weren’t really where we need to be, want to be, or should be,” said Hunt, author of “Brand Under Fire.”
Some faculty have put the blame on former President C.L. Max Nikias, who was lauded for amassing a huge endowment, but criticized for not acting quickly when scandals hit.
Nikias stepped down last summer as a chorus of faculty called for his resignation after hundreds of women accused Dr. George Tyndall of misconduct ranging from sexual abuse to conducting unnecessary examinations and taking photos of genitalia for no medical purpose.
Tyndall has not been charged and has denied the allegations. The university recently agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit by paying $215 million to potentially thousands of women he examined.
William G. Tierney, a professor of higher education, said the current crisis is tied to Nikias’ “stage-managed” hiring of football Hall of Famer Lynn Swann, an alumnus, as athletic director. He said Swann has been asleep at the wheel.
Tierney said disruption from recent scandals will lead some faculty to retire early or go to more stable institutions.
“The vast majority of us are not interested in drama and intrigue,” Tierney said. “The last 18 months has been a constant barrage of horrific news that occurred because of a Board of Trustees acting as a rubber stamp, an ineffective Faculty Senate, and a president who charged ahead without listening to anyone else. The outcome is a constant environment of chaos.”
USC has shed its one-time reputation as a country club for rich kids and has steadily risen to academic prominence over several decades. It ranks 22nd in U.S. News rankings of national universities, tied with the University of California, Berkeley and Georgetown.
There are 20,000 undergrads and 27,000 graduate students. Nearly a quarter of students come from abroad — the vast majority from China. Tuition is $55,000.
The pay-to-play scandal has renewed some of the school’s past reputation.
Heather Newgen, a freelance journalist, was the first in her family to go to college and worked two jobs and took care of her grandmother on weekends while going to USC in the early 2000s.
She said she was disgusted that admission was denied to some to make room for kids who paid their way in.
“Everyone says that USC is the University of Spoiled Children,” Newgen said. “That definitely wasn’t my case, but when I went there everyone was driving BMWs and didn’t have to work and just seemed more excited to hang out and party.”
Kelly Jiang, 18, a sophomore from Kunming, China, whose parents pay $74,000 a year for tuition and expenses, said she feared the scandal would taint her degree.
“It really diminishes the value of USC,” Jiang said. “If someone can just pay $500,000 to get into USC and get a diploma, what are we as USC graduates, or people hiring USC graduates, supposed to think?”
Nwaisser said friends and fellow football fans he knows have canceled season tickets at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and withheld donations out of protest. He said he’s heartbroken and hopes his school chooses a new president based on values rather than ability to raise money.
Despite his disappointment with USC leadership, he will continue to follow the Trojans around the country and keep his attendance streak alive.
“I’ll still be going to football games long after all these people are gone and after they’ve righted the ship,” he said.
Associated Press Writer Amanda Lee Myers contributed to this report.
Why meritocracy is a myth in college admissions
March 15, 2019
Morgan Polikoff, Associate Professor of Education, University of Southern California
Jerome A Lucido, Professor of the Practice, Executive Director, Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice, University of Southern California
Julie Renee Posselt, Assistant Professor of Higher Education, University of Southern California
Disclosure statement: Morgan Polikoff receives funding from the Institute of Education Sciences and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Jerome A Lucido is a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and is the executive director of the USC Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice. Julie Renee Posselt receives funding from the National Science Foundation.
Partners: University of Southern California provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
The most damaging myth in American higher education is that college admissions is about merit, and that merit is about striving for – and earning – academic excellence. This myth is often used as a weapon against policies like affirmative action that offer minor admissions advantages to low-income students and racial and ethnic minorities.
From our standpoint as education researchers who specialize in college admissions, what counts in practice as “merit” is more complicated than the public thinks. For universities, building a student body is not only about identifying the most academically accomplished students. Universities also rely on offices of admissions to protect their financial bottom lines and to project a certain image.
The deck is stacked in favor of affluent parents who use their privilege and exploit these institutional needs to find their children a way into elite colleges.
The outrage at the admissions scandal that came to light this month in which affluent parents allegedly used fraudulent means to get their children accepted to high-profile universities, including our own school, is well justified. But in our view, there should be just as much outrage over the many ways that already “disadvantaged” students are further disadvantaged when wealthy families do things to protect their competitive advantage in the college admissions process.
A range of practices worth questioning
At one end of the continuum are the kind of parenting practices that are ethically sound, like enrichment activities for children, which affluent parents are spending more for as of late.
Meanwhile, spending on lower-income kids has barely budged. This practice by middle-upper class parents gives their children tangible advantages, such as stronger resumes. It also gives them unseen advantages, such as self-confidence and comfort in dealing with authority figures like coaches, doctors and professors.
Research by sociologist Annette Lareau shows that children of working-class parents often are not raised to unlock these kinds of hidden advantages.
The next step on the continuum is more ethically suspect. It demonstrates the fine line between gaming the system and good parenting. Affluent parents spend big on test preparation for SAT/ACT exams, coaching on admissions essays and sessions with high-priced college admissions consultants. No one blames parents for seeking advantages for their children, but these kinds of behaviors amount to a smokescreen because they make applicants appear stronger without actually improving their skills and abilities.
One step further are backdoor admissions processes that are legal and common, but which only the well-connected know about, often because of the close relationships between selective college admissions offices and the elite high schools where these students enroll. One example is early decision programs, which often offer substantial increases in the likelihood of admission. But people have to know about and understand the advantages that come from the early decision programs to take advantage of them, as well as have the money to commit to the school. Less affluent families, who need to compare financial offers, can rarely make such early commitments, because they would have to accept whatever financial aid offer was made by their accepting institution.
Another example is the so-called spring admit, which colleges use to game U.S. News rankings. In this scheme, colleges admit students with weaker qualifications – often affluent students and athletes – on the condition that they defer their admission to the spring after they graduate high school, rather than enrolling immediately in the fall. The spring admission enables colleges not to count weaker students in their admitted class for ranking purposes.
Even the notorious “wealthy donor” route – imagine a prospective student’s family giving a large donation – falls into the category of legal but ethically questionable. All of these kinds of advantages are perfectly legal, but they only serve to offer a leg up to people already standing on the top of the pile.
And finally, there are the outright scandals, such as the one that the Department of Justice announced on March 12. It involves fabrication of test scores, bribes of athletic coaches and more. To be sure, these alleged actions were morally and legally wrong. However, the fact that other practices – such as working with elite college counselors to encourage affluent students to apply in early decision or as a spring admit – are not seen as over the line raises questions about where the line should be drawn.
The plaintiffs in a federal court case against Harvard claim the problem is not with mechanisms that protect pathways of access for the wealthy, but rather with affirmative action based on race.
This despite the fact that affirmative action in college admission is a policy of being race-aware, not race-based – it is just one factor among many that is used to make holistic decisions. Admission officers are prohibited from considering race as a deciding factor in their decisions.
What the public wants
The truth is that voters support affirmative preferences for disadvantaged students, though results are often sensitive to how questions are asked. A poll we conducted recently of California registered voters found that most people support admissions advantages for low-income students and racial or ethnic minorities. This result matches polls from Pew and Gallup, which find that majorities support “affirmative action for racial minorities.”
In contrast, voters in our poll were more opposed to advantages for athletes and for children of donors. Voters’ intuitions may not be far off. In highly selective institutions, once the legacy students, student-athletes and other applicants with highly desirable qualities are admitted, there are fewer spots remaining for which to compete.
The college admissions scandal should be a wake-up call to remake selective college admissions so that wealth doesn’t have so much influence. Since many believe that where a person goes to college matters when it comes to getting a good-paying job, it’s important – at least from an equity standpoint – for selective colleges to be transparent about how they admit students.
If the scandal reveals anything, it is that some affluent parents will stop at nothing to make sure their children win in the high-stakes game of college admissions.
Pediatrician gets at least 79 years for assaulting patients
By MICHAEL RUBINKAM
Monday, March 18
EBENSBURG, Pa. (AP) — A former Pennsylvania pediatrician was sentenced Monday to at least 79 years in prison for sexually assaulting 31 children, most of them patients, as his now-adult victims blasted not only their abuser but the system that let him get away with it for so long.
Dr. Johnnie Barto of Johnstown was sentenced on dozens of criminal counts, including aggravated indecent assault and child endangerment. Prosecutors said he spent decades abusing children in the exam room at his pediatric practice in western Pennsylvania and at local hospitals, having opted to become a pediatrician so he’d have a ready supply of victims.
He typically abused prepubescent girls. One was an infant.
“I grieve for the little girl I should have been, for the childhood I should’ve had. … I grieve for all the children you hurt,” Erika Brosig, who was sexually abused at age 13, said at Barto’s sentencing.
Brosig and 18 other people gave victim impact statements Monday, both in person and through a prosecutor, describing their pain and hurt.
Barto’s wife, Linda Barto, was among them.
“He has been lying to me about everything for all of the 52 years I have known him. … He spent his whole sinister life lying and sneaking around, so he could carry on his abuse uninterrupted,” she said. She said her heart was heavy for the victims.
Authorities had a chance to stop Barto in 2000, when he appeared before the Pennsylvania Board of Medicine on administrative charges that he molested two young girls in the 1990s. But regulators threw out the case and allowed him to keep practicing medicine, saying the allegations were “incongruous to his reputation.”
Barto was a beloved pediatrician in Johnstown — and an elected school board member — with hundreds of supporters who flatly disbelieved he was a pedophile. Such was the community’s support that ribbons were distributed and worn at a high school football game as he fought the allegations in the 1990s. Brosig, who felt obligated to wear the ribbon as a member of the color guard, said it “burned a hole in my chest that entire night.”
After the medical board cleared him, Barto felt “invincible,” he later told authorities. And he continued molesting. Barto, now 71, went on to violate at least a dozen more young patients before his arrest in January 2018, according to the state attorney general’s office.
“Dr. Barto used his position of authority as a pediatrician, the family doctor relied on to treat and heal their children, to feed his own sick desires,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said at a news conference after the sentencing.
In handing Barto a prison term of 79 to 158 years — meaning the ex-pediatrician will die in prison — a judge told the gathered victims Monday that justice was finally theirs.
“All I can say is that the justice system is not perfect, but it worked the second time,” Judge Patrick Kiniry said.
As Barto sat impassively just a few feet away, victims described in minute detail their assaults: what Barto was wearing (a striped purple shirt); what the room looked like (burgundy carpeting on the walls, orange chairs, teal stool); what he did and how it made them feel.
Brosig said she can still feel Barto’s cold hands and hear the exam table paper crinkling underneath her body. “The sound of you moaning will haunt me until the day I die,” she told Barto.
One victim said that because of what Barto did to her, she rarely sees a doctor and is terrified of taking her children to one. Another told the court she showers in the dark because she’s ashamed of her body.
Many spoke of lifelong struggles with depression, anxiety, panic attacks and distrust of men. “I’ve lived my life in pain, hopelessness and despair,” a woman said in her statement.
The Associated Press does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they consent.
Prosecutors had asked for 31 to 62 years in prison.
Barto did not apologize and declined to make a statement. He pleaded guilty in December to sexually abusing two family members. He pleaded no contest to the charges involving his patients, refusing to admit guilt but accepting the punishment.
His lawyer, David Weaver, said Barto would not appeal the sentence.
Even after Barto was charged last year, some people in the area still couldn’t accept the truth about him, launching a Facebook group in support.
Newspaper association praises Noem’s transparency efforts
Friday, March 15
PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Gov. Kristi Noem said in her State of the State address that she’d work toward building the most transparent administration South Dakota has ever seen.
South Dakota Newspaper Association executive director Dave Bordewyk gives Noem’s administration a grade of “so far, so good” on transparency efforts.
Noem called for a reporter shield law and for bringing more sunlight to the Statehouse. The new Republican governor has since signed into law protections for journalists who refuse to disclose information or sources.
A bill Noem’s administration supported that limits the state’s ability to negotiate confidential settlements is on her desk.
Bordewyk says seeing the governor approve the shield law shows follow through. But he says there’s a lot left undone, including making police reports and government officials’ correspondence and calendars public records.
Savannah gearing up for profitable St. Patrick’s Day weekend
By RUSS BYNUM
Wednesday, March 13
SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Park fountains are gushing with green-dyed water. Beer trucks are making deliveries on a constant loop. And thousands of tourists in gaudy green outfits will soon arrive for Savannah’s biggest celebration of the year.
Georgia’s oldest city is gearing up for the South’s largest St. Patrick’s Day parade this weekend. It’s a 195-year-old tradition started by Irish immigrants to Savannah that has ballooned into one of the region’s most popular street parties after Mardi Gras.
Streamers of cardboard shamrocks and green T-shirts with bawdy slogans were on display Wednesday outside bars and storefronts along Savannah’s historic downtown riverfront. Street musician Marion May wore a large leprechaun hat as he played his flute for visitors strolling past a fountain filled with water stained a verdant shade of green.
“People from across the county, all crevices and cracks, are going to be coming here,” said May, 71, who on St. Patrick’s Day often sets up with his bucket for collecting tips in nearby Johnson Square. “If they’re not Irish, they’re going to be Irish for one day. Like me.”
Like New York and Chicago, Savannah will hold its parade Saturday, the day before the traditional March 17 holiday.
Nobody performs any official crowd estimate in Savannah, but parade organizers in the past have figured some of the largest crowds exceeded 500,000. Most of the area’s 16,000 hotel rooms are booked, said Joe Marinelli, president of Visit Savannah, the city’s tourism bureau.
“You partner terrific weather with a Saturday parade and we are expecting large crowds,” Marinelli said. “And this is more than just a two- or three-day weekend. It potentially could grow into a four- or five-day weekend for some of our visitors coming to town.”
Spring-like temperatures in the 60s are forecast for St. Patrick’s Day weekend. There’s also a small chance for rain on Saturday, though parade organizers don’t seem concerned.
“It’s going to be a beautiful day,” Bubba Edgerly, chairman of the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee, assured reporters at a Wednesday news conference. “We’ve been praying at church.”
For many business owners in downtown Savannah, St. Patrick’s Day is typically the most profitable time of the year. That’s especially true when the parade falls on a weekend, which won’t happen again until 2024.
Melissa Swanson, owner of The Rail Pub in downtown Savannah, said customers are typically lined up down the block when she opens at 8 a.m. on parade days to serve breakfast with green grits and bloody marys.
This St. Patrick’s Day weekend, Swanson figures her customers will drain 350 cases of Miller Lite and 26 kegs of Guinness. She adds: “We serve 80 other kinds of beer.”
“There is no other weekend that compares to St. Patrick’s Day,” Swanson said. “The closest I think you’ll get is Halloween when it’s on a weekend. But it’s not even half of what St. Patrick’s is.”