What Fourteen Days is Worth: Sentencing in the College Admissions Scandal

by Vielka

I think one of the core societal issues we grapple with is what is a crime and how that correlates to punishment. 

The news has daily discussions about the crimes that the president has committed or is being investigated for committing.  

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Yet he has yet to receive a consequence for any of them.  We can’t even seem to agree on whether he is being impeached or not.  

While I have no other place of agreement with the president, I must admit that if we were using punishment as a basis to determine the severity of a crime, well…

The logic is certainly in reverse to what the judicial system is intended for, but if we consider it in that way, we can better understand why communities of color are irate (my apologies for the over-simplification for lack of another word) as we’ve paid the ultimate consequence for doing [insert ordinary daily activity] or suspicion of [insert nonsense].   If I may include groups in which I belong to writ large, we also seem to be paying the price for being in public in groups as there are certainly communities in this country that have no fear of entering a Walmart, movie theater, school, place of worship, concert, restaurant, or work place. It seems to be the most severe crime to merely exist in public–a crime I commit every day–because it has been punished by death.

So when I saw that Felicity Huffman received 14 days, 250 hours of community service, a fine of $30,000, and a year of probation as her consequence in the college admissions scandal, I wondered what crime is she really being punished for.  The crime of contributing to structural inequality is certainly worse than carrying a toy gun in public, right? 

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I work in education and have two companies that work in college access.  This is different from admissions since our focus is with underserved students.  The distinction is important and is controversial because the companies really take a stand in the achievement versus opportunity argument by saying we recognize that some students are not given opportunities to succeed because there are knowledge gaps and systems of inequities that prohibit them from doing so.  We don’t believe that it has anything to do with what students have achieved but rather in the systems that allow them to proceed in such a way that denies them an education. This education is critical because it is the one certain way that we can change our circumstances, our family’s circumstances, and our community’s circumstances.  

I once went to a high school graduation with a friend of mine and walked up to each student of color and said, “You’re now part of a handful of people in your community with a diploma.  Don’t fuck it up.” While my twenties were about righteous anger, my forties have brought a desire to attempt to replicate this at scale. The short of it is, I want whoever spends her Saturday in June walking up to my son, to at least have a difficult time whispering those same words to the immense number of students of color he will have next to him at his college graduation.  

It’s certainly different to live in a system that I am actively trying to change, especially one that I have to examine and exercise my own privilege in order to do so.

By Huffman, and the others, exercising the privilege that money has provided them, they’ve then bolstered a system that is already denying this access to millions of students every day.  

That’s a huge impact but that’s a system that exists regardless of their intervention. There are people doing the very same despicable acts that these folks did without the honest services fraud, and thereby getting away with it.  Every single day.  

 It’s a system that relies on an exam that has proven to be unreliable in predicting college success, especially for some groups.  It’s a system that allows incredibly expensive test preparation companies to support students in inflating scores on that exam. It’s a system that privileges donor money even when tuition, endowments, and interest on endowments are more than enough to support the functioning of the university for eternity.  It’s a system where the overwhelming majority of colleges do not graduate students on-time or at all, yet are still permitted to collect tuition.  

It’s also a system where someone was able to convince an Emmy award winner and Academy Award nominee, among other awards, whose husband has his own set of Emmy awards and other accolades, that their daughter would not be admitted to acting school because of her math scores.  This is still exercising privilege but it seems to be one with some legitimacy.

It seems like such a small thing to cheat on a test or pay a bribe for a few universities, I want to keep going back to what college success means–social and economic mobility and preservation.

While it might seem hyperbolic to say so, by exercising their privilege, they have contributed to maintaining poverty, inequality, and oppression.  How quickly she has undone all that thought-provoking work on American Crime.  

So…14 days, $30,000, a year of probation, and 250 hours of community service…

But I wonder: How close is exercising the privilege to creating the system that supports that?

Again, not the biggest fan right now, but that seems to be at the core of Lori Laughlin’s defense.

I have to say that I don’t know the answer.  The entire scandal raises more questions for me and I work in this arena.  But I have some suggestions for how she should spend those 250 hours.

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