The Absurdist Horror of Operation Varsity Blues

In a famous scene from John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Cameron (Alan Ruck) stares deeply into the painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” at the Art Institute of Chicago. Though the painting initially is a recognizable image of children playing in a park, the longer and closer he looks at it, the more indistinguishable the paint splotches become. The colors bleed into each other. What was once a face is just a mass of pink, blue, and yellow, seeping into the grass in the background. Hughes zooms in on Cameron’s eyes, and they are blank and in awe. Hughes said about this scene: “The closer you look, the less you see.”

What I’m saying is that the national college admissions scam now dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues” makes me feel like Cameron in the art museum.

Over the past week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation busted and convicted a for-profit organization called The Edge College & Career Network – also known as the cartoon villain-esque shorthand “The Key” - whose mission statement basically boils down to letting exorbitantly wealthy families find fraudulent ways to get their child accepted to a university they might not get into without outside intervention. (As to whether they actually would and how this reflects on the children, we’ll get into that later.) Among those charged with using The Key’s services are Hollywood elite couple Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy, as well as actress Lori Loughlin and designer Mossimo Giannuli. A number of college coaches at Yale and the University of Southern California as well as high-profile admissions officers at both institutions were charged with their role in the fraud. 

How The Key operated did involve cheating on standardized ACT and SAT exams, but a large part of the committed fraud was in fact either outright faking student-athlete profiles for the children in question or bribing university coaches, in both cases to get the student in on a more academically lenient recruitment scholarship. Parents would Photoshop the faces of their children onto photos of real athletes or stage photo-shoots of the child participating a sport they did not actually play. I'll say that again: They Photoshopped their children's faces onto stock photos of athletes. The bizarreness of this entire situation is unprecedented. The Key called their business a “side door,” as in if donating large amounts of money to an alma mater to create a more lenient admissions process as the Kushner family did is a “back door,” then this fraud is an easier, cheaper side way into the university. I’ll let the Key member identified as CW-1 explain it: “The back door is through institutional advancement, which is ten times as much money. And I’ve created this side door in. Because the back door, when you go through institutional advancement, you know, everybody’s got a friend of a friend,  everybody knows somebody, but there’s no guarantee. My families want a guarantee.”

In case you thought I was joking. Selection from the FBI official transcript, accessed at Deadspin. 

This is morally reprehensible on many levels. Many other writers have pointed to the fact that for every student admitted through The Key’s fraud, a more deserving student lost a spot, and the implications for students in racial minorities and students with disabilities are disturbing. But beyond the moral outrage, there is so much more going on underneath the surface of this story through what it exposes about universities as institutions and the rampant inequity in the American education system. A case of particular interest to me is Lori Loughlin’s daughter Olivia Jade, a vlogger and social media influencer whose admission the University of Southern California was through The Key. Jade has over one million Instagram followers and nearly two million YouTube subscribers, and there has been a degree of question as to how much Jade is implicated in her parents’ choices. Jade was on the record multiple times as not even wanting to go to college. To Yahoo News she stated in 2018 that: “I don’t know how much of school I’m gonna attend. But I’m gonna go in and talk to my deans and everyone, and hope that I can try and balance it all. But I do want the experience of like game days, partying…I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know.” The irony is brutal. Jade later apologized, called her comments "privileged." But at the end of the day, she still said on an interview with the Zach Sang Show that she attended USC "because her parents wanted her to."

Olivia Jade in her dorm room at the University of Southern California. Image from a Teen Vogue piece which writes "Olivia's dorm is down-to-earth and totally relatable."

One commenter on an article profiling Jade in the aftermath of the scam mused “I’d like to think Olivia Jade got admitted to MIT and UChicago and her parents just scammed her into USC because it was better with her lifestyle brand.” Though sardonic and innocuous, this comment prompted an incredible train of thought in me, because it made me realize how much of college admissions really is just an extended version of lifestyle branding. USC’s laid back, sunny vibe and reputation for being a partying on the beach school was as close to Jade’s social media presence as a university could get. My chosen institution, The New School, is almost parodically a brand of social justice and alternative lifestyle – our running joke is that everybody was “that kid” in high school. In other words, people chose to go to The New School because they thought they were the type of person that should be at The New School. The same can be said for Yale, USC, or any of the other implicated institutions. We, as college students, have to ask ourselves: How much does where we go to school even mean anymore? What are we trying to sell the world with the name on our diplomas? Olivia Jade’s father spent $500,000 out of disdain that his daughter could be the kind of student who attends Arizona State University, which is, lest we forget, a nationally-ranked university on par with USC. All that mattered to Giannuli was the name and the brand.  

It feels as though attending college was not a choice we made but rather a system we accepted, and over and over again the university system exposes its ugliness. This ugliness is everywhere and the longer we look at it, the more it becomes indistinguishable from normality. It is pervasive. Take the case of Avital Ronell’s role in the post-graduate institution; and perhaps imagine how the entitlement and falsehood of “Operation Varsity Blues” bleeds into the grand money-making scheme that is the graduate institution which a student like Olivia Jade would theoretically enter after completing four years and expending many-thousand dollars on undergraduate education. The post-graduate world is a machine fueled by the labor of young adults who are vying for a piece of paper that will give them permission to one day enter “the real world,” a permission that they were once promised upon admission to somewhere like USC or Yale. The politics of academia are a perverse fiction and on some level everyone knows this. What is perhaps more disturbing than "Operation Varsity Blues" itself is the completely legal ways in which the college admissions process and the university as an institiution are broken - lavish tutoring on standardized tests, athletic recruitment itself as a form of inequity, and the arguable uselessness of a college degree at all in the economy young people are entering into. 

Cultural critic and YouTube personality Natalie Wynn once said: "This is an aesthetic century. In history, there are ages of reason and ages of spectacle, and it’s important to know which you’re in. Our America, our internet, is not ancient Athens—it’s Rome. And your problem is you think you’re in the forum, when you’re really in the circus.” Wynn is right. Modern college admissions and modern academia is presentation, not merit. It's about the way things look, not the way they are. But I’m tired of looking at the paint splotches. This time, I want to look at the whole picture.