You know things have gone terribly wrong when even the U.S. Department of Education is investigating you.
And the past 20 days have been pretty terrible for UCLA.
The university has had to answer to publications, administrators, state lawmakers and even the U.S. secretary of education after its now-former men’s soccer coach was alleged to have taken $350,000 in bribes to secure the admission of two students from wealthy families. The coach, Jorge Salcedo, was one of 50 collegiate athletics coaches, ultra-rich parents, CEOs and celebrities indicted for participating in what is the largest college admissions scam in recent history.
UCLA placed Salcedo on administrative leave in light of the charges and accepted his resignation March 21. The coach for 15 seasons and Bruin for 41 years has since shown up in a Massachusetts federal court to fight the charges of him conspiring to commit racketeering.
But amid the fascination with Salcedo’s fall from grace, we’ve all missed the real story: how much the university is trying to move past the scandal.
Administrators have consistently tried pinning the blame solely on Salcedo for dragging UCLA into the scam and haven’t disclosed how they will remediate the athletics admissions process. The campus has instead been filled with #UCLABound social media posts about admissions results and reaffirmations of the collegiate athletics scene in Westwood.
But it was precisely this lack of scrutiny that permitted Salcedo to bring a competitive horseback rider onto a Division I women’s soccer team, and a distinct lack of oversight that allowed UCLA Athletics to keep the student on the team for a year despite her not having competitive soccer experience or even playing a single game the entire season. The university ought to be transparently reforming its athletics admissions process, but seems content leaving it untouched.
That sluggishness to act was best demonstrated by Dan Guerrero, the athletics director, in a statement he released March 22 regarding the scam. Guerrero said prospective student-athletes are vetted by a committee of administrators and faculty after being recommended by a coach, arguing it was one of the most demanding processes across the nation.
“Despite the fact that we have confidence in the existing process, a breach of the system can obviously occur when individuals choose to act unethically, and contrary to the level of integrity that we expect,” he said.
But the failures highlighted in the scandal are not of a few individuals – they’re of the athletics apparatus. After all, it’s ludicrous to assume Salcedo alone was able to stow away the daughter of the rich president of a real estate firm onto another team without anyone’s knowledge.
It’s not enough that UCLA avoids bribery scandals in the future. Rather, it needs to harden the athletics admissions process to withstand bad actors like Salcedo and those who aided him – a process that requires trust-building with the public, not polished statements about trusting coaches and occasional internal tweakings.
In fact, that opaqueness is the reason the university has been dragged under a microscope by not only the University of California, but also the state of California and U.S. Department of Education, which are all conducting investigations or passing regulations to preclude further wrongdoing.
Yet these actions all stand to hurt those who were already done over by the scandal. The U.S. Department of Education is threatening to cut federal student aid, which would affect low-income and marginalized students – the very students who were flaunted at by the college admissions scam. And California lawmakers have proposed a variety of bills, including one to cut universities’ eligibilities to participate in the Cal Grant program – a service no wealthy student would ever need – if they fail to prevent preferential admissions from being given to applicants related to university donors or alumni.
UCLA’s low-income and marginalized students are clearly the ones losing out because of UCLA Athletics’ failure to retain the public’s trust.
Of course, the university, like any organization under fire, would naturally seek an internal reformation process. But the college admissions scandal didn’t just disgrace a long-time men’s soccer coach – it also degraded the trust Californians and applicants worldwide placed in the university’s standards. UCLA’s goal shouldn’t be to escape the news cycle but to demonstrate an earnest attempt at fixing a systemic vulnerability in the No. 1 public university’s admissions process.
That obviously hasn’t happened yet. And the longer it doesn’t, the longer students who didn’t cheat their way into UCLA will be the ones paying the price.