CAMBRIDGE, Mass. >> Students are moving in, syllabuses are being handed out and freshmen are getting directions to the 24-hour Starbucks. But as a new school year begins at the University of Southern California, the nation’s largest-ever admissions fraud prosecution continues to roil the campus.
Close to 20 USC students are entering the fall not knowing whether they will be allowed to remain at the school or be expelled, as a university investigation into students tied to the scandal, in which dozens of parents were accused of taking part in a scheme to cheat on tests or of paying bribes to help their children get into elite colleges, drags into a sixth month.
Other students have been texting one another screenshots of Olivia Jade Giannulli, a one-time social media star who is caught up in the scandal, using a lewd hand gesture on Instagram amid reports that she is not coming back to USC. Her mother, actress Lori Loughlin, appeared in court today in connection to charges that she conspired to fraudulently get her daughters admitted to USC.
All the while, faculty members are complaining about USC’s handling of the case, saying that it has not been transparent about who knew about the fraudulent admissions. The university is fighting a subpoena from a parent charged in the case who is seeking several years of records about applicants who may have gotten a leg up because their parents donated to the school.
Almost half a year after prosecutors announced the sweeping prosecution over college admissions, much remains in flux. Joshua Ritter, a lawyer who is representing students who are under investigation by the university in connection with the case, said that his clients were “in a complete state of limbo.”
“They’re renting their apartments and everything else, getting ready for school and they have no idea what action if any the university is going to take,” he said.
USC is more deeply involved than any other American university in the scandal, in which prosecutors have charged 51 people in connection with a scheme to cheat on college admissions exams and bribe college coaches to designate students as recruits despite their not being competitive athletes. Four USC athletics officials were charged with taking bribes, and more than half of the parents charged in the case were accused of trying to bribe their children’s way into USC.
Earlier this year, USC said it would investigate 33 current students for possible admissions violations. But after university investigators conducted interviews last spring, most of the students have heard nothing about their fates.
Asked about the slowness of the process, the university said in a statement, “This is a diligent, impartial process that gives each student the opportunity to submit evidence and witnesses in their defense.”
Fewer than half of the students under investigation have been told of the university’s decision in their cases, according to a person with knowledge of the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of its sensitivity. According to this person, the decisions in those cases have ranged from the student being cleared to the student being expelled. Students can appeal the decisions, a process that one lawyer representing several students at USC said could take several months.
Several lawyers who are representing students being investigated by the university expressed frustration with the process and the delay.
Ritter said that the students he represents had sat down for interviews with investigators in April and since then, “We’ve kind of gone into a radio silence.”
The university is permitting students who are still under investigation to enroll in classes, but preventing them from receiving their own transcripts, so even if they wanted to withdraw and apply to transfer some other institution, they could not, he said.
Most of the students and parents connected to the case have kept low public profiles. But Loughlin’s two daughters have lately reemerged on social media. Last month, they each wished their mother a happy birthday on Instagram, and Olivia Jade followed that post with the one featuring the crude gesture, apparently directed at media outlets that had published articles about her.
Loughlin and her daughters appeared on the cover of this week’s issue of People magazine, all of them wearing white. Inside, the three sat close together on a couch, their legs tucked under them, Loughlin holding one daughter’s hand and with her arm around the other.
Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, were each charged with conspiring to pay bribes to get their daughters admitted to USC as recruits to the crew team. They have pleaded not guilty.
They appeared in federal court in Boston today for a hearing that would address conflicts that could arise from their sharing lawyers. Prosecutors have suggested, for example, that if one member of the couple was less involved in what happened than the other, that person would not get an adequate defense because the lawyers would simultaneously be trying to protect the more culpable person.
In the admissions scandal, some schools moved more quickly than USC to dismiss students connected to the case. Georgetown has dismissed two students. Stanford and Yale each rescinded a student’s admission.
It remains unclear where the students who are expelled from their schools will land. Hanna Stotland, an admissions consultant who said she had been hired by five families in the case to help their children get into a new school, said that she had represented students who had been expelled or suspended as a result of sexual misconduct allegations, and that students tied to the admissions case were “way, way, way tougher to place” than those students.
In some cases, she said, admissions officers seemed open to hearing her out about why they should give a student a chance. “Then they go talk to the higher-ups, and it’s a no go,” she said. She said her sense was that colleges were mostly afraid of the publicity they might attract by admitting a student connected to the case.
“There’s a risk that you’re going to get paparazzi in some cases tracking the kids down and associating this college with cheaters or criminals,” she said.
She said she was advising some families to consider sending their children to school abroad, where university admissions is based more purely on grades and test scores, and less on a holistic process like it is in the United States
“It’s not a solution for everyone,” she said. “Particularly, I think I can safely say that for some of my families now, where the family is in crisis and parents may be going to jail, that it’s not — some of the families feel that it’s not a good time for one or more siblings to be 5,000 miles away even if educationally that might be a good solution.”