Point of View Columns

College Admissions in America – The Tip of the Iceberg

The series of revelations describing a veritable cesspool of corruption, cheating, bribery and betrayals in the admissions process at prestigious schools of higher education including Georgetown, Stanford, the University of California, Los Angeles, University of San Diego, University of Southern California, University of Texas, Austin, Wake Forest and Yale leaves one spectacular question swinging in the air like a rotting corpse of lies – what is it that we don’t know? In other words, in the jet-propelled world of high stakes college admissions, are we to believe that only the nine schools mentioned are the bad actors? Or are we looking at the tip of the iceberg?

In a country where a fake billionaire can lie his way into the presidency, why should we be surprised when anyone with $50,000 to $4,000,000 can lie and cheat to get their son or daughter into the college of their choice, instead of their child being chosen by the college? The audacity of the half a hundred otherwise wealthy and respectable defendants is breathtaking in that whatever concerns that they might have about equity, fairness or….wait for it…..setting a good example for their children, were outweighed by their desire to be able to say that their child was a student at Yale, UCLA, Georgetown, etc.

In a culture where imagined success literally trumps actual success, we cannot be surprised to find out that there are privileged young men and women are at this very moment students in colleges and schools that they are not qualified to attend. And it is tragic that students who might actually benefit from having a cherished once in a lifetime opportunity to attend these schools are not attending because their place has been taken by someone who already has access to every opportunity that life has to offer.

But we should not be deceived into thinking that this is simply a matter of a few (fifty???) bad actors trying to game the college admissions system with several millions of dollars and some photo shopped applications. This is not the only way that the United Privileged Parents of America are gaming the college admissions system.

We should understand that even reasonably bright and capable young men and women are being asked to compete for seats in universities and colleges all over America with young men and women (who may or may not be reasonably bright and capable) who have the advantage of having SAT “coaches” and college admissions consultants which can cost their parents tens of thousands of dollars a year – not to mention the fact that attendance a prestigious (and therefore brutally expensive) private prep schools and “special” public schools. In other words, the system is so rigged that the notion of equal access and success based on merit are simply wisps of words that need not even be spoken.

The magnitude of these crimes are almost too profound to comprehend as we will never know how many truly qualified students are being denied admission to colleges. The magnitude of the crime of rigging the entire college admissions system to solely benefit the children of the rich and privileged not only deprives the children of everyone else, it also deprives this country of its best talent and its best chance for a successful future.

John D. Rockefeller, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Michelle Obama, Reginald Lewis, Mario Cuomo, Mark Cuban, Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz are just a few of the contemporary prominent achievers who would never have been able to compete in the high stakes college admissions racket – their parents simply didn’t have enough money to “buy” opportunity through SAT coaches, college consultants, etc., much less be able to buy their children’s admissions at schools where the price only needs to be right.

We may never find out the scope and breadth of the outright bribery that is taking place in the college admissions universe. There are prosecutors and judges and juries and prisons that can address this kind of bad behavior. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The iceberg is the entire imbalance in the K-12 and college/university environment where power plus money equals college admission. And this situation makes it all the more problematic when conservative foundations and their attack lawyers seek to eliminate the few programs that seek to successfully level the playing field for those whose parents are not rich and powerful. Because some day, sooner than later, those without power and money will simply need not apply.

And that is the real tragedy for these United States.

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Point of View Columns

The Real Takers

Two recent news items carved into the public consciousness the true extent and hypocrisy of the Teapublican right wing and its myths. Several Teapublican members of congress dismissed all attempts to reach out to the Latino community, lumping all of that community with other supporters of the Democratic Party who are “takers”. As that vile commentary made its rounds it was announced in Davenport, Iowa that one Russell Wasendorf, Sr., the founder of the Peregrine Financial Group was sentenced to fifty years for stealing in excess of $215 million.

One of the many lows of the Romney campaign was the leaked video of Mitt Romney claiming that 47% of the American people were in effect “takers”, receiving a multitude of unearned benefits for housing, food, education and healthcare. It was, Mr. Romney believed, this 47% that would never vote for him and would always be looking for the Democratic handout that was waiting around the corner.

Of course Mitt Romney was half right. It wasn’t 47% of the American people who didn’t vote for him, it was more like 53%. But he was wrong in labeling and libeling so many Americans as “takers”, simply because the social safety net that they helped to create and pay for actually works.

But Mitt Romney and the Teapublicans are totally wrong in implying that there is this class of Americans – 53%, 10%, 1%, it doesn’t matter – who have achieved wealth and success through their own hard work and sheer genius. Such an analysis ignores the public education system, the highways, the commercial banking infrastructure, law enforcement and healthcare that create an environment where businesses can thrive and prosper. And no, they didn’t build that!

But the Teapublican shadow dance also tends to distract from another reality which the Peregrine case illustrates. Mr. Wasendorf founded an investment company, ran it for almost thirty years, stole $215 million of other people’s money and by all accounts never made a single penny. Yet Mr. Wasendorf was a respected member of the 1% club with estates, private planes and an office building to show off his edifice complex until, that is, the entire house of cards came crashing down.

And just in case we should think that Peregrine case is an outlier let us not forget Bernie Madoff ($18 billion stolen – 150 year prison sentence), Allen Stanford ($7 billion stolen – 110 year sentence), and Thomas Petters ($4 billion stolen – 50 year prison sentence).

Meanwhile, with stunning regularity firms like Goldman Sachs, Royal Bank of Scotland, J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America pay staggering fines of hundreds of millions, and in some instances billions of dollars for “improper practices”. Of course this punishment does not include criminal penalties for the perpetrators also known as the beneficiaries of these “improper practices”

It is important for us to understand that none of these examples are outliers. Great wealth many times is the result of “sharp” practices that are many times made illegal after the fact. The “sharp” business practices that created the fortunes of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan gave rise to an entire infrastructure of laws, rules and regulations. Those “sharp” practices were unfair and would now be illegal and in some instances crimes.

The point is that the real “takers” in American history have not been “welfare queens” getting a few extra food stamps. The real “takers” have been the men and women who have cheated and stolen and lied their way to unimaginable fortunes. To the extent they have been subtle enough to employ their chicanery without a ski mask, these “takers” end up in boardrooms, boards of trustees and in some instances Teapublican campaign finance committees.

Misdirection is one of the oldest ploys in just about every sport and certainly in politics. While filling the airwaves with complaints about the mythical “takers” from Ayn Rand’s fairy tales – students on scholarship, parents feeding their children, veterans receiving health support, elderly citizens receiving care and sustenance – attention is diverted from the brazen robberies that take place every day.

Most people in business are honest. But there are too many who are dishonest and who populate an ever growing den of thieves. These robbers represent the true burden on society and the drain on the economy.

Just because the robbers wear bespoke suits and custom-made shirts while being driven by their chauffeurs doesn’t mean that they aren’t the real “takers”.

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Excerpts from "The Pride"

The Pride – Chapters 11 & 12

CHAPTER 11
Paul
Showtime on Riverside

As soon as I heard that shrill voice braying and careening over my shoulder, I knew who it was. Bonita Woolsey, Esq., the Corporation Counsel of the City of New York. In her role as the de facto Attorney General of the City of New York, she had a lot to say about which lawyers would write the legal opinions verifying the validity and probity of the billions of dollars of bonds that the City of New York sold every year. These were legal opinions that generated huge fees for the firms fortunate to be selected by the esteemed Ms. Woolsey.

And so, she was definitely someone with whom I had to speak. And, in the bizarre nature of my personal universe, she was also someone that I definitely could not stand. It was nothing specific. It was just something incredibly visceral and undeniable.

“Ms. Woolsey. Its always a pleasure. It’s been much too long since we have had lunch or breakfast or drinks. How is life in City Hall treating you these days?”

“Mayor Dinkins has me on 24 hour standby, or that’s what it seems like. I thought that being a partner at Shearman & Sterling was hard work, but this job is eternal.” Bonita smiled through teeth that would make an orthodontist retire to a monastery on a desert island, taking a vow of eternal silence upon entry.

I had to marvel at how, in one sentence, she managed to make sure that I remembered that she had been the first black partner at one of the top law firms in America, that she held a very, very important job in the biggest city in America, and that she was a confidante of the first black mayor of New York City.

Bonita Woolsey was one of those people that you could stand being around for about……ten nanoseconds. After that she seemed to be the manifestation of all annoyances. There was her braying laugh, her phony veneer barely covering the nudity of her hypocrisy and her unbridled ambition. And probably worst of all was her clear disdain for everyone and everything she surveyed. She was possessed of the unshakable belief that Bonita Woolsey was the undeniable center of the only universe that counted – hers.

What I remember most about her that morning was her…….teeth. After all, I had to be cordial, my business, and that of some of my best clients, was connected to the peremptory whims of the esteemed Ms. Woolsey. I have always felt that I could stand the company of anyone if business was involved.

So I was prepared to converse with Bonita and to make sure that at the end of our conversation I had done everything to make sure that my business interests were unimpeded and unscathed. But her teeth! My God!

All of her front teeth seemed to wander in boldly independent directions making her smile seem something straight out of a Salvador Dali painting, perhaps during his Mescaline Period. But on this particular morning there was, could it be? Something was clearly stuck between two of her front teeth.

Was it this morning’s whole wheat toast or, heaven forbid, last night’s collard greens? There was no way of knowing, and that was information that I simply never wanted to know. There is such a thing as too much information.

This was a living, breathing, braying illustration.
But her particle-ridden smile was hypnotic, and as we chatted, I felt myself trying to resist staring. It was like trying not to look at a hairy mole that resembled Mount Everest or a scar in the shape of a palm tree or a tattoo of the image of the Virgin Mary on someone’s neck.

“If it was going to be an easy job Bonita, Mayor Dinkins never would have needed to choose you.” I felt my eyes wander toothward.

I simply had to find a distraction. Anything would suffice. I could feel the precipice of disaster approaching, beckoning, begging me to make the jump into the abyss of mockery and perdition. It was simply too early in the day for this kind of bullshit.

“Flattery will get you everywhere Mr. Taylor. But to tell the truth, the private sector never seemed more appealing. When Mayor Dinkins gets reelected this year, I have promised him one more year and then I’m back at S&S, unless a better offer comes along.”

“That’s understandable Bonita. You have certainly served your time.” I remember thinking, why is she telling me this? And then I found out.

“I know that our conversations are always off the record, but this is really and truly off the record, O.K.?”

“Bonita, my lips will be sealed for eternity.” A few more cars were pulling up to let off passengers in front of the church. The press was starting to stake out their positions for their television cameras and still photographers.

The sun was bright and it was still frightfully cold. I continued my silent, subliminal prayer for someone, anyone, to rescue me from the impending risk of embarrassment and professional doom. No one came.

“Frankly Paul, I am seriously thinking of going back into the practice of law. Of course my former partners at S & S will have been back in a heartbeat. But I think that I am ready for new challenges.”

“You have already overcome so many challenges Bonita (I suddenly, and with horror, realized that a subtle insult might be perceived and prayed that it would fly below her radar. It did), what mountains are left for you to conquer?”

I must confess that at this particular moment I had not a clue that this conversation was about to take a more than serious turn. After all, I was just making conversation and trying to stay occupied until the doors of the church opened. I was also trying not to stare at Bonita’s many and multi-angled teeth.

“Let me get right to the point Paul. We can talk about this later. But I want you to think about us being partners. With your experience and my contacts we would be quite a team. I think “formidable” would be a good word, don’t you? I can make money at S & S, but I don’t kid myself, I can be there for one hundred years and I will only be a partner in name only. To tell you the truth, I don’t know if that is what I want any more. What I do want is a chance to find out how good I can really be. I know that this is something out of left field for you, and that we have to make time to talk about this. But think about it for now, will you?”

“Here comes Mayor Dinkins now, I have to go. Speak to you soon. Ciao!”

Bonita turned on her stiletto heel and I was truly one stunned buffalo soldier left in her wake. I was reminded of the expression from some old Stepin Fetchit-type film character, “Well slap my face and call me stupid!” And frankly, I could have not been more shocked if Bonita had done just that.

There was no way that I could even begin to fashion a response to her non-proposal. Although, I must confess that even that at that moment, despite my having something less than warm and fuzzy feelings for Bonita, the practical aspects of our alignment, as she so succinctly pointed out, had some real advantages. Of course, Winner Tomlinson’s memorial service was neither the time nor place for such discussions.

But given the flow of events in the near future, it was a discussion that I did not forget. But at that moment, it was time to go into the church.

*************

CHAPTER 12
Paul
Now about that church….

The Riverside Church is a colossal monument to God built by the colossal fortune of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. John D., Jr. was the eldest male heir of the greatest businessman and possibly the most rapacious entrepreneur in American history.

We will never really know if he built Riverside Church to atone for his father’s many sins. It may be that he felt that it was more important to fulfill an edifice complex, a construction/building disorder that was clearly transmitted genetically in its full glory to his son, Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York State a few decades later. Or maybe John D., Jr. just liked Gothic cathedrals. Or maybe he just felt like it.

It stands like some granite sentinel across Riverside Drive from Grant’s tomb. Indeed, the Riverside Church is a huge, silent stone commitment to the belief that there may be something more to life than life itself.

As I entered the church that morning, I couldn’t help but think about medieval times in Europe when huge cathedrals were built as part of a socio-political effort on the part of the powerful to keep the powerless occupied. After all, idle hands are the workshop of the devil and political dissidents. Revolutionaries and dissidents of varying pedigrees and radically differing degrees of success have been known to also show up when there is some of that nasty idleness lying around.

The royalty of a particular era would get together with the reigning religious leaders to declare the need for the construction of a monument to God and His everlasting glory. The church would openly and actively support such an initiative from the pulpit. In turn it would support the taxation and control over society by the State that royalty would have to impose in order to finance and complete such a project.
Since a project like the construction of a gothic church literally took centuries, this meant that generations of the poor and powerless would be employed as poorly paid, but busy, masons, carpenters, stone cutters, glaziers and bricklayers.

While the Riverside Church did not take generations to complete, there is no doubt in my mind that John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his inherited fortune represented a part of America that could be called royalty. After all, he was the son of the same John D. Rockefeller who engaged in price-gouging and shockingly monopolistic strategies that strangled any hint of competition. And he was the son of the same John D. Rockefeller who employed the rather interesting labor relations tactic of having his employees shoot and kill striking workers (along with their wives and children) at one of his silver mines.

John D. Rockefeller probably never felt the need to receive approbation from anyone. On the other hand, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had the luxury of reflection and contemplation. He did not need to build a fortune. His task was to institutionalize it, nurture it, and humanize it. And maybe, at the end of it all, maybe that’s what building the Riverside Church was really all about. Only John D. Jr. himself knows, and he is certainly not telling anyone anything anymore.

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