Conspicuously absent from the list of colleges implicated in last week’s epic admissions scandal was my alma mater, Harvard.
The story continues to unfold, of course. Perhaps in time, the Harvard community will learn of an underachieving child of privilege or two who did gain entry into our school through the good offices of William “Rick” Singer of Newport Beach, California, and his system of phony test scores, coach-bribing and manufactured records of athletic accomplishment, carried out under cover of a counseling firm called The Key.
For now, however, it appears that Harvard, unlike Yale, Georgetown, Stanford, UCLA, Wake Forest, and USC, was not considered worthy of the trouble and expense.
I don’t know how my fellow alums are feeling. Personally, I’m disappointed. When I hear about TV stars, Wall Streeters, corporate executives and a vineyard owner spending megabucks to get their offspring into prestigious institutions of higher education and then taking care to dress it up as an act of charity, I expect Harvard to figure prominently.
I was therefore pleased to discover that our school turns out to have played a supporting role in this tale. Singer, according to follow-up reports, was aided by a member of the Harvard class of 2004 and an officer of the Harvard Club of Sarasota, Florida, Mark Riddell. A top NCAA tennis player in his undergrad days, more recently employed in the college placement office of a Florida prep school and sports academy, Riddell was the pretend proctor who sat with applicants (after they had been falsely diagnosed with conditions justifying a private testing environment) in order to amend and improve their answers on entrance exams. Over a seven-plus-year period ending in early 2019, he is said to have made upwards of $10,000 a shot for each of many trips to test sites in California or Texas. “He was the one,” as The Washington Post put it, “actually filling in the bubbles.”
Facing charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and money laundering, Riddell has been cooperating with authorities in the hope of securing a lenient sentence – a consideration that may help explain his efforts to correct early news accounts that portrayed him as a bribe giver. He wants it known that he was strictly on the receiving end of these illicit payments.
Indeed, Harvard can take pride in the character of Riddell’s contribution to the enterprise. He had no inside access to the test answers; federal prosecutors say he was “just a really smart guy.” (You don’t often get that kind of testimonial from the people who indict you.) So smart that he could come up with just about the precise number of correct answers an applicant needed—a number high enough to impress the admissions team without being so high as to attract suspicion. Singer has described Riddell as his “best test-taker” and someone who could “nail a score—he’s that good.”
Since Riddell was not a co-founder, it would be wrong to include The Key in the honor roll of enterprises—Facebook, Microsoft, BlackRock, Bain Capital, Fitbit, OKCupid, Stitch Fix, and the rest—germinated in Harvard’s labs and dorm rooms. Like so many of the other notable startups of our time, though, this one could never have come as far as it did without at least one product of a Harvard education. That should be a comfort to us Harvard men and women.
(Originally published in The American Prospect.)