Oxy’s Doing Fine With a Clear Bright Line
College admission officers are used to saying no—it’s an often difficult but necessary part of the job. Oxy Dean of Admission Vince Cuseo has to say it many times each year, which is why he didn’t think much of it in 2012 when he said no to an independent college counselor who urged him to reconsider a negative decision on an application. But this counselor was Rick Singer, who emerged last year as the central figure in the national college admission scandal. That’s why the story The Wall Street Journal posted on its website Nov. 6 was headlined, “When Admission Advisor Rick Singer Called, This School Said, ‘No, Thanks.’”
Those of us who have worked closely with Vince during his 21-year career at Oxy were not surprised that he would reject an unethical proposition from anyone. Family wealth is not a factor when we make admission decisions. Vince has been a model of integrity in guiding our admission process and I respect him for it.
Singer has confessed that he falsely presented his wealthy clients’ children as athletes, faked their test scores, and bribed college officials with “donations” to get them into top universities. Like any college president, fundraising is among my chief responsibilities, if not my biggest task. It would be disingenuous to claim that there are not times when we are aware of some applicants’ families’ giving potential. We do engage them if they are admitted and choose to enroll. But it has long been Occidental’s practice to disregard giving potential when considering students for admission. Without a clear bright line, the ethics of the admission process would be hopelessly compromised.
To be fair—and we made this point to the Journal—many of our peers approach admission with the same kind of ethical standards. But the reporters had Singer’s specific complaint about Oxy’s unwillingness to entertain his dubious proposals, so we wound up as the focus of their coverage.
One of the ironies in this situation is that by turning down Singer and whatever financial deal he was prepared to broker, Oxy has been the beneficiary of tens of thousands of dollars in financial support as a result of the Journal’s coverage. Within hours of the story’s publication, gifts started arriving—not just from alumni and parents but from members of the public who wanted to signal their support for the integrity of our admission process.
Some of those who gave to the College in this way were motivated in part by the Journal’s reporting that Occidental, in deciding not to emulate the more aggressive fundraising efforts seen on some other campuses, has paid a financial price for sticking to its principles. It’s true that Occidental’s endowment is not as large as some of its peers, and we do not have a palatial fitness center or a lazy river on campus. What we have had is a decade of balanced budgets, record high applications, and an impressive list of capital projects that have addressed long-standing needs, including the renovation and expansion of Swan Hall, construction of the De Mandel Aquatics Center and McKinnon Family Tennis Center, and the creation of the McKinnon Center for Global Affairs and the Anderson Center for Environmental Sciences.
Our chief financial challenge is not that we say no to the Rick Singers of the world. Rather, we have recognized that we need to build a more robust philanthropic culture at Oxy. Last May, we launched the public phase of The Oxy Campaign For Good—the most ambitious fundraising effort in the College’s history—with a goal of $100 million slated for student scholarships, our perennial priority. Already we have raised $152 million toward our overall goal of $225 million.
As many parents and alumni pointed out in response to the Journal’s front-page article, Oxy has its priorities straight. “Not once in my four years on campus did I wish we had a lazy river,” one alumnus wrote. What we need now is for our community to fully embrace The Oxy Campaign For Good to move the College to the next level and make it possible for us to transform our priorities into realities—for good.