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The 3 biggest higher education controversies of 2021

by Sam BakerJanuary 04, 2022, 7:49 pm

Center left Lori Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, pleaded guilty in May to fraud charges related to securing their daughters’ admission to the University of Southern California. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse – The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Higher education is no stranger to scandals and controversies, and 2021 was no exception. While some scandals from previous years have come close to their inevitable conclusions, the COVID-19 pandemic — or the ongoing pandemic, as we enter its third year — has sparked a slew of lawsuits at colleges across the country. Moreover, students also took to the picket lines at some universities, demanding better treatment (and bigger paychecks).

Here is a summary of the three biggest scandals and controversies from 2021.

Fallout from ‘varsity blues’

Unfortunately, the Varsity Blues scandal lacked Jon Voight, James Van Der Beek, or Scott Kahn stealing a police car. But the college admissions scandal — which made headlines in 2019, implicating some celebrities and other big names — effectively concluded in 2021 with guilty pleas, guilty verdicts, and sentencing.

To sum up, Operation Varsity Blues (as the federal investigators called it) involved a criminal plot to place students in a number of top universities, such as the University of Southern California, the University of Texas, and Yale University, sometimes without the students’ knowledge. Test scores have changed. Learning difficulties were invoked in order to access additional accommodations. Some of the students were even photographed on sports teams – showing them participating in sports they had never actually played before.

It’s a long and complicated story. But as of the end of 2021, the dust has settled, with dozens of parents involved, along with college coaches, sports officials, and the ringleader of the whole thing, William Rick Singer.

“Money and communications are at the heart of the varsity-blues scandal. What made this scheme different was that Rick Singer used the athletics department as the primary vehicle for deception rather than directly developing the college, alumni, or admissions office,” says Sarah Harberson, college admissions expert, and former dean. for admission to Franklin & Marshall College, and founder of Application Nation, a private subscription-based Facebook group designed to help parents navigate the admissions process. “Interestingly, parents paid Singer only a fraction of what was expected of college to get a poor student accepted.”

While the dust may be fading from the Varsity Blues scandal, Harberson says these kinds of schemes — those that involve lying or cheating to get a student into a coveted school — remain common. And if anyone is to blame, it’s those people who work in admissions offices, for whom it would have been “blatantly obvious” that “things weren’t piling up in the student’s application,” she said.

“It still feels like 1952 in college admissions. Who you know, who you’re going to pay, and who you are remain powerful tools that wealthy, connected families use knowingly and effectively.”

Student strike at Columbia University

Sometime in 2021, America’s biggest strike was unfolding on the Columbia University campus in New York City. Nearly 3,000 student-workers, mostly graduate students, went on strike at the beginning of November in response to what student workers in Colombia (the Local Auto Workers Federation 2110) said were unfair labor practices.

Johanna King-Slutzky, Ph.D. A student in Columbia’s Department of English and Comparative Literature says she and others took the picket line to secure higher wages, more benefits, additional recognition for student union members, and changes to Columbia’s system to investigate allegations of discrimination and harassment. Finally, she says the conflict has been going on in one form or another since 2014.

“Columbia had a record year in terms of earnings, and they’ve been trying to deduct pennies,” says King-Slutzky, citing the university’s latest annual report. Columbia University is one of the richest universities in the country. She charges the highest tuition fees in the country, and despite her enormous wealth, she extracts as much as she can from her students and graduate students.”

Columbia University has published a proposal in response to the strike, which would include increases in wages, salaries, and the creation of health care funds for student workers and their families.

However, students feel that it is not enough.

“We have been asking for a fair contract two years ago, and the university stopped us and refused to bargain in good faith,” says Daniel Santiago Sainz, Ph.D. Candidate and Teaching Fellow at Columbia University, he is also an international student who was born in Columbia but raised in Canada. “We are only asking for what we think is a fair contract.”

The main issue, he says, is that the cost of living in New York City is too high – and working students’ wages are too low – to make ends meet. Also as an international student, he or she is not legally allowed to find another job off-campus, preventing one of the potential outlets for additional income.

In aggregate, the situation in Colombia is complex. The striking students say they are looking for small increases in wages and benefits in order to help offset the costs of living, studying and working in an expensive city. And they feel good about their chances in the future.

Many of us come from working-class, low-income, or under-represented minorities in academia. This strike, says Sainz, is a class struggle. “We’ll see what other doors this could open for a more stable and healthy academia.”

Distance learning lawsuits resulting from the closure of the campus

When the pandemic hit college campuses in March 2020, many students were forced to go home and stay there. As a result, a number of students felt they were being neglected; They were paying full tuition and didn’t really get the on-campus experience and mentorship they expected. More than 4,200 colleges and universities across the country have closed their campuses to some extent, affecting nearly 26 million students. So it was only a matter of time before students started filing lawsuits to try to recover some of those tuition fees.

Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed across the country, and the top five class action lawsuits from those lawsuits were the USC, the University of Miami, New York University, Cornell University, and Pennsylvania State University—although each had fewer than 10 cases. Related to COVID filed against as of December 2021, according to data from Carla Rydholm, senior director of product management at Lex Machina, a legal analytics firm.

But the long-awaited question is, do any of these lawsuits have a chance of succeeding?

Orleans, a higher education and employment attorney at the law firm Pullman & Comley: “In general, in order to gain standing, plaintiffs only have to prove that they have suffered some perceivable injury.” “In these cases, the plaintiffs maintain that what they got was less than what they paid for, so they suffered financial damages. I have not seen a decision to take any of these cases out of court for lack of capacity.”

Most schools ask courts to dismiss cases, Orleans says, but whether or not any of them will work remains to be seen.

“The results depend to a large extent on the specific facts in each case, and to some extent on the particular situation in which the school is located,” he says. “Keep in mind that contracts are governed by state law, not federal law, so we won’t necessarily get national standardization in decisions in these cases.”

Furthermore, many of these lawsuits may be the result of legal professionals looking for a payday.

Dwayne Robinson, a partner at Miami-based law firm Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton, who has served as a counselor at Miami-Dade County College — one of several schools that has been the target of lawsuits after the COVID-related shutdowns — says.

Javier Lopez, managing partner at Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton, adds that while these lawsuits primarily concern students and schools, the general public has an interest in monitoring them, as the taxpayer, ultimately, is on the verge of damages.

“We taxpayers fund these schools even if we never go to them,” Lopez says. “So every time a public college or university spends money because a student claims they haven’t been able to use the student union or basketball hall for as long as they expected, we’re all footing that bill.”

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