As Silicon Valley titans and college athletic coaches trekked into Boston federal court last week to face allegations that they cheated and accepted bribes to get students into elite schools, a manager at Harvard University’s endowment posed a provocative question.
“Why do we have a system where wealthy parents have to make shady payments to even more shady intermediaries to get their kids into college?” Michael Cappucci, a senior vice president at the Harvard Management Company, posted on his public LinkedIn page. “Why don’t the colleges just auction off a certain number of spots each year?”
As an employee of Harvard’s $39 billion endowment, the world’s richest academic fund, Cappucci acknowledged that he may be part of the problem, but added that “this is an honest question.” Cappucci suggested that the auction may be a way to end the “charade” and bring transparency to an opaque admissions process and accurately reflect the cost of an elite degree.
But his proposal is likely to further outrage families and critics who argue that the admissions scandal has underscored the class inequities of higher education and highlighted a process where wealth is often favored over merit.
Cappucci, an attorney who is a middle manager in the fund’s sustainable investment program and works on compliance issues, could not be reached for comment on Friday. His post was later removed.
Harvard officials distanced themselves from the proposal.
“Harvard employs thousands of people, who hold a range of their own personal opinions,” said Jonathan Swain, a Harvard spokesman in a statement. “The personal views expressed by this individual do not reflect the policies or positions of the University.”
Harvard has not been implicated in the admissions scandal, which has drawn global attention and grabbed headlines in the tabloid press and educational journals.
Federal prosecutors have accused 50 people, including Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, along with financiers, a casino executive, and a white-shoe Connecticut attorney of participating in a massive admissions fraud scheme.
William “Rick” Singer, a private college counselor, has pleaded guilty to orchestrating the network that deployed ringers to take entrance exams for students, used photoshopped pictures of students playing water polo and falsified applications, and funneled bribes to some college officials.
Coaches at several institutions, including Yale University, Georgetown University, Stanford University, and the University of Southern California have pled guilty or are alleged to have taken bribes from wealthy parents to shepherd their children through the admissions process as recruited athletes, even though some of the students didn’t play the sport.
After a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, who has not been charged in the case but hired Singer to help his son with admissions, was ousted from his firm earlier this week, Cappucci floated the idea of auctioning off seats.
Cappucci and some of his followers debated the merits of the idea on the social media site geared toward business networking.
“On the other hand I do think if eg 10 spots were sold/auctioned for eg $5m most people would live with that if every knew that’s the system...,” one person wrote.
“Without transparency, the pump is primed for gaming the system, ‘legally’ or ‘illegally’ (and guess who writes the rules for what passes as ‘legal’)” another poster wrote.
Even President Trump’s son-in-law and senior aide Jared Kushner popped up in the online conversation. According to Daniel Golden’s 2006 book, “The Price of Admissions,” Kushner’s father pledged $2.5 million to Harvard just before his son gained a seat at the school despite his high school reputation as a mediocre student.
“Funny I don’t see Jared Kushner being fired for basically doing the same thing — is that a stretch? I don’t think so,” one investment expert wrote on Cappucci’s page.
Cappucci responded, “They didn’t try to fabricate his SAT score or sports performance. It’s the dishonesty that tips the payments from ‘the price of admission’ to fraud and bribery. So why not open up the whole system?”
But not everybody was charmed by the proposal.
Shanna Cleveland, a 1996 Harvard graduate, said she was appalled by the suggestion that seats to the country’s most selective schools simply be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Cleveland sent a letter to Harvard president Larry Bacow Thursday night calling the comment inappropriate. She wrote that she was disappointed by the “incredibly tone deaf comment made by a high ranking Harvard official in such a public forum.”
Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.