Nathan Hatch, President of Wake Forest University

Hatch

The head of Wake Forest University stressed Wednesday that federal prosecutors consider the university a victim in the college admissions scandal that erupted Tuesday.

Bill Ferguson, Wake Forest’s head volleyball coach, has been put on administrative leave after being charged with racketeering in the bribery case, which implicated officials at eight universities as well as wealthy executives and Hollywood actresses.

Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch said he and the university “have received several emails expressing shock, disappointment and anger” about the accusations.

Ferguson is one of 12 defendants who are either collegiate coaches or involved with private athletics groups in what the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts calls Operation Varsity Blues. At least 33 parents also have been indicted, including actresses, corporate executives and wealthy investors, mostly from California.

Rick Singer, the organizer of the admissions scheme, operated two groups: The Edge College & Career Network LLC, a for-profit college counseling and preparation business based in Newport Beach, Calif.; and The Key Worldwide Foundation, a nonprofit also based in Newport Beach that was established as a charity in 2012.

The schools themselves are not targets of the investigation, and no students have been charged, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said Tuesday.

The indictment said that one of Singer’s clients had a daughter seeking admission to Wake Forest for the fall of 2018 but she was put on the wait list.

Investigators say that, in return for helping a student gain approval from the admissions office, Ferguson received $50,000 for his Wake Forest volleyball camp, while the student’s parents gave $40,000 to the volleyball program and $10,000 to the Deacon Club booster group.

Ferguson would be required to forfeit $50,000 as part of a criminal judgment.

Hatch said the student in question was admitted and is currently enrolled.

“We have no reason to believe the student was aware of the alleged financial transaction,” Hatch said.

Wake Forest said in a separate statement that “out of respect for the student’s privacy, we do not plan to share any additional information about her.”

Hatch said that “in no way has it been suggested that the university was involved in the deceitful practices, nor were any employees, other than Ferguson, accused of wrongdoing.”

Hatch added that Wake has cooperated with investigators.

“While we had no reason to suspect the donation was allegedly the result of a private agreement with Bill Ferguson, the university is looking into options to redirect the funds received from Key Worldwide Foundation,” Wake Forest said in a statement.

According to prosecutors, parents paid a combined $25 million to Singer, who prosecutors say bribed college coaches and insiders at testing centers to help get the children into some of the most elite schools in the country.

“These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege,” Lelling said. He called it the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department.

University reviewing practices

Hatch said the university is “reviewing our practices related to admissions and athletics to ensure that we are in complete alignment with our values.”

The indictment said that Wake Forest typically establishes 128 admissions slots for athletic recruitment.

Recruited students typically meet “minimum academic standards,” according to the indictment.

Hatch said the review to date has determined that Ferguson acted independently in his efforts to gain admission for the student whose parents are accused of paying money in exchange for admission.

Coaches do have a good deal of trust from admissions offices, aid Bill Booker, the founder of IMPACK’D of Arlington, Va. His preparatory program teaches middle- and high-school athletes to leverage their skills into college scholarships and opportunities.

Admissions officers expect a coach to properly vet students academically and athletically, Booker said.

He also said it may be viewed more ethical for parents to give money for naming rights to a building or an athletic venue with the hope it might get their children admitted.

“These coaches knowingly took away a potential spot from a child who had spent years honing their sport, and the parents who supported their efforts with their time and money.”

Could it help or hurt Wake’s reputation?

Being connected to Georgetown, University of Southern California and Yale in the scandal could represent a double-edged sword for Wake Forest, according to analysts.

“This scandal is bound to hurt Wake Forest’s reputation,” said Paul Glastris, the editor-in-chief for Washington Monthly.

The publication views itself as an alternative to the traditional college academic rankings because its College Guide and Rankings criteria focuses on colleges and universities’ contributions to social mobility, research and public service.

“It is not news to most high-achieving students that Wake Forest is an elite school that they should be eager to apply to,” Glastris said.

“It is news that one member of the staff allegedly took bribes to let a lesser student in.”

Glastris said overall the scandal “explosively demonstrates why higher ed’s focus on a race to the top has the left the rest of the country in the lurch.”

“While the case is still unfolding, what we know is that universities have chased U.S. News & World Report ratings, which rewards institutions for prestige, wealth and exclusivity,” he said.

Booker said that since prosecutors indicated no Wake Forest officials outside Ferguson had knowledge of the admissions scandal, it could lift the university’s reputation.

“If the involved parents in the scandal deemed the universities desirous enough to get that desperate to get their child to be admitted, it likely sends a message to others to check out what Wake Forest offers overall,” Booker said.

Booker said it’s likely that college academic rankings, such as U.S. News & World Report, played a role in Wake Forest being identified.

“For these wealthy parents, prestige matters a lot,” Booker said.

“They may not necessarily care how well their child does at the prestigious university, but graduating from there could help open doors for their child later in life.”

Booker said his concern is that the Singer scandal could be the tip of the iceberg nationwide.

“If the Wake Forest case was about a rogue coach, it may be viewed as a one-off situation in which the student-athlete did not gain specific benefits that affects her or the team’s eligibility,” Booker said.

“It could be happening elsewhere in plain sight because the targets were low-profile athletic teams at prestigious Division I universities.”

Booker said that at Wake Forest, as it was at other universities, “it may have just been one set of parents seeking an athletic admission exemption for their child.”

“It also might have been just the first of many attempts given that some of the coaches indicted went years between each admission attempt.”

Eric Yaverbaum, the best-selling author of seven books, including “Life’s Little College Admissions Insights,” said the scandal “clearly puts everyone involved — even those unwittingly — in a bad light.”

“It reflects very poorly on the oversight of the admissions process for all of the universities involved, particularly those whose own athletic coaches were active participants in the fraudulent scheme,” Yaverbaum said.

“While the universities were apparently unaware of what was transpiring, one has to ask how that can be the case when it comes to such a brazen scheme that in some cases involved their own employees,” he said.

Yaverbaum said that “parents are well aware how attending top universities can affect their children’s future.”

“That said, this doesn’t make colleges look better or more desirable,” he said. “It just shows how misguided the elitism surrounding these schools is and how flawed the admissions process continues to be.”

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rcraver@wsjournal.com 336-727-7376 @rcraverWSJ

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