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Op-Ed: Which is it — fraud or privilege?

This March, federal investigators exposed the largest college admissions scandal in history. Dozens of parents and students were revealed to have bribed and faked their way into supposedly meritocratic, elite universities. As one of the accused schools, Stanford responded by hastily expelling Yusi Zhao, a student involved in the scandal, justifying the expulsion as something that “has long been our practice … [if] the student submitted false information.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t Stanford’s actual practice.

Late last year, the New York Times revealed that T.M. Landry, a private school with a knack for placing minority students into elite universities, was actually a fraud. School administrators filled transcripts with fake courses students did not take. Essays and recommendation letters recounted overcoming childhood abuse and extreme poverty to achieve academic success. Many of those stories were conjured from thin air.

Unlike the recent admissions scandal, the aftermath of T.M. Landry involved no coverage from the Stanford Daily, no flurry of emails from the Stanford administration promising a thorough investigation, no public crucifixions and no expulsions. Students from T.M. Landry still attend Stanford.

If fraud is the true sin, why did these two cases produce such different responses?

One potential reason is privilege. Many T.M. Landry students really did grow up in difficult circumstances. Their Cinderella success stories seemed plucked straight out of the pages of the American Dream fairy tale, where anyone can achieve success through hard work, no matter where they come from. Like the Fyre Festival or Theranos, we believed because we wanted to believe.

On the other hand, Yusi is the daughter of a billionaire. Her name and face became a convenient target for pent-up outrage over rising inequality, stagnating wages and a growing sense that the system is rigged in favor of elites.

Yusi’s admission had elements of both fraud and abuse of privilege. The former exposed her. The latter crucified her.

These denials suggest that Stanford is interested less in principled justice and more in self-preservation. Distancing themselves from the scandal by expelling Yusi was Stanford’s attempt to avoid a PR apocalypse without making any changes to the underlying system. We deserve a better response.

So I ask, which is the true sin: fraud or privilege? If the former, Stanford should abide by equal standards and conduct an investigation into T.M. Landry. If the latter, they should ask the admissions office why so many students share last names with campus buildings. Either way, Stanford cannot escape its own hypocrisy.

— Hugh Zhang ’20

Contact Hugh Zhang at hughz ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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