Damage control at Stanford University
Published on March 13th, 2019
In what has been called the most sweeping college admissions fraud scheme ever unearthed in the United States has found Sailing in the headlines for wrong reasons. With athletic coaches being compensated for their lenient admissions access, a lack of oversight allowed those with the most to gain… to gain.
In the cross hairs is the sailing program at Stanford University, which in 2018 had 47,450 students apply for admission, with the university accepting just 2,040. The acceptance rate of 4.29 percent was the lowest in Stanford’s history, yet this is a school that takes significant pride in its athletic achievement.
In 2017-18, Stanford captured its 24th consecutive Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup in addition to securing Capital One Cup titles for both men and women, becoming the first institution to sweep all three major awards. These awards reflect excellence in student athlete achievement.
By Stanford concluding 2018 as the nation’s all-time leader in team championships, it is clear the leniency offered for athlete admission is consuming a share of those approved applicants, and as Stanford Sailing Team head coach John Vandemoer discovered, given them great value on the open market.
So Vandemoer was surrounded by success, and had been working hard to get his program in the conversation. However, when you are located on the west coast amid minor league programs, and all the best competition is along the east coast, those long plane flights don’t help. Getting the best sailors isn’t easy either, regardless of how prestigious the degree.
And after 11 years of trying, court documents state how Vandemoer had negotiated $770,000 in exchange for entrance to Stanford. The university claims to have been blindsided, Vandemoer claims the money was all for the program and not for him, and this pursuit of excellence has tattered his reputation and earned him a prison sentence of 18 months.
Once the internet exploded on March 12, 2019 with the reveal of this Justice Department investigation, Stanford University issued this statement from Marc Tessier-Lavigne (President) and Persis Drell (Provost):
By now many of you have seen the news that Stanford’s head sailing coach was charged today, along with many others around the country, in an alleged scheme that involved payments intended to influence the admission of students to a number of U.S. colleges and universities.
To the two of us, this is nothing short of appalling.
The head sailing coach was terminated from his Stanford employment this morning, shortly after the government’s charges were made public. Later in the day, he pleaded guilty in federal court to a count of racketeering conspiracy.
Let us be clear: The conduct reported in this case is absolutely contrary to Stanford’s values, and to the norms this university has lived by for decades. Today’s news is a shock exactly because it so clearly violates our institutional expectations for ethical conduct.
The charges brought by the Justice Department pertain to our former head sailing coach. But clearly, the case will prompt questions about our processes more broadly. We want to share some information about those processes.
First and most importantly, every student admitted to Stanford must meet the university’s high academic standards. Our admissions office conducts a holistic review of each applicant, focused on academic excellence, intellectual vitality, extracurricular activity and personal context.
For students who have special talents – artistic, athletic, musical or otherwise – those talents are factored into the process. In the case of athletics, we have a process through which coaches can identify the most promising athletic recruits, for the consideration of the admission office. But such talents, athletic or otherwise, by themselves never ensure admission to Stanford.
Our resolve in these matters is as firm as ever. The integrity of our processes, and the ethical conduct of our people, is of paramount importance to Stanford.
The Justice Department investigation provided no evidence or indication that the conduct involved anyone at Stanford beyond the head sailing coach, including anyone associated with any other Stanford team. However, we are undertaking an internal process to confirm this is the case, across all of Stanford Athletics.
In addition, we will ensure that Stanford will not benefit from the monies that were contributed to the Stanford sailing program as part of this fraudulent activity. We are working to determine the most appropriate way to redirect the funds to an entity unaffiliated with Stanford, consistent with the regulations governing such gifts and in cooperation with the government.
We take these issues deeply seriously, and we will continue pursuing them mindful of our obligations as stewards of this institution, on behalf of everyone associated with Stanford.