College Admissions Scandal: Surprised? No. Outraged? Absolutely.

Recent headlines relating to the parent and coach ‘pay for admission’ cheating scandal have outraged us. 50 people, including at least 30 parents, have been indicted on Federal charges as a result of the FBI investigation ‘Varsity Blues’ which found that said parents had paid a variety of individuals - including coaches - to fraudulently help get their kids into some of the best schools in the country.

Parents allegedly paid amounts as small as a couple of thousand dollars and as large as a million dollars to try to secure admission. These payments solicited people to provide more time in standardized tests, to change the answers to the tests, to get coaches to recruit non-athletes to athletic teams and to attribute learning disabilities to people without disabilities. It was pay-for-play, college admission version. 

It was corrupt and fraudulent. We have every right to be outraged. But… we should not be surprised.

This scandal is an unsurprising expression of a part of our culture that has been developing for decades.  Our parents may have tried to tell us that, "Win or lose, It matters how you play the game." But, however noble their intent, the notion that how we play the game is as important as winning, has, for most, gone the way of the Studebaker and the Model T.  Today, we live in a world where finding a shortcut to winning and individual success is what we aspire to. It is what we value and what society admires. Today, more people worship at an altar where winning at all costs is all important and what we have to do to become successful is far less important.

Long before steroids and human growth hormones, professional baseball players took 'greenies,' illegal stimulants to ensure that they had the energy to play a 162-game schedule.  Money changing hands in recruiting big-time college basketball players no longer surprises us. We live in an era where you need a website to tell you a version of the truth because we no longer expect our politicians to tell us the truth.  And by all indications that is okay as long as they are on our team. We simply call it fake news and say I won. You lost. Get over it. Few of us need to be reminded of recent business scandals that have become too common as the pressure for profits has grown and the financial rewards have escalated.  But, maybe my favorite example of just how far our culture has gone awry was reported by Joan Ryan of the SF Chronicle years ago when described how a little league coach had his team drink Red Bull to ensure that they were ready to play.

Even as we have become more mindful of all of the shortcuts that fill our culture in an attempt to find the fastest way to win, many of us were still surprised last year when we reviewed research indicating that nearly 80% of all students will cheat before they leave school.  Do you know who was not surprised? The students were not surprised nor were they sorry. "It's not really cheating when everyone else is doing it," they explained. Of course, they were wrong. Cheating is Cheating.

But they were also right.  Behavior consistent with the values of a given culture doesn't seem wrong.  By definition, a behavior is acceptable when that behavior is consistent with the culture of the community.  When the community or team or parish of school tolerates or rewards certain actions, those actions become acceptable and the people who most often exhibit those values are given 'leader status.' 

In short, what we tolerate, we teach.  When we tolerate cheating, taking performance-enhancing drugs, lying, disrespect, harassment, bullying or illegal bribes, we teach everyone in that culture that it is acceptable.  And our values die a little in the process.

Today, we are in a fight for the soul of our culture. We need more leaders willing to listen to the advice of our parents. We need to care how we play the game. The end does not justify the means. Yes, when an FBI operation like Varsity Blues results in indictments of parents and coaches, we should cheer.  It is a statement that it is not okay to cheat. But, let's put these charges in perspective. The fifty people charged are but the tip of an iceberg that is eroding our values as a society. Our addiction to shortcuts-- and that is what cheating really is, a shortcut-- is teaching the next generation that working hard and learning a skill and playing fairly is not important.  We are teaching future leaders that values are situational-- they don't apply if they hurt our chances to win the game. 

Let's get outraged.  Outrage is good. But let's get outraged by the risk that cheating and other transgressions are becoming far too much a part of our culture and they have become far too acceptable.  For what we know about culture is that the strongest pressures in any culture are tacit and unarticulated. No one really says, “Win at all costs,” or “It’s okay to cheat,” or “Go ahead a lie.”  They don’t have to. When we persist long enough, people just know. After all, if everyone else is doing it…..

We can no longer afford to act surprised by our search for shortcuts to success especially when our actions compromise our values.  Sure, shortcuts like the One-Minute Workout or Five-Minute Abs or the Three Steps to Better Leadership are probably less-than-harmful distractions that are rather benign.  Far more dangerous are the choices we make that breach our integrity and benefit us in the short term but whose long term harm to our society is incalculable.

It is time for leaders to emerge with the courage to alter the trajectory of our cultures and help us live the values that we so freely espouse.  We need them to help lead us back to a place where the greater good is worthy of our personal sacrifice and where we are willing to compete on a field where, win or lose,  we play by the rules. Agree?