What’s at the Core of the University Admissions Scandal

What’s at the Core of the University Admissions Scandal

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What’s at the Core of the University Admissions Scandal
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The Rise Fund is committed to achieving social and environmental impact alongside competitive financial returns.”

Yes, the founder of the Rise Fund may have inadvertently achieved a mission goal yesterday: Bill McGlashan was among the very wealthy parents included in the FBI’s criminal complaint who allegedly used wads of cash to open “side doors” through which their children could slip into prestigious schools. The Rise Fund has put him on administrative leave. The news is triggering waves of anger and frustration.

That’s not the kind of “social impact” that the Rise Fund was supposed to have. The optimist in me says that if we get serious about recognizing—and combating—inappropriate use of privilege, that could trigger genuine impact.

But the realist in me knows it will take pressure from all of us to make that happen.

For eight years, we at EdSurge have devoted ourselves to writing about and discussing how technology could modernize and improve education. And I have tried to lead the company from a place of humility: I believed that education made a difference in my life and wanted to see that opportunity shared more widely. Channeling investment dollars from, say, the next round of consumer goods instead into companies run by entrepreneurs who were authentically listening to educators, and trying to support teaching and learning held the promise of making the world a bit better. A bit fairer.

I still believe in that mission.

But leadership integrity profoundly matters. And I do not believe that investment funds or companies or, for that matter, nonprofits and philanthropies, can have positive social impact without ethical leadership. I don’t believe we can authentically open education for all, and yet guarantee it for a select few who are close to us.

We need to demand more from our “leaders.” Especially in education. Especially when they are shaping a broad sector, helping grow companies that influence the lives of teachers and students such as Rise does.

I spent decades writing about company leaders. We all say that “leadership matters.” But only after I began leading a team and a company did I realize how deeply the actions and statements of a leader matter. Organizations echo and amply the strengths and weaknesses of the people in charge. Leaders set a tone for the company: When a leader celebrates quirkiness, the company logo is playful, the tee-shirts are puckish, the atmosphere fosters creativity. When a leader focuses deeply on data, analytics are honored and rewarded.

And when a leader is hypocritical—saying publicly that everyone deserves a great education but quietly guaranteeing a special path for his children—the noblest mission statement can seem like a false facade.

The credibility of an organization reflects the credibility of its leader. That’s frightening power. And so everyone who works for an organization or group should demand that leaders put the broader good ahead of what has become known as “privilege.”

Privilege has come to mean that you can act as if the rules that govern everyone else don’t apply to you.

Privilege has come to mean you can wield money and access in ways that force others to do something harmful or degrading.

And as we’ve seen so rawly in the recent news, “privilege” has come to mean you can guarantee an outcome—like getting your child into a college—at the expense of others the organization has committed to serve.

In the days ahead, we expect to see plenty of ranting and hand wringing about universities’ “side doors.” But at the heart is our anger is the abuse of privilege.

If you work for someone, demand ethical, fair leadership.

How do we make this demand? Although “pledges” can seem weak, there are times that such commitments carry value and shape conduct: Journalists, doctors and other professionals have organizations that require adhering to a code of ethics or practice. Society has fierce rules that bar bribing public officials. Should boards and employees demand that their CEOs to take pledges to not abuse their positions?

The education sector can and should set a standard for conduct here. There’s precedent: Organizations commit to protecting their students’ data. Districts are pushing for more accountability from the vendors they work with.

If you lead an organization, ask yourself: Is there anything I am doing that others in this organization cannot do? If so, should this persist?

Social change will start not with organizations, but with us.

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