External review of athletic admissions reaches conclusions, recommends reforms
In a letter to the university community, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne reports that an external review commissioned in the wake of Operation Varsity Blues found no evidence of additional fraud at Stanford but made recommendations for policies and procedures that the university will fully adopt.
Dear Members of the Stanford Community,
Earlier this year, we launched an external review of Stanford policies and practices following the news of Operation Varsity Blues, the federal investigation of a national admissions fraud scheme orchestrated by college consultant Rick Singer. We commissioned this review to identify any fraudulent actions in athletic admissions that had not already been identified at Stanford, and to strengthen our internal controls in order to assure the integrity of our systems at the intersection of admissions and athletics.
I am writing today to report to you on the outcomes of this external review.
As background, at Stanford one coach, the former head sailing coach, pleaded guilty to charges that he accepted financial contributions to the Stanford sailing program in exchange for agreeing to recommend two prospective students for admission to Stanford. Neither of these two students was admitted to Stanford. Separately, the university also rescinded the admission of an enrolled student, not associated with the sailing program, who was found in the investigation to have submitted an application to Stanford containing false information.
After the news of Operation Varsity Blues, we took a number of immediate actions. Those steps included verifying that Stanford had received no other contributions from the foundation implicated in the government’s investigation; implementing a second-level review process to confirm the athletic credentials of all recruited student-athletes; and developing enhanced controls in the university’s gift acceptance process.
We also launched the external review, undertaken by the international law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP. The firm interviewed more than 55 people and obtained and reviewed more than 35,000 records. The review made several key findings:
- Singer directly or indirectly approached seven Stanford coaches about potential recruits between 2009 and 2019. The review found no evidence that any employee of Stanford Athletics other than the former head sailing coach agreed to support a Singer client in exchange for a financial consideration.
- However, there was no systematic way for concerns about Singer to be elevated and addressed, to ensure increased attention by others he attempted to contact.
- Beyond the scheme involving Singer, the review found no evidence of any other fraudulent schemes for the admission of student-athletes during this period.
- In Stanford’s admissions process, the number of Athletics-recommended applicants is limited by the Admissions Office; those recruits must go through the entire Stanford application process; and the Admissions Office, not coaches or the Athletics Department, makes the admission decision. This rigorous approach to admissions appears to have made it harder for Singer to manipulate the process.
The report also identified certain areas where, in addition to the enhancements already made, implementation of new or more formalized procedures could ward off future misconduct.
“Taken together, these steps provide for clearer policies, more training, fuller communication and stronger vetting that will serve as a bulwark against fraudulent efforts in the future.”
—President Marc Tessier-Lavigne
These recommendations, all of which we are accepting, include:
- Adoption of a formal written policy codifying Stanford’s approach to donations and athletic recruits. To be clear, our position and practice is this: Admission of any applicant, student-athlete or not, cannot be bought, and no donor should ever be under the impression that it can. We are currently codifying this practice into a formal written policy to ensure clarity and transparency.
- Adoption of a written policy clarifying that fundraising results are not considered as part of a coach’s performance evaluation.
- A requirement that development officers independently verify the source and purpose of significant donations to the Athletic Department.
- A requirement that coaches flag to Admissions and the Office of Development any case in which a recruit came to their attention through a third-party recruiter or consultant and the name of that person.
- If Athletics personnel have concerns about the ethical behavior of a third-party individual, the concerns should be elevated and investigated to determine if the individual should be on a watch list to ensure increased attention by others interacting with the individual.
- Enhanced training for coaches on the fundraising process and the new gift acceptance policies being developed.
- Better communication and information sharing among coaches, Athletics administrators and the Office of Development. This includes establishing a clear delineation of responsibilities between development officers, coaches and sports administrators and a requirement that, in addition to the coach and Athletics personnel, an Office of Development official must meet with a prospective donor.
Stanford embraces these recommendations and will be moving swiftly to implement them. Taken together, these steps provide for clearer policies, more training, fuller communication and stronger vetting that will serve as a bulwark against fraudulent efforts in the future.
We will be conducting a review within the next 18 months to assure that the recommendations have been implemented and are being followed. We greatly appreciate the thorough work of Simpson Thacher in developing the recommendations. It is imperative that Stanford has the necessary safeguards in place to engender trust and confidence in the integrity of our programs. Our resolve in this regard has never been stronger.
Finally, having recently received advice from the state Attorney General’s Office, we are moving to redistribute the $770,000 in funds that came to Stanford through Singer’s foundation. The Attorney General’s Office has advised that, given the nature of Singer’s scheme, the funds would be best redirected to an entity or entities supporting financially challenged high school students who are seeking financial support and enhanced preparation toward their college admission. We agree with this suggestion and will be making final decisions about the redirection of the funds in the near future.