College Admissions Scandal Holds Important Lessons in Crisis Prevention

Cheating Scheme Shines Light on Priorities and Betrayal

3/14/19 – – The college admissions scandal that broke this week deserves special attention from crisis counselors and communicators. This sordid tale of deceit and betrayal – which has snared universities, admissions testing companies, coaches, parents and students across the country – tells us a lot about where crises come from and how they play out.

Federal prosecutors are alleging that wealthy parents, including celebrities and business leaders, paid millions of dollars to facilitate a bribery and test-cheating scheme designed to give their children unfair advantage in the highly competitive college admissions process.

How could this have happened? Like all scams, this criminal enterprise took advantage of common human weaknesses and skewed priorities. Those same vulnerabilities are at play when it comes to most corporate crises.

In Chapter 3 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“Where Crises Come From”), we examine nine sources from which the majority of survival-threatening situations spring: People, Products, Priorities, Policies, Performance, Politics, Procrastination, Privacy and Past. In addition to the influence of greed and privilege on all the actors in this tragedy, I believe misplaced priorities drove otherwise loving, law-abiding parents to do bad things they and their children will regret for the rest of their lives.

In helping companies prevent crises, I ask senior managers to think about what most motivates them and their employees. I ask them to consider if priorities and rewards may be unintentionally encouraging bad behavior. Whenever the end justifies the means, crises are right around the corner.

Volkswagen engineers installed software in diesel engines to cheat emissions tests at the same time the company was locked in on the audacious goal of beating GM and Toyota to be the top-selling global automotive manufacturer. Facebook ignored clear signs of trouble as it chased exponential growth by connecting more and more people with little regard for the nature of the discourse on its platform. Wells Fargo’s retail bankers opened sham accounts to achieve unrealistic, hour-by-hour sales targets to deliver unsustainable growth.

Nothing wrong with lofty goals. But a win-at-all-costs strategy inevitably leads to trouble.

For most parents, there are no higher priorities than the success and happiness of their children. That’s the motivation for lots of very good and sometimes bad things. A parent may take off from work to watch a Little League baseball game . . . but spew profanities from the stands when the volunteer umpire calls a third strike on their child. And now we know that parents, if they have the means, may pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund bribery and cheating to assure their child attends an elite college.

Another thing we are witnessing in the developing college admissions scam story is the role betrayal plays in determining the severity and duration of a crisis.

In Chapter 4 (“How Crises Typically Play Out: 10 Predictable Tendencies”) we examine the fact that the closer a company comes to violating its core purpose and promises, the more damaging a crisis will be. What an organization or individual stands for is important. Any crisis situation that runs counter to that will be especially severe.

There’s plenty of betrayal to go around in this crisis. The companies that administer the SAT and ACT tests failed to protect the promise of “leveling the playing field” of academic preparedness so high schools and students from across the country can be fairly compared by college admissions committees. Coaches knowingly closed out spots on their team rosters for qualified candidates who worked all their lives to compete at the college level. And parents jeopardized the very futures of their children by involving them in criminal activity.

The player in all this who ranks near the top of the betrayal scale has to be Gordon Caplan, co-chairman of the prestigious law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher. According to authorities, he paid $75,000 to have his daughter’s admissions test score strengthened. What makes Mr. Caplan’s personal crisis more problematic than the other actors in this drama?

Here’s what Mr. Caplan was caught on a wiretap saying to a principal in the cheating scheme:

“I’m not worried about the moral issue here . . . I’m worried about the—if she’s caught doing that, you know, she’s finished.”

So, Gordon Caplan – an attorney and senior officer of one of the most respected corporate law firms in the world – casually dismissed the immorality of his deed, while recognizing the potential catastrophic consequences of his actions for his daughter. I’m not suggesting that the TV stars, CEOs and investment firm honchoes involved in this are not in trouble. But because Mr. Caplan demonstrated betrayal on a breathtaking level as both a parent and an attorney, I believe the severity and duration of his personal crisis will be especially harsh.

Here’s part of what Willkie Farr had to say shortly after the news broke:

“As widely reported, one of our partners, Gordon Caplan, was among the persons charged in the college admissions matter. This is a personal matter and does not involve Willkie or any of its clients. In light of the seriousness of the matter, Mr. Caplan has been placed on a leave of absence from the firm and will have no further firm management responsibilities.”

Not sure reporters and clients will fully accept the “this is a personal matter and does not involve Willkie” assertion in the statement. But the firm deserves credit for its quick attention to this “matter.”

If you’ve read The Crisis Preparedness Quotient or my blog, you know that I strongly encourage companies to go to school on other people’s crises. Discuss special situations in the news that hold lessons for organizations practicing crisis prevention, not just preparing for crisis response. Review your priorities and how they are steering the actions of your employees. And reexamine your core purpose to make sure you’ll never betray your promises. As Shakespeare warned:

“Though those that are betrayed do feel the treason sharply, yet the traitor stands in worse case of woe.”

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