The College Cheating Scheme and the Broken Mirror of Philanthropy

by Edgar Villanueva, Schott Foundation Vice President of Programs and Advocacy

You would be hard-pressed to pick up a newspaper, scroll through an online media platform, or check social media without being bombarded with stories on the U.S. college admissions scandal. It’s been fodder for daytime and late-night television, grist for comedic satire, and a source of anger and frustration.

For millions of students who have gone out of their way to prove, often to a skeptical and disbelieving audience, that they earned their spot on campus, the scandal is a hard slap in the face. While some buy their way into college, others—especially students of color—have paid in blood, sweat, and tears.

Many people are wondering how those with so much would work so hard to game a system to which they were already advantaged. Yet we see this phenomenon playing out every day in many sectors, including the one in which I work—philanthropy.

Often, the people who enter philanthropy do so to help others. They espouse lofty goals of wanting to advance economic, racial, social, and climate justice. Here’s the problem: funders, like many others, often fail to see how their own behavior contributes to injustice. They often fail to do their own inner work. Most of the time they’re only comfortable with change that doesn’t compromise their positions of power.

Those managing philanthropic resources, including those who determine the process for accessing those resources, all too often lack deep relationships with the communities closest to the pain of social, racial, and economic isolation. This is evident when funders tell the community what it needs rather than listening to the community and acting on its recommendations.

While acting as good stewards of resources, funders can become gatekeepers of wealth—wealth accumulated off the backs of Indigenous and enslaved people, and their descendants. The college cheating scandal is disappointing—but it is just the latest in a litany of examples that point to the need to fundamentally change our thinking and relationship with money. It is an opportunity to behold ourselves in a broken mirror.

This is not just a case of the “haves” and “have-nots”. It’s a case of how those who were supposed to be working on behalf of the “have-nots” were working for the other side.

But is this all that uncommon? Don’t we see this play out in the education space all the time?

Our education system is inequitable, and it is unequal. Children of color and youth living in poverty are routinely denied access to the types of opportunities (equitable funding, the latest in education technology, enrichment and extracurricular activities, rigorous courses) that help them stand out in the admissions process.

What’s more, these students are trapped in poorly funded schools, besieged with tests, and shuttled far from their community when local schools close due to funding cuts. They endure this all while navigating racial bias and a patchwork of policies and practices that push them out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system.

I am concerned about the college admissions cheating scandal; I really am. But if we have learned anything from it, it is this: people with extreme wealth cannot be blindly trusted to act in the best interest of marginalized groups. Case in point, Bill McGlashan, a partner in the private equity firm TPG and a prominent leader in the impact investing space, publicly promised to help disadvantaged youth get into college while privately ensuring they were locked out of opportunity.

If we’ve learned anything from the college admissions scandal, it’s that the groups most at risk of being locked out of educational opportunities must be the drivers of change. If hindsight is indeed 20/20, we’ll all admit that wealth that isn’t decolonized is likely to perpetuate harm.

The college admissions scandal is the latest example of people with wealth behaving badly.

In philanthropy, people behave badly when they fail to advocate that the federal government fund quality education. Funders behave badly when they ignore the erosion of our democracy and support privatizers seizing control of public, community-based schools. Funders behave badly when they refuse to prioritize racial equity in their grantmaking strategies.

They say the truth will set you free. The college admissions cheating scandal has exposed a fundamental truth: Until holders of wealth—including philanthropy—have done their own anti-racism, anti-privilege work, they are guaranteed to inflict harm on marginalized groups.

That truth is staring us in the face. Now the question becomes, “what will we do about it?”

Originally posted at Skoll.

Edgar will be interviewed by Sarika Bansal, Founder and Editor of BRIGHT Magazine, in the opening plenary of the Skoll World Forum. He will also speak on the 2019 Skoll World Forum panel “Is Philanthropy the Solution or Part of the Problem?” alongside other leaders in philanthropy and social entrepreneurship. This session is at 10:00 AM GMT, April 10.

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