Bill Gallagher

From Hot Pockets heiress Michelle Janavs to former University of Southern California soccer coach Laura Janke, over 50 celebrities and coaches of Division I sports were charged with paying or accepting bribes to gain admission to elite universities, including Yale. 

The entire country watched as this scandal — known as Operation Varsity Blues — reverberated around campuses and courthouses in 2019. Former Yale women’s soccer coach Rudy Meredith was implicated in Varsity Blues, and University spokesperson Tom Conroy told the News in 2019 that the University had rescinded the admission of one student as a result of the scandal.

In a 2019 email to the Yale Community, University President Peter Salovey wrote that the University was committed to “making certain the integrity of the admissions and athletic recruitment processes is not undermined again.”

The Scandal

It was a Yale dad who unleashed this Pandora’s box: Morrie Tobin, the father of a Yale student, tipped off federal authorities about Operation Varsity Blues in an attempt to secure leniency in a securities fraud case. As reported by the Wall Street Journal on March 14, 2019, Meredith had offered Tobin a bribe, which he declined. The Journal then reported on March 19, 2019 that Tobin participated in this scandal by allegedly paying a bribe, according to an anonymous source familiar with the investigation.

Conroy said that besides the student who had her admission rescinded and a student who was never accepted, Yale had no reason to believe that other students were involved in the scheme. Still, an internal review was immediately conducted with the assistance of outside counsel.

William “Rick” Singer was the mastermind behind the scheme. He led a for-profit admissions company based in Newport Beach, California. Singer pled guilty on March 12, 2019 to money laundering, racketeering, tax evasion and obstruction of justice. According to prosecutors, Singer had allegedly secured $25 million in bribes from parents to help pass money to varsity sports coaches and to cheat on college entrance exams. 

Meredith was the “winningest coach in Yale history” according to his faculty profile, having led the program for 24 years. Then, the Department of Justice found that Meredith had worked with Singer since April 2015. Unsealed Department of Justice documents revealed that Meredith would “accept bribes in exchange for designating applicants to Yale as recruits for the Yale women’s soccer team, and thereby facilitating their admission to the university.” 

The court documents cited one example of bribery resulting in a Yale admission. Singer had agreed to help “facilitate the admission of one applicant to Yale,” referred to as “Yale Applicant 1,” “in or about” November 2017, in return for a $1.2 million bribe from the applicant’s parents to be paid in the “spring or summer of 2018.” Admitted as a women’s soccer recruit, Yale Applicant 1 had never played competitive soccer before. The University has since rescinded her admission.

Meredith had solicited a $400,000 bribe for this admission as part of Singer’s scam. Separately from Singer, Meredith also attempted to get a $450,000 bribe in exchange for getting another applicant into Yale — a deal which the FBI was listening in on through Tobin. The federal authorities gained evidence of wire fraud from Meredith then receiving $4000 of the bribe from an FBI-controlled bank account. 

The documents revealed that Meredith had been working as a cooperating witness from April 2018 until November 2018, when he resigned for undisclosed reasons. Meredith pled guilty to wire fraud and conspiracy charges in a U.S. District Court in Boston on March 28, 2019. Also revealed in the wake of the scandal, Meredith, then a graduate school student at Ohio University, allegedly used players to write his graduate school papers.

Meredith was forced to forfeit over $800,000 in accepted bribes and is the only Yale affiliate currently facing charges in this scandal. While the first Varsity Blues trials — against Gamal Abdelaziz and John Wilson — ended in a guilty verdict, Meredith has not faced sentencing yet.

In an announcement on March 12, 2019, Joseph R. Bonavolonta, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office, said that this scheme was the product of a “culture of corruption and greed.”

“You can’t lie and cheat to get ahead because you will get caught,” Bonavolonta said in the announcement.

The Response

Director of Yale Athletics Vicky Chun told the News in 2019 that “the Department of Justice made clear that Yale has been the victim of a crime. The University has fully cooperated with the investigation and will continue to moving forward.”

University President Peter Salovey wrote in a community-wide email that the University does “not believe that any member of the Yale administration or staff other than [Meredith] knew about the conspiracy.” The email also noted that Chun had been implementing new policies to improve oversight of Yale Athletics’ coaching staff to “ensure that student-athletes receive an excellent education at Yale and to enhance the quality of [Yale’s] athletic programs.” 

Salovey further specified that Chun would conduct reviews of every coach’s roster of recruits before the rosters could be sent to the admissions office. A code of conduct for athletic recruitment, with more robust training on Yale’s recruitment policies for all coaches, has since been implemented in response to the scandal. 

In August 2019, Salovey announced that Yale would implement admissions audits. A sample of applications would be audited each year by the Admissions Office as a safeguard against fraud. Further, Salovey wrote that both the admissions and athletic offices would conduct a “preliminary review” to verify athletic credentials. 

Athletic coaches are now required to provide three references to confirm a recruited athlete’s “athletic status.” Meanwhile “thorough” exit interviews are conducted with athletic recruits who do not play their recruited sport at Yale for all four years. It was also announced that coaches would be required to report all “athletic related income” not paid directly to them by Yale. 

“Working together, we will incorporate these new safeguards as we recruit young people committed to excellence academically and athletically, and who strive to have a positive impact on the Yale community and beyond,” Chun stated in an Aug. 28, 2019 press release.

In an April 2019 survey conducted by the News in response to Varsity Blues, students reaffirmed their support of Yale’s holistic review admissions process, but said that the scandal negatively impacted their view of Yale. 

Lauren Quintela

David Coleman ’91, CEO of the College Board, responded to the scandal with an opinion piece on the work of admissions at Yale. At the College Board, he learned “a lot more about cheating” than he would like. However, in the op-ed, he sought to shift the emphasis to the important work of admissions officers.

“The character of Yale is no accident,” Coleman wrote. “It is easy to pick high-performing students, much more difficult to forge a diverse, thoughtful, passionate class. While the ‘Varsity Blues’ investigation is getting a lot of press, I wish as many people noticed the historic growth of first-generation and low-income students admitted into Yale this year. The greatest thing the University can do is to better represent the full range of income in our country; much has been done and so much remains to be done. Finding and admitting superb lower- and middle-income students requires not just reviewing applications but the harder work of making space for them — of giving up scarce seats.”

Yale College admitted 4.46% of applicants to the class of 2026.

KAYLA YUP
Kayla Yup covers Science & Social Justice with an interest in the intersections of the humanities and STEM. She is majoring in Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology and History of Science, Medicine & Public Health.