USC information on college admissions issue

Updated: August 26, 2020

The Boston U.S. Attorney’s Office in March 2019 announced indictments related to the national admissions scandal known as “Operation Varsity Blues.” USC was shocked and deeply disappointed to learn that some USC students had been falsely presented to USC Admissions as athletic recruits with the assistance of an outside college counselor named Rick Singer. It has been the university’s priority to hold those involved in the Varsity Blues scandal accountable and to take steps to safeguard the integrity of our admissions process.

The university has completed an individual review of 33 students who were alleged to have been involved in admissions deceit. These reviews were conducted in a way that was both thorough and fair to the students involved. Twelve students were not found to have violated university policy and received no discipline, and 21 students were found to have violated university policy and received discipline that ranged from a deferred suspension to expulsion, depending on the specific circumstances of their violation; two of those cases are still pending appeal.

The following FAQ outlines steps the university has taken to reform its athletics admissions process.

How and when did USC first become aware that its athletics admissions process had been compromised?

We first became aware of Rick Singer’s misconduct in late 2018 when we began cooperating with the Boston U.S. Attorney’s Office in connection with Operation Varsity Blues. USC moved quickly to fire Senior Associate Athletic Director Donna Heinel and Water Polo Head Coach Jovan Vavic on March 12, 2019, the very same day their indictments were announced and the Varsity Blues investigation became public.

In the course of cooperating with the government’s investigation and doing our own review, we discovered additional improprieties not involving Singer; they involved the process by which Athletics presents prospective student-athletes to USC’s Office of Admission for admission consideration. All of the improprieties we discovered were limited to a small number of employees in the Department of Athletics who have been disciplined and/or are no longer employed by the university. Those Athletics employees misled the committee that reviews the applications of student-athletes for admission to USC. That committee, which is comprised solely of admissions officers, relies on the accuracy of the application information provided by the Athletics Department. Prior to her termination, Donna Heinel was responsible for presenting this information to the committee.

What is USC’s involvement in the government’s ongoing investigation?

USC continues to cooperate with the Boston U.S. Attorney’s Office in its investigation of Operation Varsity Blues, including by providing emails and other relevant documents to the government and to the defendants, when appropriate.

Has USC identified anyone other than those connected to Varsity Blues who violated the athletics admissions process? If so, what were the circumstances?

Yes. Going at least as far back as 2012, we identified that an average of 12 students per year, out of an average of 240 students per year who are admitted as student-athletes, ultimately were not on a team roster.

These students were not on rosters for different reasons. Some were clients of Rick Singer. Others were falsely presented to the Office of Admission as athletic recruits due to the past giving and/or potential future generosity of their families, or personal connections with employees in our Athletics Department. And some applicants were legitimately admitted as student-athletes but were not on a team roster for legitimate reasons.

Other than with respect to the Singer clients, we are unaware of evidence establishing that the students who did not appear on a roster were admitted through an explicit quid pro quo— and in fact, many of those applicants’ families have never donated to USC at any time. In each of these cases, one or a small number of Athletics Department employees violated USC policy and subverted the athletics admissions process. Importantly, their improper behavior was not known to USC’s Office of Admission, and in fact, was intentionally concealed from admissions. USC would not have admitted these applicants had it known they were being falsely presented as recruited student-athletes.

What are the names of the applicants who were presented as athletic recruits under false or misleading circumstances? Can you provide more detail on the specifics of each case?

Privacy laws prevent USC from releasing the names of students or the details of individual cases.

Have those responsible been held accountable?

The small number of responsible individuals, all of whom were in USC’s Athletics Department, have been disciplined and/or are no longer employed by the university. Under the leadership of our new Athletics Director Mike Bohn, behavior that is not consistent with our core values and ethics will simply not be tolerated.

Was the Office of Admission aware of the violations?

No. Donna Heinel intentionally concealed from the Office of Admission any information that suggested a purported student-athlete was not being recruited for athletic purposes. USC would not have admitted these applicants had it known they were being falsely presented as recruited student-athletes.

What steps has the university taken to reform its athletics admissions process?

We have undertaken a number of significant steps to prevent people from abusing our athletics admission process. We fully recognize the work and discipline that is required of student-athletes to play at the college level. With collaboration from all corners of the university, we have implemented a number of reforms designed to safeguard the integrity of student-athlete admissions and support the outstanding legitimate student-athletes applying to USC. These reforms include:

  • Every student-athlete candidate’s file is reviewed on three levels — by the head coach, the senior sports administrator for the particular sport the student plays and the Office of Athletic Compliance — before being delivered to the Office of Admission for review.
  • Each USC head coach must certify in writing that the student is being recruited on the basis of their athletic ability.
  • All undergraduate applicants are required to sign an attestation (in addition to the attestation required by the Common App) affirming they submitted their own application, the information is true and accurate, and should any misrepresentation be found, regardless of source, it is grounds for immediate revocation of admission.
  • All undergraduate applicants are required to acknowledge that their application and supporting materials are subject to audit.
  • The Office of Athletic Compliance maintains custody of the completed admissions file and has responsibility for confirming each admitted student is on an athletic roster upon matriculation.
  • The Athletics Department, Office of Athletic Compliance and the Office of Admission now share software to track all student-athlete applications throughout the decision-making process.
  • All rosters are audited at the beginning of each academic year. Additional random audits are performed during the academic year, and a full audit is conducted near the end of the academic year.

Will USC implement additional reforms if needed?

Yes. A task force co-chaired by Provost Charles Zukoski and Director of Athletics Mike Bohn, and comprised of faculty, staff and students, is reexamining our protocols and will recommend further reforms to our admissions process, as warranted. As part of its review, the task force will evaluate the processes used to consider the applications of prospective student-athletes to ensure they are consistent with the highest standards and best practices in higher education. In the meantime, we will not hesitate to implement additional checks and balances to ensure strong redundancies exist to prevent future violations. If we learn of additional information, we will respond appropriately.