Ramesh Ponnuru: College scandal is a perfect fit for our populist moment

Bizarre, hilarious and disturbing, the college-admissions scandal is a perfect fit for our political moment.

A central claim of today's populists, both on the right and on the left, is that we have a ruling class that wields power in its own interests and justifies that power with the pretense that it has earned its position through merit.

The elites, for their part, do not always recognize themselves as such. They consider themselves part of a meritocracy, with merit defined largely in terms of educational credentials. The legitimacy of the process by which institutions of higher learning select students is thus tied to the legitimacy of their own privilege.

Standardized tests and grade-point averages work for our meritocrats the way the Sorting Hat does in the Harry Potter novels, opening up a world of magical possibilities by recognizing innate talent. Populism's liberal opponents have frequently borrowed the imagery of Hogwarts for themselves, with President Donald Trump as Voldemort and the Resistance in the place of Dumbledore's Army. It is a series of books that climaxes in a battle for the control of a school.

The reality of the admissions process, as revealed by this scandal, is disenchanting. The rich daughters of Hollywood can hobnob with university board members - on a yacht, no less - and have their parents buy their way into the freshman class. The connection to self-righteous and anti-Trump Hollywood makes the story even better as an illustration of populist suspicions. Steve Bannon could hardly have written it better.

The Resistance has retorted that Jared Kushner's family seems to have bought him a slot at Harvard. On the left, the prevailing reaction to the scandal has been to argue that it shows that rich white people benefit from their own version of affirmative action in admissions. How much difference is there, really, ask left-wing critics of the universities, between bribing a coach to pretend your son is a pole vaulter and bribing a whole university to pretend you funded that new dorm in the spirit of pure charity?

For that matter, isn't recruiting athletes, even real ones, a departure from a rigorous standard of academic merit? Isn't it an even bigger one to give preferential treatment to the children of alumni?

And doesn't the desperation of actress Lori Loughlin's race to win admission for her daughter - a "social media influencer" whose resume includes a YouTube video where she says, "I don't really care about school" - highlight how little many prospective students and their families view "higher learning" as the purpose of college in the first place?

There may be answers to these questions, but they are uncomfortable questions for the universities nonetheless.

Announcing the investigation and arrests, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling tried to paper over some of these issues. He declared:

"This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud. There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy, and I'll add there will not be a separate criminal-justice system, either."

There manifestly is a separate system for the wealthy that is beyond any prosecutor's power to end. The prosecutions are in reality about acts of fraud that were committed against the universities. As interim USC president Wanda Austin put it in an email to students, "USC is the victim." The university is supposed to be able to sell spots, not have its employees skim its profits.

Trump's version of populism is a little different from some previous ones. Past populists have inveighed against a ruling class that they considered to have too much power. Trump, by contrast, portrays elites and the institutions they run as incompetent, weak, frivolous and dishonest.

It is an overdrawn case, and the universities are not, in truth, as bad as this scandal makes them look. Academic merit plays a large role in admissions, even if not quite as large a one as the universities would have you believe, and their interest in it is sincere.

But the damage will last. Political, financial, religious and journalistic elites have done quite a lot to seed the ground for populist challenges by acting in a way that discredits them. Add academic elites to the list.

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