• February 5, 2023

New Netflix Documentary Shows How Money Can Buy Admission To A Top U.S. University : NPR

NPR’s Ailsa Chang talks to Chris Smith, director of the Netflix documentary Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

I’ve spent much of my high school career focusing on going to really good colleges. I still vividly remember that stress, which is why the news of “Operation Varsity Blues” really hit a nerve. Notice; This was the federal investigation into a huge college admissions program that involved super-rich parents. And at the center of that scheme was Rick Singer. He would bribe coaches and other university officials to secure places for students. Singer called his technology the side door.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OPERATION VARSITY BLUES: THE COLLEGE ADMISSIONS SCANDAL”)

MATTHEW MODINE: (as Rick Singer) The front door means getting in alone. The back door makes a donation that’s ten times the money. I created this type of side door because there are no guarantees on the back door. They’ll just give you a second look. My families want a guarantee.

CHANG: Chris Smith made a new Netflix documentary called Operation Varsity Blues. It shows how Singer built a hugely profitable business. In parts of the film, actors re-enact real conversations taken from tapping logs of the investigation. I asked Smith how these transcripts helped him tell a different kind of story.

CHRIS SMITH: In the documentary, you’re always looking for something – you know, to try to find out and find the truth – you know, you help the audience understand what happened. In this case, while researching the project, my writer and editor of the project, Jon Karmen, had delved deep into the affidavit that was released. In doing so, he discovered that there were all of these transcripts of tapped phone calls that had taken place between Rick Singer and the parents involved. And when we looked at that, we found that it was this window into a world that we would seldom see just because, in many cases, these people were being recorded without even knowing they were being recorded. In a way, this was as close to the truth as possible.

CHANG: Right – so interesting. It was as if the audience of your documentary could overhear these parents. But were you even concerned about the heavy use of actors making the documentary feel less real to some viewers?

SMITH: I think, at the end of the day, the conversations between the parents and Rick told you so much about the story. You know, we didn’t have Rick Singer in front of the camera for an interview and we didn’t have parents. In many cases we have not heard from the parents either. We haven’t heard from their lawyers. In the cases where we did this, it was often said that they were waiting to be convicted and feared that an interview would adversely affect the verdict. Without her voice, these transcripts really helped us understand the betrayal and schema in ways that we otherwise could not have had.

CHANG: Well, about those conversations, I mean, something that caught my eye – your film doesn’t show these parents that they feel moral wrestling.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OPERATION VARSITY BLUES: THE COLLEGE ADMISSIONS SCANDAL”)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 1: (as character) To be honest, I’m not concerned about the moral issue here. I’m worried about that – she’s caught doing it, you know, she’s done. So me just – it has never happened in 20 odd years. The only thing that can happen is if she …

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 2: (as character) Someone is speaking.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 1: (as character) Yes.

CHANG: I was wondering if there really were moments of regret in those tapping logs and you just decided to rule them out?

SMITH: You know, my memory was just that I think the parents were in a lot of cases – their main concern was that their kids wouldn’t find out …

CHANG: Yeah.

SMITH: … They know they wanted to protect and protect the children.

CHANG: Right. They wanted their children to feel like they got in on their own.

SMITH: Yeah. I think that’s one of the things that something is overlooked. I think some people blame the kids, but in many cases the parents and Rick went to great lengths to keep them from finding out.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “OPERATION VARSITY BLUES: THE COLLEGE ADMISSIONS SCANDAL”)

MODINE: (as character) She’ll think she took the test by the time she finishes the test – no doubt about it. She’ll walk out the door in the end and tell you Dad it was so hard or I’m so tired or whatever the typical child’s reaction is. You will go and then Mark will look at all of their answers. Mark will then take the exam and then make sure that what he can do is incredible, no matter what score we’re trying to get – he got it to one point.

SMITH: And so I found that this was a really interesting aspect of the nature of the fraud and scheme as a whole – it was important to everyone.

CHANG: Well, it turns out that no one convicted so far has received more than a year in prison. Some of these cases are of course still pending. But now let me ask, who do you think are the real villains in all of this? – because honestly, when I got to the end of your documentary, I felt, God, this is so much bigger than Rick Singer and a bunch of rich parents.

SMITH: In terms of fault, Rick saw an opportunity and took it. And I think you see in these conversations that he was the way he manipulated parents at times, I think that was the only way for their kids to get to school that they, you know, had . wanted in.

So there are so many factors at play that it was really exciting for us to look at all of these different things and the way social media has put pressure on. The ranking has just gotten more intense in terms of people who want to join the selected number of schools. I think we tried to take a step back and show from a lot of the experts we spoke to that there are a number of schools that give you great education. And how do we try to take the pressure off children and parents to think differently about education? You know, when it really comes down to learning, there are a lot of great options out there.

I think the only thing left to figure out with this idea is that people see college as a networking opportunity. You know, I think there are many people out there who feel that if you really want to get ahead in this world, that you are going to a reputable school with these other people who have access to power and wealth, and it really is the benefit that comes from college. And so it’s less about education than about the network. And so we’re reversing that – I think that’s why we’re trying to involve experts in education – to somehow open up that dialogue.

CHANG: It’s worth noting that these parents didn’t expect and didn’t want to be caught doing what they were doing. But this movie – it made me think, however the judicial system is shaken for these families, there is still the bigger question for these institutions of whether the college admissions system will ever be on a level playing field. Do you think that is even possible?

SMITH: Regarding the college application process, you know, I think what upset people so much in this particular instance is that there is a semblance of understanding that things are fair and that everyone is at the same game compete against each other field. And I think when people discovered that Rick had found this way to undermine the system, be it through the testing scheme or by using university athletics to get their kids in through what he called the side door, this was it this really turned upside down idea that America is a pure meritocracy, you know that …

CHANG: Right.

SMITH: … when you work hard you know you have an opportunity to move forward. We see this repeat in America all the time. You know, when you go to an amusement park, you can pay more money to get the FastPass, and it allows you to cut the line short. And when you buy a plane ticket, a first class ticket, you can hop on whenever you want. You sit in front. I think people thought education was different. And I think when the story broke it was revealed that even in something as sacred as education the system was still there for the rich. And I think in a way it didn’t surprise people, but I think it horrified them.

CHANG: Chris Smith made the documentary “Operation Varsity Blues”. It’s now available on Netflix.

Thank you for speaking to us today.

SMITH: Yes of course. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE FROM EX-POETS SONG, “STILL WAIT”)

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