In the wake of admissions scandals both nationwide and at the University, Harvard has implemented new policies — including requiring coaches to provide proof of recruits’ athletic abilities — to prevent fraudulent athletic admissions, according to Athletics Director Robert L. Scalise.
In March, federal authorities uncovered a nationwide scheme through “Operation Varsity Blues” in which parents bribed coaches at elite universities including Yale and Stanford to designate their children as athletics recruits, vastly improving their chances of admission. Though Harvard was not implicated in that scandal, the University suffered its own controversy in April when the Boston Globe reported that former head fencing coach Peter Brand had sold his home to the family of prospective students.
The University has implemented two new policies this fall in response to the scandals, according to Scalise. Harvard coaches must now provide materials that admissions officers can later use to verify an applicant’s athletic ability. The Office of General Counsel is also starting regular conflict of interest training for Athletics coaching staff.
Harvard coaches have historically provided forms rating prospective student athletes to Harvard’s admissions office, according to Scalise. On these forms, coaches rank a prospective student’s athletic ability. They also often provide a character description based on information learned about prospective students during recruiting trips.
Now, the Athletics Department is asking coaches to put “something that we can verify” on the form for the admissions office to review, Scalise said. Examples of possible materials coaches could include are newspaper articles and websites with national rankings.
During the nationwide admissions scandal, many of the students designated as athletics recruits had little to no experience in the sports for which they were listed as recruits.
Scalise clarified that Harvard’s admissions procedures already help prevent similar scams, as each prospective student receives an interview. Both the admissions office and athletics coaches work to verify students’ athletic accomplishments.
“When our admissions office gets a hold of our list, the list of people, they're doing their own internet searches,” Scalise said. “So they help us as well to verify.”
Scalise said Harvard is working to prevent similar situations to those exposed during the admissions scandal.
“You learn from your mistakes, but you also learn from other people's mistakes,” he said.
Though Harvard was not implicated in Varsity Blues, it has had issues of potentially compromised admissions of athletic recruits. In July, Harvard dismissed Brand after an independent inquiry found that his real estate transactions with the family of current and former athletes violated Harvard’s conflict of interest policy.
Brand sold his home in Needham, Mass. to iTalk Global Communications, Inc. co-founder Jie Zhao in 2016 for approximately $300,000 above its market valuation. Zhao’s younger son was admitted to the College shortly thereafter to fence for Harvard. Zhao’s older son, who was already on Harvard’s fencing team, graduated in 2018.
In response, Harvard announced that it would train its athletics coaching staff in its conflict of interest policies.
The University’s General Counsel has already begun these trainings this fall, according to Scalise. The General Counsel will train every new coach in their first year and every other year following the initial training, according to spokesperson Aaron M. Goldman.
Scalise said he hopes coaches have an intuition about what crosses the line and what does not when it comes to conflict of interest. He added that the fencing scandal demonstrated that the University had to offer more trainings on the topic.
“We need to make sure that people understand what they should do and not,” Scalise said.
—Staff writer Devin B. Srivastava can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.