Case goes to heart of nation's promise


All of us who have children in our lives – whether we are parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles – want nothing more than to see those young people grow up in a safe, caring environment. We also want them to have access to opportunity and to be successful as they grow into adulthood.

Cranston native Gordon Ernst, better known as Gordie, has stood for decades as an example of what is possible for Rhode Island children.

A standout athlete in his high school days, he attended Brown University and starred on its hockey team. He was drafted by an NHL team and went on to a successful career as a tennis coach.

He spent more than a decade coaching the men’s and women’s tennis teams at prestigious Georgetown University, and even worked as an instructor for the family of former President Barack Obama. He is a member of the New England Tennis Hall of Fame, Rhode Island Interscholastic Hall of Fame and Cranston Athletic Hall of Fame.

When Ernst returned to the Ocean State last year as the women’s tennis coach at the University of Rhode Island, it was widely viewed as the story of an accomplished resident – and local sports legend – returning to his roots.

All of that came crashing down earlier this month, however, as Ernst was charged with racketeering conspiracy for his alleged role in a widespread college admissions bribery scheme while at Georgetown. The investigation, which federal officials have dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues,” ultimately led to charges against roughly 50 people, including prominent business and entertainment figures.

Ernst is alleged to have taken more than $2.7 million in bribes, labeled as “consulting fees,” from a California-based college admissions consultant. In exchange, Ernst is alleged to have falsely designated Georgetown applicants as tennis recruits to facilitate their admission.

The scandal extends well beyond Ernst. Coaches at numerous other well-known institutions of higher learning – including Yale and Stanford – are alleged to have been involved. Authorities say the scheme also extended into test taking, with the consultant alleged to have paid millions in bribes to SAT and ACT exam administrators to facilitate cheating.

Ernst has been indicted for his alleged role in the scheme and was due to appear in court March 25. He resigned from his position at URI, which was not tied to the scandal, on March 23. His story has become a cautionary tale, one of possibility and achievement seemingly led astray by greed.

Yet there is another vital warning we must all take from this sad episode.

Over many years, attending college or university has become an increasingly expensive and competitive proposition. Untold young people and their families take on enormous amounts of debt to afford higher education. And in a rapidly changing economy, the degree with which a student emerges often provides no guarantees in terms of opportunities for success.

The fact that people of means can buy special access and consideration for themselves and their loved ones – in the higher education world and beyond – is, of course, nothing new. But what makes the case of “Operation Varsity Blues” so troubling is that it speaks to a system that is rigged on a deeper, more sinister level.

As Boston U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said during the first press conference regarding the investigation: “We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school’s more likely to take your son or daughter. We’re talking about deception and fraud – fake test scores, fake athletic credentials, fake photographs, bribed college officials.”

Opportunity must not be available only to those who can afford it. Young people deserve to know that they will be judged fairly, and on their merits – and that their hard work, and the support and efforts of all those around them, will be rewarded with a real shot at success. That promise sits at the very heart of the American ideal.

We applaud investigators and prosecutors for uncovering the admissions scandal and working to bring those involved to justice. We also hope this case spurs a renewed effort to provide all of our children with the access and tools they deserve as they seek a brighter future.


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