Private schools always prioritize business over students

(Mya Davis | Daily Trojan)

Students arrive at USC with wide-eyed anticipation. Gorgeous campus tours and dozens of welcome letters draw students in with the promise that they are joining a family at a university that puts them first. It’s a naive expectation, built on alumni networks, free Lyfts and football games. 

All the shiny stuff is just a Trojan horse. Private school education is a billion-dollar industry and USC — like all other private institutions — is first and foremost a business. The needs of its students come second to the bottom line. 

In the face of scandal, USC’s Board of Trustees has proven its first move is to cover itself and secure its assets. Following the Varsity Blues scandal that broke last spring, the very first correspondence the University made with its students was an email dismissing responsibility and labeling itself as the victim in fraudulent acts perpetrated against the University. The Board did not care to address obvious negligence in admissions standards or apologize to the students who did earn their place. 

Acknowledging fault is bad for business. The Board’s priority is to maintain the status of an elite institution to attract donors. Their priority is with image, modus operandi for how private schools do business. The Board has never been very concerned with transparency; the names of its executive committee weren’t made public until last spring. It wasn’t until USC was under national scrutiny and its reputation was on the line for the Board to decide to change how it operates. After finding themselves the subject of countless think pieces, trending on Twitter and being clowned on Saturday Night Live, they finally landed on the ingenious conclusion that something wasn’t right.

The “big and meaningful” changes Board of Trustees Chairman Rick Caruso spoke of in pursuit of more transparent dealings were little more than a PR move, likely just a tarp to cover the issue until it was out of sight, out of mind. The Board’s executive committee has more billionaires than it does people of color and is overwhelmingly male; there is no reason that should be the case. 

It’s silly to expect a board that doesn’t effectively represent such a diverse student body to make decisions with its best interests in mind. The Board’s resistance to adding a student or faculty representative speaks to a lack of interest in hearing student voices, especially marginalized voices. 

The Varsity Blues scandal showed that, to USC, what was important wasn’t achievement but who could afford to put names on new buildings. It wasn’t about the depth of experience but the depth of one’s pockets. This ethos perpetuated by the Board seeps into student attitudes. Varsity Blues was a message to students that they weren’t as important to their school as the people who could afford to bankroll it. 

In setting its agenda as a cash machine — and in the makeup of its voting body — the Board established who matters most: rich people, especially those “fortunate” enough to be white and male. This only exacerbated pre-existing feelings of class division at a school where students wear Off-White and a fistful of Cartier to a 9 a.m. discussion. 

The University perpetuates elitism because the elite are the ones signing checks and financing USC Village expansions. With a nearly all-white, all-wealthy Board, the University is subliminally telling its students that minority voices are of lesser importance. 

Every time they find themselves implicated in a scandal, the Board purports that they had no knowledge of said wrongdoing. This excuse is as hard to believe as it is meaningless because, at the very least, the Board is one that allows corruption. Whether or not they were aware of said corruption is of little consequence because regardless they are complicit in it. They are so resistant to major changesbecause corruption is essential to any thriving business, and why would they want to stop the money machine? 

The admissions scandal was a textbook demonstration of USC’s premium on donors and the wealthier students who can bring them in. USC will always be a business. That won’t change. However, upon committing to the school, USC students were made a promise that they were attending an institution that prioritizes their needs. 

Trojans must continue to press the Board to change how it operates — in ways that will be bad for business. By taking away their money, students incentivize the University to actually do something. In order to make waves with the Board; students have to find a way to block the buck. Then, they will have to listen. 

Marching down Trousdale and making a noise that cannot be ignored isn’t hopeless. Students don’t need to feel complicit when their money is the Board’s prime objective. While students may never truly be made a priority over business, members of the community can at least take steps to force their Board to pretend more convincingly.