U05: Crisis and The USC Bribery Scandal

What can we do in a time of crisis? Where can we find answers and who can we turn to? How can we quickly and efficiently deal with a situation so that it does not become a disaster? Crises are inevitable, and it is important as leaders to understand how to prepare for and deal with crises in the most effective way possible.

A crisis can be defined as a “critical event or point of decision which, if not handled in an appropriate and timely manner (or if not handled at all), may turn into a disaster or catastrophe” (Crisis, n.d.).

A recent event that involved a crisis was the U.S.C. admissions scandal. In early March, 2019, U.S.C. “had emerged at the epicenter of an unfolding college admissions scandal involving federal charges of bribery, cheating and parents who were willing to pay thousands of dollars to get their underperforming children into some of the nation’s top universities” (Witz at. al, 2019). This critical event left the leadership team of U.S.C. in a difficult ethical situation. Over two dozen parents were accused of bribing their children’s way into the school, four U.S.C. athletics officials have been charged with taking bribes, and Donna Heinel, one of the university’s top athletics administrators, helped get more than two dozen students admitted as athletes, though none of them were qualified to play competitive sports (Witz at. al, 2019). As this bribery case made clear “the system to recruit student athletes — who are already sometimes held to lesser academic standards than other students — can be subject to manipulation” (Witz at. al, 2019). Donna Heinel has been accused of receiving more than $1.3 million in payments from parents between 2014 and 2018, and receiving $20,000 per month from Mr. Singer, an admissions counselor in on the scam, since last July through a fake consultant agreement.

There are several aspects of a crisis that make it relevant to ethics: critical event, point of decision, appropriate, timely, and disaster/catastrophe (PSU, 2019). The critical event in this particular situation was that what was occurring was clearly wrong and went against people’s values. Lefkowitz (2003) states that “values refer to the relative importance with which we view generalized end state (terminal values) or standards of conduct (instrumental values)” (p. 397). When this scandal came to light, it was clear what the school’s values were, and they needed to make a decision on how to react. In a crisis, “leaders need to balance the values of themselves, their followers, and the larger organization and/or society” (PSU, 2019). Next, we see the point of decision. The leaders at U.S.C. needed to decide how they were going to respond to the scandal. The staff and coaches involved in the scandal were fired from U.S.C. in response to the critical event. “Crises create a decision point where if a leader doesn’t make a decision, something negative will happen either for the organization or individuals in the organization. That is not to say that a decision will completely avert negative outcomes, but it will reduce the likelihood of something worse happening” (PSU, 2019). While it did not change the past, attending to the situation and firing the people involved in the scandal did help to make things from becoming worse. The leadership team at U.S.C. did see that damage done with this illegal activity and wanted to prevent further damage to the school, its students, and its reputation. The aspect of what was appropriate in this situation is important because it indicates that there is a better or worse solution. In this case, it was better to fire the people who were participating in illegal activities and hurting the students, faculty, staff, and school. If they would have kept the people involved in the scandal on their staff, the school would have faced even worse backlash and consequences. This is related to the theory of deontological ethics.

Deontological ethics involves “moral systems where people are being ethical if they are following a moral code” (PSU, 2019, L03). People are ethical if they have “correct” motivations for decisions regarding their behaviors, or in other words, deontology is about following the proper rules for behavior (PSU, 2019, L03). The people taking the bribes from parents were violating the school’s code of ethics. They were also violating the rights of other students that perhaps would have been accepted into the school if the spots were not taken by students who paid their way in. Overall, the behavior of the people involved in this scandal did not align with the rules, was not respectful of others’ rights, and was not rational behavior. The rules were also very clear in this situation, and the illegal behavior was obviously wrong.

As soon as this scandal broke headlines, U.S.C. immediately tried to handle it. The nature of crises is that they often demand immediate or almost immediate attention from leadership (PSU, 2019). This scandal was huge and it was very important that the leadership team attended to it immediately. The effects of this scandal have been negative for U.S.C., however they would have been even worse if the leadership team simply did not respond or make quick decisions, as it is a “moral imperative for leaders to avoid disaster/catastrophe as much as possible with their decisions and actions” (PSU, 2019).



Crisis. (n.d.). In Business dictionary (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.. Retrieved from http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/crisis.html

Lefkowitz, J. (2003). Ethics and values in industrial-organizational psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

PSU (2019). Lesson 03: Ethical Theories. PSY 833: Ethics and Leadership. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1963919

PSU (2019). Unit 05: Synthesizing Ethics into a Holistic Approach to Solving Ethical Issues in Organizations. PSY 833: Ethics and Leadership. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1963919

Witz, B., Medina, J., & Arango, T. (2019, March 14). Bribes and Big-Time Sports: U.S.C. Finds Itself, Once Again, Facing Scandal. Retrieved April 17, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/14/us/usc-college-cheating-scandal-bribes.html

One Comment

  1. Lori Beth Hook April 22, 2019 at 2:10 PM #

    Hi Kelsey,

    I found your post to be incredibly informative and well written. One of the aspects of the college admissions scandal that piqued my interest were the numerous reports from the woodwork about so many other unethical admissions practices unrelated to the scandal.

    One of the topics I found much research on was legacy admittance and athletic recruiting. “These wealthy and privileged families have always had their way with college admissions through athletic recruiting, legacy status and the early decision pool” (Legatt, 2019).

    In my opinion, part of the issue with these unethical admissions processes is the over involvement of parents in their children’s college application process. These parents are creating this crisis, “critical event or point of decision which, if not handled in an appropriate and timely manner (or if not handled at all), may turn into a disaster or catastrophe” (Crisis, n.d.). The point of decision then becomes two fold, whether the parent will engage in an unethical practice to help their child gain admission, or whether they will stand back and watch the child complete the process as it was intended.

    Unfortunately, some parents are so afraid of their image or their children’s potential for failure that they go to extreme measures including doing everything for them. One quote I found particularly pertinent to this situation reads as follows “Going to college is a not an entitlement. It also doesn’t matter where you go. It’s about what you learn and what you experience (Koop, 2019)”. Ms. Koop makes an excellent and valid point, this is not solely about the ethics of the situation but also will effect the morality and thereby ethics of their child as they are teaching them that they aren’t held accountable for their actions.


    Crisis. (n.d.). In Business dictionary (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.. Retrieved from http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/crisis.html

    Koop, L. (2019). The College Admissions Scandal – A lesson in ethics for this generation? Retrieved from: https://www.educationquest.org/blog/the-college-admissions-scandal-a-lesson-in-ethics-for-this-generation/

    Legatt, A. (2019). Is It Moral And Ethical To Pay For An Advantage In The College Admissions Process? Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/avivalegatt/2019/03/19/is-it-moral-and-ethical-to-pay-for-an-advantage-in-the-college-admissions-process/#48be5ff74fac

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