[guest post by JVW]
We’ve written on this blog about the “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal which brought a great deal of controversy to several campuses, none more than the University of Southern California. The scandal showed that savvy operators had figured out ways to game the admissions system through fraudulent test scores and phony extracurricular activities, and that higher education institutions were often less than thorough in checking up on high-profile applicants. And though I laid out the novel legal theory that good-looking people should generally not be subject to prosecution on relatively minor offenses, to date about two-thirds of the parents accused in this scheme have copped pleas. Nineteen of the thirty-four parents accused have a connection to USC.
So it must have caused a great deal of angina among the Trojan community when the Los Angeles Times published an exposé this past Friday detailing the favorable conditions under which a Qatari prince matriculated to and graduated from the school in the mid-2010s. It’s a fascinating read, full of all sorts of diversions, guest stars, secondary characters, and side-stories, but it reinforces the notion that many of our most prestigious schools — and USC has long been notorious for this — are happy to admit and, after a few years of collegiate conviviality, hand out unearned degrees to wealthy and well-connected students. Do read the entire thing, but I’ll tease the article with some fascinating pulls:
He came from the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar on a private jet with a squad of servants, a bottomless natural gas fortune and the stated goal of a college education. He installed himself in the Beverly Wilshire, the hotel that “Pretty Woman” made famous, and embarked on a lifestyle that few undergraduates could imagine — luxury suites for Lakers games, lunch at the Ivy and regular excursions to gamble in Las Vegas.
He took the town with an entourage, a rotating collection of cousins and friends from back home, in a fleet of exotic sports cars, rubbing elbows with a flashy set that included Scott Disick of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” and announcing his exuberance in custom trucker hats emblazoned with his initials: KHK.
Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the KHK of the story, is one of the eleven sons of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa bin Hamad bin Abdullah bin Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, who ruled Qatar at the Emir from 2005-13. Though his matriculation to USC has nothing to do with the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, the prominence of the tainted college admission stories in our nation’s media apparently led some whistle-blowers to contact reporters and editors at the Times with the suggestion that they look into the circumstances surrounding KHK’s enrollment, and the legitimacy of his reputed academic accomplishments at the university. It’s a pretty flabbergasting story:
From the moment Al Thani stepped off the plane, an entire economy quickly grew up around him to meet his wishes and whims: chauffeurs, a security detail, concierges, trainers, a nurse, an all-purpose fixer and even, according to several USC faculty members, a graduate student who served as his academic “sherpa.”
Before he started classes, a billionaire trustee arranged a private meeting between the university president and the prince’s mother, and once he arrived, the institution showered him with special treatment.
He was allowed to blow off class for dubious “security reasons” as an undergrad, then was handed a master’s degree for a period in which he took several vacations in Europe and never stepped foot on campus.
The young sheikh enjoyed hanging out in trendy restaurants and cafes, skiing and beach trips taken during the school week, driving at high-speed late at night on Los Angeles freeways in one of the dozens of luxury cars he owned, and numerous trips to Las Vegas to gamble at the casino tables, a practice strictly proscribed by his Muslim faith. He was given a pass from attending lectures due to security concerns, though a former dean acknowledges that he is unaware of any actual threats made against the prince and that any arrangement made to excuse him from attending class did not come through usual university channels and must have been an executive decision from the president’s office. His Qatari entourage enlisted a graduate student teaching assistant to serve as the prince’s liaison to his professors, and it is strongly suggested that the grad student — now an assistant professor at Occidental College — did at least a part of the academic work for his employer, who appeared on the dean’s list three times in his undergraduate years.
Why Khalifa bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani would choose USC is fairly obvious. The young sheikh is said to have been a huge fan of Los Angeles, which has a fairly large expat Middle Eastern population. It’s certainly a city with a great number of attractions for a handsome young man who is also phenomenally wealthy. After making overtures to a UCLA dean and being told that the decision rested entirely with the admissions office, emissaries of KHK approached USC and found a far more receptive audience. What about KHK appealed to the stately 140-year-old university located just south of downtown? More likely than not it was this:
Under the leadership of the prince’s mother, Qatar has given more than $1 billion to American universities, making it the largest foreign funder of U.S. higher education.
[. . .]
The Al Thanis knew several USC trustees, including Thomas J. Barrack Jr., a wealthy L.A. investor and founder of Colony Capital Inc. who oversaw construction of the family’s Bel-Air compound. The fall after UCLA rejected the Qatari overtures, Al Thani’s mother, Sheikha Moza, came to L.A. and Barrack arranged a visit with USC’s president.
C.L. Max Nikias was then in the middle of a $6-billion fundraising campaign, one of the most ambitious capital drives ever in higher education, and both people in the room that day knew Qatar was in a position to give generously to USC.
Four months after the meeting ended, the prince started at USC as a transfer student. His cousin and close friend Nasser [Al Thani] enrolled alongside him. Around the same time, USC began pursuing a significant grant from the Qatar Foundation for the university’s marine research center on Catalina Island.
Did USC reap the benefits of prostituting themselves to a family of the sleazy Qatari government, a government under intense pressure for its lack of basic freedoms and its treatment of guest workers who are helping the small Gulf country prepare to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup? The answer is apparently no:
The four years Al Thani spent in L.A. were a payday for many. But not USC. Nikias traveled to Doha and visited the Qatar Foundation, the deep-pocketed nonprofit run by the prince’s mother, Sheikha Moza. He came away empty-handed, university officials said.
The grant that USC sought for the Catalina Island marine center never materialized.
Still, Sheikha Moza and her husband, the now-former emir, were expected to honor the campus with their presence at their son’s 2015 commencement, according to faculty members and employees of the prince.
A section of Shrine Auditorium had been reserved for the royals, and a golf cart designated to squire them across campus.
None of the Al Thanis showed, not even the prince. The professors on the Shrine stage were left staring out at empty seats.
Do read the whole thing. It’s another nail in the coffin of the reputation of “elite” higher education institutions. And though we are justifiably critical of them much of the time, here’s one of those instances in which the Los Angeles Times does informative and valuable journalism. Cheers to them.