Campus Administrators Respond To College Admissions Scandal In Which Head Volleyball Coach Was Indicted

Following the news of a nationwide college admissions scandal being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice, Head Volleyball Coach Bill Ferguson was suspended on March 12. 

Ferguson has been indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit racketeering. He is due to appear in federal court next Monday, March 25, in Boston, Mass. 

According to the original statement by Wake Forest Athletic Communications on March 12, the university is “aware of the allegations” and “has retained outside legal counsel to look into this matter.” The statement also notes that Ferguson has been placed on administrative leave and that Randi Smart has been named interim coach, effective immediately. In addition, the website for Ferguson’s volleyball camp held at Wake Forest, formerly billfergusonvolleyballcamps.com, now redirects to a new URL, randismartvolleyballcamps.com, with Smart’s name listed across the website instead of Ferguson’s.  

The college admissions scandal, which has been internally referred to as “Operation Varsity Blues,” alleges that wealthy parents, such as actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, bribed athletic coaches and standardized test insiders to help their children gain admission into elite universities, such as Yale, Stanford, University of Southern California (USC) and Georgetown. Nearly 50 people — including over 30 parents — were implicated in the case. 

At the center of the scandal is William Singer, the owner of the Edge College & Career Network, also known as “The Key,” a for-profit college counseling business. In addition, Singer had established The Key Worldwide Foundation (KWF), a non-profit corporation that was purported to be a charity. 

The released affidavit states that it is believed that the parents and Singer, through his company and supposed charity, conspired to bribe standardized test administrators to facilitate cheating on exams, to bribe coaches to designate certain applicants as recruited athletes to facilitate the applicant’s admission and to conceal the nature of the bribe payments under the guise of a charitable organization.

According to PBS NewsHour, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said that the investigation will continue and that it is believed that other parents are involved. No students, who in many cases authorities have said were not aware of the fraud, were charged; the schools themselves are also not the targets of the investigation. 

Regarding Ferguson, the statement of indictment charges reads, “In or about 2017, Singer directed $100,000 from one of the KWF charitable accounts to be sent to FERGUSON, including a $10,000 check to the Wake Forest Deacon Club, a $40,000 check to Wake Forest Women’s Volleyball, and a $50,000 check to a private volleyball camp FERGUSON controlled.”

The statement continues, “In exchange for this money, FERGUSON agreed to designate the daughter of one of Singer’s clients — who had previously applied to Wake Forest and been placed on the waitlist — as a recruit for the women’s volleyball team, thereby facilitating her admission to the university.”

No parents involved with the alleged bribery involving Wake Forest appear to have been charged, as Wake Forest is not mentioned in the affidavit that has charged parents with fraud. 

President Nathan Hatch sent out an email to students, faculty and staff later on the afternoon of March 12, the same day the news of the scandal broke, to acknowledge the allegations against Ferguson. 

“The alleged conduct is in direct conflict with the values and integrity of Wake Forest and its athletics program,” Hatch wrote. “The university’s outside counsel is conducting an internal review, and Wake Forest has and will continue to cooperate fully with federal authorities as the legal process unfolds.” 

Hatch sent out a follow-up email on March 13 to affirm his previous message and clarify questions regarding Wake Forest’s involvement with the scandal. In his follow-up email, Hatch wrote that this does not suggest a larger problem with the university’s admissions policy and that that the other allegations in the investigation of cheating on admissions exams “do not pertain to Wake Forest.” 

“The review completed to date by outside legal counsel underscores that Bill Ferguson acted independently and was the only person at Wake Forest with knowledge of, and involvement with, the alleged misconduct,” he wrote. 

Hatch also stated that the student mentioned in the indictment charges was admitted and is currently enrolled, but that they “have no reason to believe the student was aware of the alleged financial transaction.” It remains unknown who the student is or who their parents are. 

Athletic Director Ron Wellman declined to comment or answer additional questions, noting that he could not really add anything to the university’s statements on the matter. 

“We just need to let the legal process play out and not get ahead of it,” Wellman said in an email to the Old Gold & Black. 

In an email sent on March 18, Hatch updated the Wake Forest community on what was happening following the investigation. 

“I am charging our Director of Athletics and our Dean of Admissions to focus their attention jointly on reviewing and fortifying our admissions process,” Hatch wrote. “They will report to me regularly on enhancements to and compliance with processes and policies.” 

In addition, Hatch wrote that he was going to have the $50,000 — $10,000 of which went to the Deacon Club and the remaining $40,000 of which went to the Women’s Volleyball team — received by Wake Forest from the Key Worldwide Foundation redirected to the Magnolia Scholars program, which supports first-generation college students. 

In the wake of this scandal, much of the criticism and conversation about college admissions has focused on the unfair, legal ways in which parents can “buy” their child’s way into a university — through a donation or the purchasing of test prep or tutoring services, for example. 

In response, Dean of Admissions Martha Allman highlighted the ways in which Wake Forest has committed itself to being accessible for low- and moderate-income students through scholarships and a holistic admissions process. 

“We have always valued a holistic, rigorous and thoughtful admissions process which includes a personal interview and an application which requires numerous written responses,” Allman said. “Ten years ago, Wake Forest became the first top 30 national university to become test optional in an attempt to ‘level the playing field’ and make the admissions process fairer by emphasizing academic achievement, intellectual curiosity, creativity, talent and character over standardized test scores.” 

Ferguson joined Wake Forest as head volleyball coach in June of 2016, following the resignation of former head coach Ken Murczek, who had denied claims of ongoing abuse detailed in the Old Gold & Black. Ferguson, who had previously served as head men’s volleyball coach at USC for ten years, has a 22-41 record with the Demon Deacons, with a 10-30 record in conference play.