LOS ANGELES -- Shortly after federal authorities took down a national college admissions scam in March, officials at USC launched their own investigation with emails to dozens of students.
They did not mince words: The school wanted to know whether the 33 students had lied on their applications to USC. Some of the students understood what was happening because their parents had been charged in the federal case. Others were in the dark.
The reason for the emails would soon become clear to them all. They had been linked to William "Rick" Singer, the confessed leader of the admissions con, and they now faced expulsion, depending on what university investigators discovered.
USC officials told students that decisions would come within weeks, according to lawyers representing several of the students. But the probe has turned into a protracted, fraught push by USC to clear its ranks of any students who were complicit in the trickery Singer carried out to sneak them into the highly selective school. So far USC has ruled on only a few students -- clearing each of them of wrongdoing -- while the rest wait in limbo to learn whether they will be kicked out.
"For an academic institution to discover you've effectively got academic fraud is sort of a stab in the heart," Wanda Austin, who served the past year as USC's interim president, said in a recent interview. . The investigations into the students, Austin said, are following "a very slow process, but it is a fair process ... it's diligent and it gives a student every opportunity to bring forth information to defend themselves."
The student inquiry is at the center of a broader effort by USC to come to grips with the ways Singer infiltrated the campus. The school also screened tens of thousands of applicants vying for spots in next fall's class for ties to Singer and scrutinized coaches and administrators in the athletic department for indications they participated in the bribery and cheating scheme.
In addition, USC has hired two outside firms to pick apart its admissions policies in order to learn, in Austin's words, "how in the world did this happen?"
In the email notifications, the 33 students were given five days to contact USC's Office of Professionalism and Ethics. When they did, they were told they had to come to the office for an interview within a week, according to several criminal defense attorneys hired by students to represent them in the quasi-judicial proceedings. Until students agreed to cooperate in the investigation, the university froze their enrollment at the school, preventing them from enrolling in new classes.
Requests to postpone interviews until after the year's final exams and to review in advance evidence the school had collected were denied, said Josh Ritter, Vicki Podberesky and other attorneys who spoke on the condition their names not be used because they were not authorized to discuss their clients' cases.
The interviews were tense and often emotional. One investigator would quietly take notes while another asked the questions. One by one, documents were pulled out of a binder or from a stack and placed in front of the student, the defense attorneys all said. The records included the student's application to USC, high school transcripts and emails, often written by Singer or an alleged accomplice at USC, in which efforts to get the student admitted as a recruited athlete were discussed, the lawyers said.