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    Impeachment Hearings: What You Need to Know

    What eventful days it has been on Capitol Hill!

    On Tuesday, four witnesses testified over a span of 11+ hours discussing their insights into Trump’s request to have President Volodymyr Zelensky and his team investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s involvement in the 2016 election—all allegedly resulting in Trump’s decision to withhold $400 million in Ukrainian military aid.

    The first called to testify by the Democrats was Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman—the US’s top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council.  Accompanying him was Jennifer Williams, one of Vice President Pence’s national security aides. She too was called by the Democrats.  Both listened to the July 25, 2019 call between President Trump and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. Colonel Vindman claimed Trump’s demands for Ukraine to investigate former VP Joe Biden were “inappropriate” and “likely to have significant implications for national security” (as reported by the New York Times). Jennifer Williams agreed that withholding Ukraine’s military aid was “damaging to Ukraine’s ability to confront Russian aggression” (Jennifer Williams via NYT).

    On Tuesday, Trump’s former special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, and Tim Morrison, the National Security Council’s former senior director for Russia and Europe, testified as witnesses submitted by Republicans. Volker mostly played the “I didn’t know anything” card while Morrison indicated that the July 25 call did not contain any wrongdoings or illegalities.

    Wednesday’s round of hearings brought an interesting twist—one Democrats have been anxiously awaiting from the very beginning. Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, testified against President Trump implicating that there was indeed a quid pro quo “With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting,” (Gordon Sondland via NPR). Laura Cooper—a deputy assistant secretary at the Defense Department—then testified, defending the president saying, “there was no wrongdoing because the Ukrainians weren’t even aware that a hold was put on the aid” (NPR).

    Thursday concluded with Dr. Fiona Hill, the White House’s former top Europe and Russia expert, and David Holmes, a United States Embassy official located in Ukraine who happened to be a witness to a phone call between President Trump and Gordon Sondland (NYT). Dr. Hill essentially blamed Ukraine for meddling in the 2016 elections, not Russia. She and David Holmes also claimed that the name “Burisma” (a Ukrainian energy company) was actually code for investigating the Bidens (NYT). Holmes said he was under the impression that Trump’s reason behind withholding Ukraine’s military aid was an “expression of dissatisfaction” or “as an effort to increase the pressure on them to do so” (David Holmes via NYT).

    So what’s next? Even more—what does this mean for Trump in the 2020 election?  It remains to be seen if the House will impeach the president.  It’s a very serious and precedent setting decision we all hope will be considered carefully and fairly. However, as I explained in an earlier blog, our Founding Fathers predicted more than 200 years ago that House proceedings looking into impeachment were expected to be political circuses.  This past week has lived up to that prediction.  If the House does vote to impeach, the case will fall into the hands of the Senate where the charges will most likely be dismissed or President Trump will be formally acquitted.  Only a major bombshell will garner the 67 votes necessary to convict and remove the president.  As some commentators have asked, is the reality behind the House proceeding nothing more than an exercise by Democrats to keep Trump from being re-elected?  Will the new normal for presidents in parties opposite the majority in the House be forever looking over their shoulders at the prospect of impeachment for whatever political winds might bring?

    The sad news is we have to watch political theater as each side postures with constant insults and accusations.  For every person who testifies in support of impeachment, another testifies against it.  If it goes to the Senate and a trial is undertaken, we can expect even more partisan politics as the Republicans get their chance to make the rules.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is in November those who should be deciding the fate of Donald Trump, one-third of the Senate, and the entire House of Representatives will be in the People – the ultimate arbiters in our Constitution on who sits in the White House and on Capitol Hill.  You and me.  So let us make sure we vote and send whatever our message is to those sitting in Washington today about how we feel they’ve governed in the face of an immigration crisis, a crumbling infrastructure, a broken health care system, nuclear proliferation, trade imbalances, out of control spending, and more.

    Ask yourself this:  Do any of them deserve to be reelected?

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    Is Reasonable Conversation Now Impossible?

    Every day, we are inundated with media reporting on arguments and differences between our polarized parties. On one hand, there is the President and his fellow Republicans, and, on the other hand, the Democrats in the House and Senate. While my fatigue with all of it would like to dismiss the diatribes as so much noise, I cannot do that.

    This rhetoric reeks of partisan politics and is devoid of intelligent compromise. There is no reasoned debate. Disregarding on which side of the controversies your sentiments lie, no one can defend the lack of civility and failed governance over important issues faced by our nation.  Everyone is talking “at” each other, not “to” one another. The blame falls on our national leaders on both sides of the aisle. Their intransient divisiveness leads to no solutions. It only deepens the growing divide in our country.

    I nostalgically remember a time when our leaders handled diametrically opposed views on policy like adults. During former President Reagan’s Administration, he sparred with Tip O’Neal and Ted Kennedy – two Democrats who could not have been more politically opposite Reagan. During the Clinton Administration, he and Newt Gingrich were constantly at odds over policy.  Of course, there were real differences. But they respected one another and were willing to listen to sensible arguments. They understood nothing is black and white, particularly in politics. They eventually reached compromises and advanced the interests of our nation.

    It can be done.

    The only way forward to resolution is through our leaders acting with the responsibility we entrusted to them upon election. Instead, I am deeply saddened to say that today’s political denizens in Washington act like bullies on a grade school playground. Whatever our Founding Fathers intended with impeachment, emoluments, closed door Congressional hearings, or Executive privilege, I cannot believe they ever envisioned the kind of immaturity and lack of due process burdening us today. No reasonable person can defend the behavior of either the Democrats or the Republicans in the debacle we are witnessing.

    The saddest part of this spectacle is how it empowers countries like China, Russia, Syria, Iran, North Korea, and other despotic regimes that endeavor to weaken us rather than deal with us. Why wouldn’t they? These regimes have only to sit in the bleachers and watch American politicians ignore real issues that adversely affect our daily lives; all the while, our purported leaders throw infantile fits and toss one accusation after another at their opposition.

    I once thought this nightmarish turmoil would pass over time, and that we would return to normalcy. I have serious doubts that such a thing is now possible, and it is more than troubling.

    Whatever happens in the 2020 elections, I doubt the anger now embedded in our elected leaders will subside. Impeachment threats may well become the norm for the losing party as it seeks to second-guess the will of voters. Democrats and Republicans will hold more closed-door hearings that deny their opposition a participating role. Partisan leaks will fill the pages of newspapers and the reports on television. Interference with the President’s duty to oversee foreign relations will increase. Stalemates to progress will become the norm. Is this true leadership?

    Make no mistake about it; what is good for the goose will be good for the gander. What the Republicans rail at today as injustice by the Democrats will be the same cry on the other side when tables are turned. President Trump campaigned on cleaning up the swamp in Washington.  I liked that idea. Unfortunately, it increasingly appears that the only way that will ever happen is to send home those currently seated to govern our future – Republicans and Democrats alike.

    If you are skeptical, I challenge you to answer these questions: What are we doing to address our crumbling infrastructure? Our failed immigration policy? The homeless starving in our streets?  The costs of our healthcare? The education of our youth? Our taxes? A growing nuclear arms threat?

    We are doing nothing. Washington is unwilling to have a mature debate or consider reasonable compromises. I remain increasingly more disconcerted, more fearful for the future of our nation and our children.

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    Keep Politics Out of Our Schools

    Inspired by an intelligent 16-year-old named Greta Thunberg, grade school students across America were allowed to skip classes on September 20 to participate in marches and demonstrations expressing fears of climate change. The media coverage was global and no doubt helped bring about much needed discussions about climate change. The importance of those discussions cannot be overstated.

    Such discussions are often hampered by individuals on the extreme ends of the debate – left or right – generally refusing to have a constructive conversation. Those who deny climate change have their heads in the sand. Alternately, those who preach Armageddon within ten years if we don’t make drastic changes have their heads just as deeply embedded in the sand. The Washington Post reported that Al Gore “believes humanity may have only 10 years left to save the planet from turning into a total frying pan.” That was in 2006. I guess we dodged that bullet.

    Israeli astrophysicist Nir Shaviv, a scientist who has allegedly studied the issue for years, concluded in 2007, “[T]here is no concrete evidence – only speculation – that man-made greenhouse gases cause global warming.”

    Little has changed in the rhetoric of these two extremes since then. Unfortunately, those extremes get the press. Moderate views or those who simply want to understand the truth are rarely heard. That doesn’t sell papers or raise TV ratings. Whether we will ever know the reality we face is ill served by the partisan approach taken by too many.

    But letting grade school students off from school to protest or march is a huge mistake for two important reasons.

    First, we send our children to school for the purpose of learning in a calm and considerate environment. This is particularly true of our youngest, when their brains are not yet fully wired and need the kind of special nurturing only great teachers provide. That is not to say classrooms should ignore issues like climate change. Quite to the contrary. It is a teacher’s job to provide  balanced analysis and lead discussions. To teach. It is inappropriate to substitute teaching for shouting crowds who have no interest in hearing any balanced debate. Such public displays of emotion – on either side of any issue – are for adults, not children.

    There is an even more insidious mistake in this exercise in recess from school. If you adopt grade school strikes as part of the learning experience of our children, where do you draw the line on issues that warrant an official dismissal from much-needed schooling? You can’t discriminate on the choice of issues that warrant a march or demonstration. Doing so would be pure hypocrisy.

    Considering the above example, it is not farfetched to see movements wanting recess for marches on the right of choice to abort pregnancy, provided there is also one supporting the right to life. Or a march on ending gun sales, provided there is one in support of the NRA. The list is as endless as is the politics surrounding them. The truly important debate is this – do we want to foster an atmosphere that interrupts the time our children spend in school? Should grade schoolers become pawns for liberal and conservative politics? I think the answer is obvious, at least for moderates who are still capable of seeing two sides to an argument.

    I’m all for teaching our kids about these topical issues. But in a classroom, not on the streets. If parents want their kids to participate in demonstrations or marches, that’s fine. That is their choice to make. Equally, it is a parent’s choice that their children not participate in public demonstrations. Let those who want their kids to march do so on weekends or holidays. Schools are here to teach in a safe and controlled environment without being interrupted by politicians and pundits bent on advancing their partisan initiatives.

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    The North Philly Standoff

    Last week, six Philadelphia police officers were injured while serving a narcotics warrant.

    The incident later evolved into a seven-hour-long shootout that occurred in a neighborhood near Temple University. According to USA Today, Police Commissioner Richard Ross described the outcome as “nothing short of a miracle” as there were thankfully no fatalities. A tear gas barrage ultimately caused the shooter to surrender.

    Thirty-six-year-old Maurice Hill was identified as the gunman who the Philadelphia Inquirer said had “an extensive record of gun convictions and resisting arrests.”

    Officers had to navigate the narrow, tightly packed streets while Temple University’s campuses were put on lock-down. Commissioner Ross held phone negotiations to deescalate Hill. Two officers were trapped in the building protecting three prisoners—one of whom was stranded in a bathroom—and ultimately saved by SWAT (USA Today).

    President Trump took to Twitter the following day:

    “The Philadelphia shooter should haven never been allowed to be on the streets. He had a long and very dangerous criminal record. Looked like he was having a good time after his capture, and after wounding so many police. Long sentence—must get much tougher on street crime!”

    Such an event raises the question of how a convicted felon had the opportunity to commit the crime. Is there a bigger conversation that needs to be had? Research indicates that overall, violent crime in the U.S. has significantly decreased in recent years, falling 49% percent between 1993 and 2017. According to the Pew Research Center, there are large variances in crime rates depending on geographic location. Moreover, public perceptions of the crime rate tend to differ vastly from actual statistics.

    Where, then, do we place the blame when these mass acts of violence happen? President Trump’s focus on street crime might be misplaced.

    Nonetheless, a huge thank you goes out to the first responders who played vital roles in keeping everyone involved safe. We appreciate you.

     

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    The United Kingdom on Digital Advertising

    Day by day, digital marketing is increasingly seen as invasive of users’ personal data, rightly or wrongly. Take for example the leaked video titled “The Selfish Ledger,” a disturbing glimpse into the near-future of the intuitive technologies. Whether it is reality or not belies the concerns raised.

    Arguably, digital technology can deliver content users are inclined to consume with targeted ads. From the marketplace perspective, this is a very efficient way to deliver ads of interest and not random pitches. But it also raises concerns about how deeply the technology can dip into personal data and whether consumers are informed about what they are sharing. Beyond blind consumerism, it is argued that analytic tools can be used to determine how you respond to an item and even influence the pages and posts you are exposed to in your web browsing.

    The United Kingdom’s Competitions and Marketing Authority (CMA) has now expressed its concern in a very direct fashion.

    Beginning July 3rd, the CMA launched an investigation into the alleged harm digital advertising has on consumers. More specifically, the purpose of its investigation is to see how much control consumers have over their personal data, and if these activities are anticompetitive in a free market

    An invitation was extended to those concerned with the issue to submit comments. The window for commentary closed July 30th, and the investigation is well underway. From now until January 2nd, 2020, the CMA will be collecting data on digital advertising practices across the UK. After a report outlining their findings is published, the CMA has until July 22nd of 2020 to determine whether or not further action needs to be taken. What that action, if any, might be is unknow, and speculation is a fool’s errand.

    You can find the initial report here.

    This begs some questions. Depending upon the CMA’s findings, could we be at yet another crossroads where control further shifts to consumers? If so, is that shift truly beneficial to consumers in a free market? What will that mean to the lure digital platforms offer advertisers? Only time will tell.

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    The 2020 Citizenship Question

    The Trump administration has been pushing a citizenship question on the decennial United States census questionnaire since January of 2018. As immigration tensions rise and the 2020 U.S. census nears, the addition of this question to the document has been hotly debated.

    The Supreme Court and the administration are at a stalemate, with the Court temporarily blocking the movement in June saying the reasons cited were insufficient. It ordered the case back to the lower courts.  The block, however, eliminated the time needed to debate this issue and make a final decision in time for to print the questionnaires. So for practical, not legal, reasons, the opponents won that round.  But what would be the advantage of having such a question added? The public must continue to wonder what would be the negative impact of adding it?

    So last week, Trump ceded the issue. Instead, he pivoted and stated that the missing information will be compiled by other documents via an executive order issued to government agencies (BBC). In other words, yes, the census would be printed without the question, but the battle to obtain the citizenship status of the U.S. population is far from over.

    Adding a query regarding citizenship to the questionnaire is not a new idea. Dating back to the mass from Ireland in the 1820’s to the 1950 census, some variant of a citizenship question was included. Until 1920, the question was only asked of men as their citizenship status was considered an umbrella for their respective wives and children (PEW Research Center).

    So, why are we reconsidering the question now?

    Opponents assert that the question is being used as a scare tactic to fulfill Trump’s campaign promise of cracking down on illegal immigration. However, the American Community Survey already includes a question about the status of a participant’s citizenship. This survey is taken every year with a sample group of over 3.5 million, and neither the information from that survey nor the U.S. census can be used to enforce legal action or disclose the information of participants. Critics also worry that those here illegally would opt out of taking the census all together, eliminating any information on a sizeable portion of those residing in the country (Daytona Beach News-Journal).

    Those in favor of the question argue that the information of those residing in the country illegally can help better inform civil rights action, apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives, and allocation of aid to states.  The illegal immigrant population in certain areas could determine the distribution of over $675 billion in federal spending (Associated Press).

    There are strong opinions on either side of the issue, along with the questions of seizing highly classified government records to discern an individual’s citizenship.

    As this debate continues, there appears to be agreement on one issue.  Citizenship matters in critical decisions that need to be made.  This solution is not in partisan politics that has become today’s norm.  Once again, our leaders on both sides of the aisle are failing in their Constitutional duties.

    When will this end?

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    The Artificially Intelligent Gatekeepers of News Broadcasting

    It is no secret that the tradition of news and broadcast is changing.

    In the Kovach and Rosenstiel book, The Elements of Journalism, the authors write that the two most essential obligations of a journalist are to tell the truth and to have an unyielding loyalty to the citizens. Regrettably, their advice has fallen by the wayside. Today, truth and loyalty have taken a back seat to speed and controversy. With the advent of technology, allegedly accurate news reporting is limited only by one “click” of a mouse, “tap” of a screen, or question to Siri, Alexa or Google. All that matters now is breaking the story before your competitors. For the sake of speed, journalists on all sides of the issues have sacrificed the core principles that make their role in society so important. Now they only care about the 24-hour-news cycle and driving headlines, tweets, and falsely described “breaking alerts.”

    Can it get worse?  Yes. In fact, the very face of broadcast journalism has recently changed, and in a major way.

    China’s government run news agency, Xinhua News, introduced the first male, artificial intelligence (AI) newscaster at 2018’s World Internet Conference in eastern Zhejiang. Powered by the agency’s stream of news and Beijing-based search engine Sogou, he delivered a short broadcast discussing the technology along with China’s plans to launch their first Mars probe in 2020. His segment ended by sending good wishes to journalists across the country (CNBC).

    Female AI broadcast journalist “Xin Xiaomeng” joined Xinhua’s team of presenters shortly after. Each has an English-speaking counterpart modelled after human anchors currently on their news team (Daily Mail).

    The goal of AI presenters is to stoke the fire of a 24-hour newsroom. Completely cutting out middleman who might research and verify the veracity of a story and its sources, artificially intelligent anchors deliver a constant stream of news text generated by China’s government. Skeptics fear that the human connection between viewers and flesh-and-blood anchor will be lost, while others feel that the robotic delivery is “very dull.” (BBC)

    The issue at hand is much more than the sentiment of a traditional news model or entertainment. We have already seen what can happen when artificially generated news stories spread and influence the minds of a target audience. The horrendous outbreak of misinformation and opportunistic propaganda about the Sri Lanka bombings in April that lead to a countrywide temporary ban on suspect social media is just one example.

    While AI newscasters may be able to provide a constant stream of information to an ever more demanding audience, they do so at the sacrifice of true journalism. Live journalists have their own moral compass to consult. As imperfect as that compass can sometimes be, it is far better than a machine with no soul or conscience. With all the fake news we have to deal with today, now is not the time to allow technology to make matters worse. Maybe it is time to embrace the older principles when stories were researched, sources were checked and verified, journalists were respected and media reporting was accurate and balanced.

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    The FEC and Cyber Security

    Since 2016 presidential race, we have seen a growing movement to unearth and eliminate any political interference in our elections by foreign nationals, most notably Russia.

    Russian hackers who infiltrated the Democratic National Committee’s database and private email servers of both Democrats and Republicans was only the beginning.  The digital attacks expanded to bot-generated political ad campaigns dispersed among social media and more.  This cyber-war on democracy has been calculatedly discreet. You can find a timeline of the attacks here.  I suspect you’ll be surprised at how many there have been.  I was.

    In efforts to combat a faceless yet relentless enemy, Defending Digital Campaigns, Inc. petitioned the Federal Election Commission with an offer of free or low-cost cyber security for political candidates running for office.

    DDC is the brainchild of Robby Mook, 2016 campaign manager of Hillary Clinton; Matt Rhoades, 2016 campaign manager of Mitt Romney; and Deborah Plunkett, former Director of Information Assurance at the National Security Administration. The organization is an offshoot of Mook and Rhoades’s collaboration at Harvard’s Belfer Center on the Defending Digital Democracy Project, or D3P. In 2018, Mook, Rhoades, and Plunkett petitioned the FEC for permission to offer their campaign services.

    The obstacle with the company’s offer stems from policies restricting corporations from contributing to candidates/parties in support, or opposition.

    In the FEC petition, DDC argues that their services are neutral. They are offering security products and services to any candidate polling nationally at 5% or congressional candidates that qualify for the general election ballot, regardless of party or political affiliation. FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub raised concerns about creating a “loophole” in their current ban on corporate contributions. Not only that, but the Chair is warry of why two experienced practitioners who happened to be victims of the cyber security breaches of 2016 would offer their work for little to no cost (C&E).

    One can’t help but wonder how benign such a generous donation is, given the contributors’ respective political histories.

    Mook and Rhoades claim that because of their experiences with cyber terrorism, DDC aims to keep American digital campaigns safe from attack rather than seek any distinct political gain as is suspected with their contribution. A brief overview of first-quarter filings revealed a scant investment, if any, in cyber security for political campaigns (Slate).

    With the 2020 election looming, a policy decision of this caliber is something to keep in mind. If we do nothing, nothing will change.  If we do not consider new alternatives, the status quo will continue.  So I urge the FEC to approve the DDC petition.  Monitor them.  Require reporting to assure its neutrality.  But don’t sit and do nothing.

     

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    A Summary of a Summary: The Mueller Report

    A few weeks ago, Attorney General William Barr outlined what he called “principal conclusions” of Special Counsel, Robert Mueller (Washington Post). For some, the summary was a cover-up coupled with attacks on Barr’s integrity. Others greeted Barr’s summary with claims of victory citing what they concluded to be findings of no collusion or obstruction of justice. As is so often the case in today’s Washington, the reaction of both sides was wrong.

    Nonetheless, here are three basic takeaways from what Barr did say:

    1. The Russians did interfere with the 2016 election.
    2. No one can confirm or deny the fact that the Trump Campaign “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” (Washington Post)
    3. According to Barr, there is still no conclusive evidence to support the claim that President Trump obstructed justice.

    The immediate reaction was condemnation by the left and victory marches by the right. All this before release of the full report, redacted or otherwise. Such uniformed and virulent responses, in light of the serious charges that have been filling the airwaves for more than two years, is negligent and irresponsible. Unfortunately, that is what we have come to expect from today’s politicians and biased media – on both sides of the aisle.

    After two years of speculation, leaks, false allegations, and the unjustified character assassination of some, we all need to wait for the full report before we make any conclusions. It is time for the political partisans and media pundits to shut up until we all see the full report.

    Barr also has reason to redact parts of the report.  The law requires it. Regardless, it serves no purpose to object to redactions until we see them and determine if they are appropriate legally appropriate.

    So far, no one has any evidence that Barr is anything but truthful. He is highly respected by anyone who is speculating on his integrity at this point in time is either naïve or ignorant. That does not mean he might not make mistakes – just as so many others have done, particularly those on both sides of the issues who love to attack one another. With so much at stake and in light of our growing distrust in all of Washington, now is not to time to jump to idle conclusions.

    Sadly, all of these left/right wing theatrics make me wonder if we can ever believe what our government is telling us and whether we will ever know the whole truth.

    Perhaps time will tell.

     

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    Leading Questions Amid the Nation’s Largest College Admission Scandal

    Famous actors like Felicity Hoffman and Lori Loughlin found themselves making headlines earlier this month after news broke that they, along with dozens of other elite parents, were allegedly part of a leverage scheme involving college admission cheating and bribery.

    Wealthy parents allegedly paid college admission consultant Rick Singer to help their children cheat on college entrance exams in addition to falsifying athletic records as a way of securing admission to schools like Stanford, Yale, Georgetown, UCLA, and USC, just to name a few. (Patch.com).  Some allegedly made contributions or bribes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to assure admission.  The whole story came to light after a Los Angeles parent exposed nearly everyone involved.

    Here’s my first question: How will the reputations of these famous actors, CEOs, and high-level executives change going forward?

    In Lori Loughlin’s case, her partnership with the Hallmark Channel has been severed as the network decided to cut ties with the actor after discovering the news.

    We are saddened by the news surrounding the college admissions allegations. We are no longer working with Lori Loughlin and have stopped development of all productions that air on the Crown Media Family Network channels involving Lori Loughlin,” Crown Media announced in a recent statement. (Broadway World)

    Some pundits has asked if this just.  Others opine that it is enough.  Actors in general have remained silent.  Politicians have chimed in and some have alleged this is just the tip of the iceberg with regard to corruption in the college admissions process.  Amid all of this, we cannot help but wonder what lies ahead for the children who are at the center of this scandal.  Some have been told they cannot stay in school.  Some in the media have suggested previously granted degrees should be rescinded for anyone who has graduated and who used Singer’s tactics to be admitted.  Regardless, these children are all forever scared, many on account of misguided parents.

    Let us be careful before we judge everyone allegedly involved in the scandal.  Time will tell how deep this goes.  While I agree it presents a clarion call for a full investigation in the college admissions process and the influence of tests, admissions committees, legacy, contributions, and sports, we must be cautious.  We need to be very careful that in our often emotional rush to judgement, we do not convict the innocent by association with the corrupt.

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