The biggest Ivy League scandals of all time

A view of a gate to Harvard Yard on the campus of Harvard University.

  • The Ivy League schools are Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth, UPenn, and Cornell.
  • Some of the schools have been involved in major scandals over the years.
  • Columbia senior Emma Sulkowicz carried a mattress around after she said she was sexually assaulted.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
A cheating scandal rocked Harvard’s campus in 2012, and dozens of students were asked to leave the school as a result.

Harvard University campus building with white pillars
Harvard University campus.

The incident involved a take-home final exam for a government class in May 2012. The class had 279 enrolled students and, according to The New York Times, roughly half of the students who took the exam were suspected of cheating by receiving help from fellow students and teaching assistants. Possible instances of cheating were suspected after it was discovered many of the essay portions on students’ exams were eerily similar.

Following hearings by the school’s administration throughout the fall and winter, roughly 70 students were forced to withdraw, but they were told they would be allowed to re-enroll after two to four semesters, per Harvard’s policy. The students’ tuition payments were also refunded for the semesters they were asked to withdraw from.

In the other cases, students were given disciplinary probation or their cases were dismissed.

The incident was the “most wide-spread cheating scandal” in Harvard’s history, school officials told Bloomberg News in 2012.

During her senior year at Columbia University, Emma Sulkowicz carried a mattress around campus after she said she was sexually assaulted by a student who was allowed to remain at the school.

Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz carrying a navy blue mattress while students walk in the background
Emma Sulkowicz carries a mattress on Columbia's campus.

Some “scandals” are empowering to many, though they may threaten the reputation of certain institutions.

Columbia senior Emma Sulkowicz made national headlines in 2015 when she and four friends carried a 50-pound mattress across the stage at her May graduation. The ceremony was the culmination of a performance art piece-slash-protest called “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight),” in which Sulkowicz carried a mattress around wherever she went on campus to symbolize the weight that people carry following sexual assault.

Sulkowicz began the project after she accused a classmate of rape during her sophomore year in 2013. Columbia investigated the allegations, held a hearing, and cleared the student, Paul Nungesser.

According to The New York Times, the pair had been involved in a consensual sexual relationship up until that point. He maintained the sex in question was consensual.

Sulkowicz said she would continue to carry the mattress around campus until Nungesser left Columbia — however, he did not. He also graduated in 2015.

He later sued the university, accusing it of gender discrimination and condoning bullying against him. They reached a settlement in 2017.

In 2018, seven current and former female Dartmouth College students sued the institution, saying it had failed to protect them from sexual abuse and misconduct.

Dartmouth College campus building
Dartmouth College.

Previously, in 2017, three Dartmouth professors in the department of psychological and brain sciences were accused of sexual abuse and misconduct. The professors resigned or retired following recommendations for dismissal, and the college’s investigation into the matter shortly came to a close. 

However, the seven women who accused their professors of promoting a hostile and sexually aggressive learning environment later claimed the college failed in its “duty to protect its students from unwanted sexual harassment and sexual assault,” according to The Dartmouth.

“Dartmouth College has knowingly permitted three of its prominent (and well funded) professors to turn a human behavior research department into a 21st Century Animal House,” their lawsuit, filed at the US District Court in New Hampshire, alleged.

The lawsuit by the seven women — six of whom were named and one who used a pseudonym — asked for $70 million in damages.

On August 6, 2019, damages of $14 million were awarded to the plaintiffs following delays in the proceedings.

The college admissions scandal known as Varsity Blues revealed just how far parents would go to place their children in top schools.

william rick singer leaving boston college court amid admissions scandal wearing navy windbreaker
William 'Rick' Singer leaves Boston Federal Court on March 12, 2019.

The scheme, apparently led by independent college advisor William “Rick” Singer, involved bribery, money laundering, and document fabrication to admit students into elite colleges, including Yale University. It relied on college athletic coaches accepting bribes and donations to their programs in exchange for recruiting students regardless of their athletic ability.

“Parents paid Singer approximately $25 million to bribe coaches and university administrators to designate their children as purported athletic recruits, thereby facilitating the children’s’ admission to those universities,” the Department of Justice said in a press release in March 2019, when “Operation Varsity Blues” came to light.

The scheme also allegedly involved facilitating cheating on SAT and ACT exams by bribing test administrators to give students answers, change their answers, or even take the test entirely for them. 

William Singer was charged with racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, and obstruction of justice. He pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and mail fraud and honest services wire fraud and mail fraud. He was ordered to forfeit $12,500, but he has yet to be sentenced.

Dozens of wealthy and well-known people, including celebrities Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, were charged — Huffman and Loughlin were accused of paying thousands of dollars to get their daughters into top colleges.

Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in jail and ordered to pay $30,000 in damages.

Loughlin was sentenced to two months in prison. Her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, was sentenced to five months in prison. The “Full House” actress was also ordered to pay a $150,000 fine, perform 100 hours of community service, and spend two years on supervised release after serving her prison sentence.

After Princeton University acknowledged past and present racism within its educational system in September 2020, a federal investigation was opened into the matter.

Princeton University students walking on campus
Students walk on campus at Princeton University on February 4, 2020, in Princeton, New Jersey.

Following the protests against the killing of George Floyd in 2020, the university’s president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, released an open letter acknowledging that “racism and the damage it does to people of color … persist at Princeton as in our society.”

In the letter, Eisgruber tasked university leaders with developing plans “to combat systemic racism at Princeton and beyond,” echoing the sentiments of leaders countrywide following Floyd’s death.

After the letter was shared, the Trump administration opened a civil rights investigation into whether Princeton had violated any anti-discrimination laws. 

“You admitted Princeton’s educational program is and for decades has been racist,” Robert King, the assistant secretary in the Office of Postsecondary Education, wrote in a letter to the school. “The serious, even shocking nature of Princeton’s admissions compel the Department to move with all appropriate speed.”

Princeton responded in a statement, “It is unfortunate that the department appears to believe that grappling honestly with the nation’s history and the current effects of systemic racism runs afoul of existing law.”

Following the election of President Biden, no news concerning the investigation has been released.

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