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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Cheating's corrosive cost

The college bribery scandal shows once more how dishonesty erodes our essence.

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News that actress Felicity Huffman allegedly paid $15,000 for a proctor who corrected her daughter’s wrong answers on an SAT exam, raising her score some 400 points, brought me right back to high school.

We had a test one day in Latin class. I don’t remember whether it was a critical test. I just remember the guys in my all-boys school sitting in our rows, lowering our heads, going to work. Except for the football player to my right.

He was a tough guy, always looking to intimidate me. Which wasn’t hard back then. He sat there, pencil in hand, doing nothing. He didn’t fill in a single answer. I kept working, finished the test fairly quickly, and started to review my answers. And he reached over, put his blank test on my desk, swiped mine, erased my name and wrote his, and shot me a baleful glance.

The teacher didn’t see a thing. I thought about what I should do, then quietly filled out the test a second time.

I don’t know what happened to the football player after high school. I don’t know whether that was a momentary defect or a lifelong M.O. And I’m not sure how many degrees of separation it was from the current college admissions scandal that has repulsed the country.

It’s breathtaking in scope — as many as 761 “side doors” into prestigious universities engineered by the principal architect, millions of dollars paid by wealthy parents to grease their kids’ skids, numerous college coaches in on the scam.

It rightly takes its place in the tightly woven fabric of cheats, cons and grifts that assault and degrade all of us.

But then you hear the question from time to time: Is all cheating really the same? Does every practitioner deserve similar condemnation? There do seem to be degrees. But I’m uncomfortable with the query because implicit in it is an excusal or absolution of “lesser” forms of cheating, as in: C’mon, that’s not so bad.

But is that really where we want to go with this? In the end, cheaters share an impulse: They want something they don’t deserve. Or something they cannot otherwise get.

It can be as banal as using someone else’s handicapped sticker to get a parking spot closer to the store, or as sophisticated as a billionaire deflating the value of his real estate to reduce his tax bill. It’s cutting the line at an amusement-park ride, and gaming the Civil Service system to help someone jump the job line. It’s putting a plastic bag on a meter to avoid feeding it, and plagiarizing an essay for a class or political campaign. It’s Elizabeth Holmes defrauding investors and the public with bogus claims about revolutionary blood-testing technology, and Edward Mangano, Sheldon Silver, Dean Skelos and dozens of other New York politicians convicted of taking money, wielding influence and robbing voters of their honest services.

I’m not naive. This isn’t new. Diogenes scoured Greece in the fourth century BC looking for an honest man. George Washington Plunkitt, a poobah in New York City’s corrupt Tammany Hall political machine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, extolled honest graft as opposed to dishonest graft and explained his chicanery by saying, “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”

But someone else loses a seat in college. Someone else doesn’t get a job. Someone else loses an investment. Someone else pays a bigger share of taxes. Someone else’s dreams are dashed. And others who supposedly benefit never find out whether they could have done it on their own, never learn the value of working hard for what you get.

Cheating and grifting seep into our marrow. The accumulated depredations chip away at our souls. There’s no SAT score high enough to absolve that.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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