Quest for admission to Harvard ends in $2 million tangle
Students’ parents sue former Harvard professor who promised help — and charged for it
This story is from BostonGlobe.com, the only place for complete digital access to the Globe.
To Gerald and Lily Chow, education consultant Mark Zimny must have seemed like the answer to many parents’ prayer: Please let my child get into Harvard University.
The Chows, who lived in Hong Kong, knew little about the US educational system, but they did know that they wanted an Ivy League education for their sons. And they had money to spend on consultants like Zimny, who, they believed, could help make the dream come true.
What transpired, however, turned out to be a cautionary tale for the thousands of parents who are fueling the growing global admissions-consulting industry.
Zimny, whom they met in 2007, had credentials. He had worked as a professor at Harvard. He ran an education consultancy, IvyAdmit. And he had a plan to help the Chows’ two sons, then 16 and 14.
First, Zimny’s company would provide tutoring and supervision while the boys attended American prep schools. Then, according to a complaint and other documents the Chows filed as part of a lawsuit in US District Court in Boston, Zimny said he would grease the admissions wheels, funneling donations to elite colleges while also investing on the Chows’ behalf.
According to the suit, Zimny warned the Chows against giving to schools directly. “Embedded racism” made development offices wary of Asian donors, he allegedly advised them; better to use his company as a middleman.
Over two years, the Chows gave IvyAdmit $2.2 million.
Now, they are charging that Zimny lied to them repeatedly, committing fraud, breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and several other transgressions — and they want their money back.
Zimny, like the Chows, declined to comment for this article. But in legal papers, he has denied or questioned some of their allegations while admitting to others.
Documents show he did take the $2.2 million, and that his employees tutored the Chows, sometimes so intensely as to do schoolwork for them.
Yet major questions remain unresolved. Where did the Chows’ money go? The Chows allege that Zimny promised — falsely — to use some of it for donations to schools and invest the rest, using the proceeds to pay his own fees.
In depositions thus far, Zimny has not provided clear or comprehensive answers to the question. But documents show that while he was working with the Chows he made numerous investments in real estate, and e-mails show he tried to interest the family in property as well.
And did the Chows think that their money could guarantee their sons’ admission to elite schools? They allege that Zimny promised to pull personal strings with development officers at Ivy League colleges. A detailed written plan, prepared for one of the sons, baldly says, “our target university is Harvard.”
But a failed motion by Zimny’s lawyers to dismiss says the Chows’ agreement with Zimny was “nebulous.” It goes on to argue that legal blame should lie with the Chows because “common law counts do not serve as an insurance policy for poor judgment, avarice, or any other of many human failings.” In other words: caveat emptor.
More answers may come soon. The lawsuit is scheduled for a November status conference, and according to one of the Chows’ attorneys, it is likely to pick up speed this fall and winter.
The Chows are from China, where college admission is simple and based largely on an exam score rather than a Byzantine process involving essays, extracurriculars, and intangibles. “A lot of them don’t understand how the American college system works,” said Elizabeth Stone, a consultant who has been approached by many Chinese hopefuls. “I think the mentality is, ‘you can buy your way in.’ ”
At least some of what Zimny allegedly told the Chows was true.
The Harvard line on his résumé, for instance, was real. He had been both a lecturer and visiting assistant professor at the college and the Graduate School of Education between 2001 and 2005. He occasionally appeared in the Crimson, opining on plagiarism and chuckling at student pranks played during one of his popular courses, a lecture on deviant behavior. That subject is complicated, he told the Crimson in 2001: to understand it, “you really have to get down and dirty.”
Meanwhile, Zimny was launching a side career with IvyAdmit, which — according to a person he tried to recruit as an employee — began by targeting Chinese MBA applicants and then offering educational services to the children of wealthy Asian families.
Zimny introduced himself to the Chows in 2007 at a ceremony at a Massachusetts prep school where one of the Chow boys was enrolled. After that, he courted them, arranging meetings in Hong Kong and Cambridge, including a dinner with friends who were full Harvard professors, according to a mutual acquaintance who was there.Continued...