A million-dollar full-ride scholarship endowment to an Ivy League school is a good deed. But it doesn’t just earn you karma—it nets you fawning emails from the school’s development officials, customized campus tours for your kids, and private meetings with the school’s president, leaked Sony emails show.
The dump of tens of thousands of emails from Sony Pictures’ upper ranks, now conveniently indexed on WikiLeaks, lays bare the inner workings of one of the world’s most powerful corporate properties. But it also shows how the rich, powerful, and connected navigate the world: with rolodexes and billfolds of equal thickness.
Newly surfaced emails from Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton provide a schematic for how millions of dollars in Adam Sandler grosses can yield immensely preferential treatment for your children, not only providing access to a college admissions process that’s out of reach for virtually all other Americans, but giving them better opportunities both in college and in internships and job opportunities afterward.
He writes to his sister: ‘David… called me. he is obsessed with getting his eldest in Harvard next year.’ She replies: ‘If David wants to get his daughter in he should obviously start giving money.’ Obviously.
It’s apparent to everyone that munificent donors have a leg up in the admissions process. But it’s rare to see the actual behind-the-scenes workings of the elite and connected. The emails below give a sense of how much more smoothly the gears of power move when you’ve got a superrich and well-connected elite cranking the wheel—and make it even more clear that how you got into college isn’t how Hollywood aristocracy does it.
In 2013, Maisie Lynton was torn between applying to Harvard (her father’s alma mater) and Brown—a dilemma that surely most can relate to. In September of 2013, Lynton contacted Brown about establishing a scholarship for a full-need student.
Ronald Margolin, Vice President, International Advancement and Senior Advisor for Leadership Philanthropy at Brown, emailed back quickly:
On Sep 26, 2013, at 8:56 AM, Margolin, Ronald wrote:
I was pleased to receive your phone call and to learn that you are still interested in establishing a scholarship for a full-need student in memory of your friend Nathaniel Chapman ‘79. This would be an enduring memorial to him and to your friendship.
We reviewed payment plans that would make this scholarship a reality both in the short term and permanently. I attach the four-year pledge schedule I had sent with my April 6, 2012 letter—and we discussed a five-year plan yesterday. Either would work fine. I have also included a Pledge Form, “Making Gifts to Brown” and a brochure on Financial Aid at Brown. Please let me know if you desire any additional information or if you wish to discuss any of this.
I look forward to learning your and your wife’s decision.
With appreciation for your continuing interest,
(At around the same time, Lynton was finalizing a gift of rare photographs to Harvard’s Fogg Museum worth several hundred thousand dollars—a hedged bet, maybe.)
By Februrary, Lynton had committed to a million dollar donation to Brown, a school he did not attend.
On Sun, Feb 9, 2014 at 1:11 AM, Lynton, Michael <Michael_Lynton@spe.sony.com> wrote:
Sorry to be so late in responding. It has been very busy around here and I finally had the chance to sit down with my wife and we have decided to go forward with the scholarship at the $1mm level. A four-year pledge schedule works for us. I would love to talk to you about whether we can name the scholarship after Nathaniel and how I can give his children access to the scholarship should they be admitted to Brown. I look forward to speaking soon.
The fund would be named in the memory of Nathaniel Sheldon, a friend of Lynton’s who “was recruited by the CIA in 1980 to fight the Soviets,” as he explained in an email to Tom Rothman, Chairman of TriStar Productions, a Brown alum, and, crucially, a member of the university’s board of trustees.
A month later, Lynton received a personal message from Carol Beliveau, the International Program Coordinator at the Office for International Advancement, offering a meeting with the school’s president upon his visit to the campus with Maisie (whose name—poor Carol!—is spelled wrong throughout). Needless to say, a visit with the college president is is not usually a component of high school college tour.
Fwd: April 1 campus visit
Dear Mr. Lynton,
Alison Ressler and Ron Margolin have informed me that you plan to visit Brown with Maise on Tuesday, April 1. I would be pleased to assist with arranging the visit.
When your travel plans are set, could you advise what time you plan to arrive on campus and the time you must depart in order to frame the visit and to maximize the time. If you are staying in an area hotel, let me know so that I can arrange for an informational packet to be left at the Concierge’s Desk for arrival which will include the schedule and highlighted campus map.
For our records, it would be helpful to have Maise complete the attached Student Interest form and remit either faxed (401-863-3320) or scanned, along with a copy of her school’s transcript. The schedule will be set according to Maise’s specific academic interests. I understand that she has keen interest in computer science and chemistry (organic or inorganic?). Is an Admission campus tour and Information Session of interest?
While Maise is in class with students, Ron looks forward to meeting you at 11:00 am for conversation and will accompany you for introduction to meet with President Paxson at 11:30 am meeting.
Once all is confirmed, I will revert back with a final schedule.
Carol Beliveau P’96
Int’l Program Coordinator
Office for International Advancement
That fall, another officer from the giving program (“Office for International Advancement”) contacted Lynton, offering his daughter “anything...from our supplemental college counseling service to creating a customized campus tour.”
I hope that you have had a pleasant summer. I wanted to circle back on two fronts. Now that college admissions season is upon us in earnest, I am not sure if Brown is still among Maisie’s top contenders. If it is please let me know if I can do anything in that regard, from our supplemental college counseling service to creating a customized campus tour. I know how fickle students are and how stressful this process can be, so please let me know if I can do anything to help in that regard. Wishing you both the best as we head into admissions season in earnest.Also, I am coming back down to LA on September 22nd and potentially the morning of Sept 23rd. I was wondering if you had time for me to stop by as I am really thinking of ways to connect Brown alumni in the greater LA area with each other and back to Brown. There are a few ideas on which I think your advice could be really helpful, so I am hoping if you are around I could stop by for a quick hello. If you are amenable, perhaps David can suggest when you might be available.Hope to cross paths again sometime soon.
Michelle Wachs ‘86, P’18
Director, West Coast Program
Division of Advancement
Lynton responded to say that he was “trying to stay out of it.” Tom Rothman forwarded Lynton an email from President Paxson saying “we will certainly look at [Lynton’s daughter’s] application very closely.” She was later accepted.
Rothman also forwarded this letter from Paxson, provided to him as a member of the board of trustees of the Brown Corporation, the school’s governing body:
Office of President Christina Paxson <email@example.com>
Date: September 11, 2014 at 12:35:13 PM EDTTo: Office of President Christina Paxson <firstname.lastname@example.org>Cc: Vicki Colvin <email@example.com>, “Miller, James” <James_S_Miller@brown.edu>, Russell Carey <Russell_Carey@brown.edu>
Subject: Letter to the Brown Corporation from President Paxson
Dear Current and Emeriti Members of the Brown Corporation,
If you learn of an applicant who you think will be an outstanding asset to the Brown community, please let us know as early in the admission cycle as possible. Your letter or email should provide detailed information about the student and his or her background. It is most helpful if you reserve your recommendations for applicants about whom you feel the most strongly. Also, please tell us if you learn of a prospective applicant who may need “special handling” for campus visits or communications (e.g. a student with a parent who is a prominent public figure, or whose family has deep connections to Brown.)
I would like all letters or emails to be sent to Jim Miller in the Office of Admission and copied to Russell Carey in the Corporation office. Russell’s office will play a coordinating role, making sure that information gets to the right places within the university. I will personally ensure that the students you recommend get close and careful attention.
The memo included an interesting note on donations:
Finally, although your role as a representative of Brown means you learn about spectacular candidates, it may also place you in a number of awkward situations. One that requires special attention is when a family mentions a gift to Brown in the context of their child’s admission. Even the appearance of linking gifts to admissions poses a serious risk to Brown’s reputation. It is important to make it clear that we do not discuss gifts with families if their child is in the applicant pool or intends to apply in the upcoming admission cycle.
Rothman attached a note of his own regarding Lynton’s daughter: “Thought you’d find this interesting in light of the history I told you about. But the plan will still be as I said.” Maisie Lynton was soon after accepted into the Brown class of 2019.
Of course, the network of power and privilege that eases access to the Ivy League isn’t severed at matriculation—it supports the scions of the superrich throughout. Further emails from the Sony hack show the Lynton nepotism machine gearing up for his elder daughter, Eloise, an undergraduate at Harvard who found herself unable to get into a very popular class with Dr. Jerome Groopman, a New Yorker writer and professor of biology.
In a January 2014 email to journalist Jonathan Alter—who just happens to be Lynton’s brother in law—he wrote:
Huge thanks for calling [Groopman]. Should I drop him a relaxed email after you speak with him to say how keen eloise is on taking the class?”
Alter let him know he was taking care of it.
Just talked to Jerry. He said she has to rank it number one to get in and I told him that she has. That would still leave him with twice as many people as he has room for but he knows Eloise has a personal reason for wanting to be in the class and it sure sounds like she’ll get in. He said you should not call him.
It doesn’t get any more difficult once you get out of school. Luckily for Eloise, her dad also had her back when she needed an internship, as shown in this chain between Lynton, T Magazine editor Deborah Needleman, and her husband, Slate Group chief Jacob Weisberg:
On Oct 8, 2014, at 11:09 AM, Deborah Needleman wrote:
Send her my way!! Xx
Sent from my iPhone
On Oct 8, 2014, at 11:05 AM, “Weisberg, Jacob” wrote:
Michael, I talked to Deborah and she¹d love to help if she can. The trick might be coming up with some kind of project that wouldn’t run afoul of employment rules. And for that, it might help her to have a little more idea about what Eloise is most interested in. Or perhaps Eloise can come see her. Hoping something works out.
Where can’t the connections of the superrich get you access? A similar attempt on Lynton’s behalf to place her at BuzzFeed was rebuffed despite an in with Executive Chairman Ken Lerer, whom Eloise fondly addressed in emails as Kenny.
On Apr 30, 2014, at 9:18 PM, Lynton, Michael wrote:
welcome to my life....
On Apr 30, 2014, at 6:16 PM, Kenneth Lerer wrote:
Weird that’s not what they told me. They are so rude to me. I’ll find out
On Apr 30, 2014, at 7:38 PM, “Lynton, Michael” <Michael_Lynton@spe.sony.com> wrote:
Eloise talked to them today. They said they didn’t really have a job for her. Totally cool. I am pretty sure she found something she likes! Hope to see you out here soon! M
In this day and age it’s easier to get your children into the Ivy League than BuzzFeed.
Illustration by Jim Cooke