Hey Hey, Ho Ho! Legacy Admissions Has Got to Go!
National Association of Scholars – Editor’s Note: The National Association of Scholars has begun a symposium on legacy admissions. Legacy admissions has become a political issue in the wake of the SFFA v. Harvard decision. It has become so in good measure due to tactical polemic by supporters of race discrimination, who wrongly seek to create a moral equivalence between race discrimination and legacy admissions, and who equally wrongly seek to use legacy admissions to substantiate their claims that America and its colleges and universities are “systemically racist.” Yet even though legacy admissions is not racially discriminatory, it is subject to a variety of other critiques and defenses—where NAS members and staff appear to be split in their judgments about the value of legacy admissions.
Precisely because of this split, we thought it would be useful to publish a symposium on the subject during the coming months.
We encourage NAS members and staff—and, indeed, any interested reader—to contribute to this symposium. Please contact David Randall (firstname.lastname@example.org) and/or Neetu Arnold (email@example.com) if you would like to submit a contribution.
Our next essay is by Paul du Quenoy, president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute.
Immediately after the Supreme Court outlawed racial preferences in higher education admissions, aggrieved leftists, and more than a few conservatives, raised hackles about legacy admissions. Some 75 percent of Americans oppose the practice. Both conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, in a concurring opinion, and liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in her dissent, objected to legacy admissions as an unfair advantage that may benefit whites over minorities.
Other observers maintain that scrapping legacy admissions could compensate for the loss in racial diversity that will likely result from the Supreme Court’s ruling. The nonprofit organization Lawyers for Civil Rights is currently handling a complaint filed by three Boston-area black and Hispanic organizations against Harvard University, arguing that its legacy admissions practices unfairly benefit white students and, therefore, violate federal civil rights law. The Department of Education’s (ED) Office of Civil Rights, which normally takes months to respond to such complaints, speedily announced that it will investigate Harvard’s legacy admissions for racial bias. A negative finding would likely compel Harvard, and other schools, to abandon the practice or potentially lose all federal funding.
Administrative intervention may prove unnecessary. Within days of the ED’s announcement, congressional Democrats introduced legislation to outlaw legacy admissions regardless of investigative findings.
The racial argument is sophistic and amounts to little more than leftist grievance against the Supreme Court’s ruling. Logically, it requires us to believe that the same admissions officials who used race as a criterion with which to discriminate against whites were simultaneously using legacy status as a criterion with which to discriminate in favor of whites. The numbers are also suspect. The complaint before the ED claims that 70 percent of Harvard legacy admits are white, but that proportion is not much greater than that of the country’s white population or, still less, of the white population that applies to elite institutions. On their face, the complainants’ own statistics appear to refute their discrimination claims.
Legacies also account for only about ten to fifteen percent of students at elite schools, whereas minorities are often overrepresented due to now unlawful racial preferences. Notably, the Democrats’ draft legislation to outlaw legacy admissions exempts historically black colleges and universities, indicating that its sponsors consider the issue a matter of race rather than fairness.
As recent studies have shown, the major factor that lends an advantage in elite admissions is family wealth, regardless of race. Supporters of legacy admissions implicitly admit this by arguing that the legacy system allows schools to foster a sense of loyalty—defined, above all else, by raising money—among families with historic ties to them. Naturally, the legacy families who participate in any serious way are rich legacy families, not poor or middle-class ones. Similarly, defenders of legacy admissions argue that legacy applicants are well prepared for elite schools and generally rise to academic expectations once enrolled. But if that’s true—and we do know that intelligence is largely hereditary and that talent often runs in families—the resounding counterargument holds that legacy applicants should be able to win admission on their own, without benefiting from de facto affirmative action.
Nevertheless, legacy admissions offers one uniquely unfair advantage—to elite institutions themselves. For alumni, the prospect of their children or other young relatives “getting in” motivates the most impressive range of kowtowing in what we otherwise imagine to be a democratic society. This sycophancy can take all manner of forms: humiliating and often disingenuous professions of “school spirit,” exaggerated but highly marketable rituals of thanksgiving, uncompensated time and effort in outreach and other alumni “service” programs, immense but often unwarranted personal flattery of university administrators, generous donations to support ever-expanding budgets and endowments, and even bribery facilitated by crooked admissions professionals or those with access to them. In 2019, an FBI investigation of just one individual’s fraudulent admissions network resulted in felony guilty pleas from 51 defendants implicated in over $25 million that illegally changed hands on behalf of 33 applicants.
Even in the bizarre universe of millennial dating, it is not unknown for aspiring partners to advertise the college they attended, not merely for its own sake but as a signal of what opportunities the potential couple’s children might expect. A comely Southern belle who once informed me that she had three close family connections to Vanderbilt thus drew a certain conclusion when I told her my mother went there. We will likely never know how many unvarnished quid pro quo admissions deals happen behind closed doors, but no one seriously disputes that they do happen, often to the benefit of legacy applicants.
Perhaps best of all for elite schools, legacy admissions induces paralyzing fear among alumni who will resist saying anything that might appear critical of their alma maters. If, to take a recent example from the University of Chicago, a school offers a class whose title describes being white as a “problem,” alumni with kids in the admissions pipeline can be counted on to say nothing outside the proverbial smoky kitchen, and, indeed, none have. A number of Ivy League alumni with legacy sons have confided cocktail-party misgivings to me about abuses of Title IX, the enforcement of which explicitly denies due process. But never in a million years would they publicly object, even over the suppression of basic constitutional rights that could affect their boys in truly horrible and unjust ways. To their everlasting shame, the promise of passing down a piece of paper with a prestigious school’s name on it outweighs liberty itself.
In recent years, a spate of controversial firings, well-publicized campus free speech violations, polls documenting pervasive on-campus fear of expressing disfavored opinions, and illiberal outrages against free inquiry have failed to result in even one significant alumni-based movement challenging the status quo. Even conservative alumni will keep their mouths shut if it spares Little Katelyn from having to settle for a lesser school than Stanford, where her parents’ hefty tuition payments may be welcome while their values are reviled. Again, the elite school’s diploma is simply too valuable to risk over something as paltry as our basic freedoms.
Not even serious fiduciary responsibility can persuade these alumni. Paul S. Levy, a University of Pennsylvania alumnus who, in 2018, resigned from Penn’s board of trustees over the school’s controversial treatment of law professor Amy Wax, remains the only elite university trustee ever to have spoken out. “Several Penn Trustees called me to say how much they admired my principled stand in defense of Amy Wax,” Levy told me recently, “but when asked if they could help fight for her basic right to free speech, they demurred saying ‘I’d love to, but my kids (or grandkids) will be applying, and I don’t want to rock the boat.’ … Such is the way of the spineless in failing in their fiduciary duties.”
Elite university administrators are well aware of the immense power they wield through legacy admissions, even, as Levy’s experience suggests, over the very people charged with governing them and their institutions. Despite the legacy “advantage,” it helps their malign cause that the admissions process remains fundamentally uncertain. Legacy status might be “a factor” in the admission of alumni children to highly selective universities, but there is no guarantee that it alone will secure a place. Stories abound of multigenerational Ivy League families whose kids are rejected despite generous gifts and faultless performative gestures, usually with little or no explanation offered or sought. Like a Pavlovian experiment in behavioral psychology, the possibility of great reward, complicated by an element of randomness, guarantees slavish alumni compliance and near-absolute immunity from alumni criticism, no matter how poorly run, ideologically extreme, educationally impoverished, or absurdly expensive many elite institutions really are.
As the father of a “double-legacy” eight-year-old who could expect legacy admission to Georgetown University (and other institutions as an ordinary legacy candidate) if the current system lasts another decade, this pressure is palpable and has caused much reflection. I do not, however, believe that remaining silent is the right course, either for my son or for American higher education. In recent years, I have publicly criticized Georgetown in major media outlets and in direct communications when I believed its behavior was unethical or immoral. There may now be a big red “X” next to my unusual family name in some admissions office database, but I would be happier if my son were admitted to the school of his choice on his own merits in a free and open society rather than to a deeply flawed institution because his parents happened to attend long before and compliantly turned a blind eye to error and injustice. I would also hope he is wise enough to identify and enroll at the institution that best matches his interests and talents rather than fall victim to the crushing anxiety that has tortured generations of promising teenagers and aspirational parents who allow the whims of slimy admissions middlemen to determine their self-worth.
Abolishing legacy admissions would be a strong step forward in ending our national psychodrama over higher education. Alumni parents would be free to criticize their alma maters and those who run them without the fear, guilt, and shame of jeopardizing the advantage of legacy status. They and their alumni children would have greater freedom to explore options across schools, without the anxiety-inducing expectation that the right school for their great-grandfathers must be the right school for them. Best of all, abolishing legacy admissions would force elite colleges and universities to rely less on emotion, loyalty, and money extorted from eager alumni and their children and attract top students responsibly and respectably. Otherwise, whether the applicant is a tenth-generation Boston Brahmin with a family history inseparable from Harvard or a second-generation legacy who hopes to benefit from a parent’s personal success, it is the same rigged game. And as in any rigged game, the best way to win is not to play.