A Symposium on Legacy Admissions: Bruce Gilley

A House, Not a Hotel

Bruce Gilley

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 ([email protected]) and/or Neetu Arnold ([email protected]) if you would like to submit a contribution.

Our first essay for the symposium is by Bruce Gilley, professor of political science at Portland State University, and member of the NAS Board of Directors.

My grandfather attended the University of Toronto. My father attended the University of Toronto. I attended the University of Toronto. And now my daughter is attending the University of Toronto.

This is a large public university that is not particularly difficult to get into with decent grades. But the fact of this great chain of Varsity Blues fills me with joy and strengthens my commitment to the institution. It also gives my daughter a firm sense of being when she is there—she can literally find my photos in the yearbook of the college we both attended. Now, I doubt that my daughter was admitted to the exclusive college at Toronto because I went there. Her grades were much better than mine, and I am not a donor to the college. More to the point, the year before she applied, I wrote an essay criticizing the George Floyd Panic at the college and the provost’s woke responses to it, saying that no parents would likely send their children there in future. Perhaps they admitted my daughter after she unexpectedly applied in order to make me eat crow.

It is easy to forget that “legacy” can mean students who apply to colleges and universities that are below their standards but to which they have a strong commitment. These don’t show up in the official figures because we think of legacy students in the opposite way. But it is critical. My daughter would never have applied to Toronto had I not gone there. I think the university is lucky to have her. Legacy, as with all human relationships, is an ongoing two-way street, a love affair, not a one-night stand. She is at the University of Toronto because I went there, and I, in turn, was there because my father and grandfather went there.

Colleges and universities are long-standing institutions, very long in some cases, that are obliged to consider past generations as well as current and future ones. They owe not only homage and respect to their past students, but they also draw upon the students’ wisdom via alumni networks, histories, and traditions. Admitting some students based on the fact that, in addition to being academically qualified and competitive, they are part of this precious institutional legacy is not only defensible. It is imperative.

Colleges are not supermarkets that sell what an individual needs, so long as he pays on the way out. My sense of the plaintiffs in the SFFA case is that they are merely angling for their Ivy League degrees so that their parents can boast about their brilliant progeny. I never felt in reading their complaint any care for institutional respect or tradition. “Where’s my Harvard sweatshirt?” seemed to be the animating value.

Colleges, not surprisingly, wish to develop long-term relationships with their students, not just for donations and fundraising but also for broader support for the institution. They are not mere doormats through which atomistic careerists who have been coached for their SATs, or have filled their resumes with volunteer activities, or have excelled in classical dance can gain access and use the credential like a Gucci handbag to continue their relentless struggle to pass others on the way to the top. Colleges rightly spurn such naked individualism, and legacy admissions is one of the finest ways they distinguish themselves from supermarkets.

Like all inheritances, legacy admission is an ongoing relationship that we pass on to those close to us, and, if they steward it well, that they will pass onto others. What creates the special duty of care, what creates the irrational commitment to that which is acquired, is precisely that it was acquired in this way. If I gain access to Harvard via competitive struggle, I will think of myself as the person to whom I have the greatest obligation and will, therefore, rationalize everything I do to clamber over my fellow students like so many animals, and to depart the institution with nary a thought of any ongoing relationship, since it did not come into my hands as such. If, on the other hand, I gain access as an equally qualified, tie-breaking legacy admit, my relationship to the institution will be different. It will be “my house,” not just a hotel. I will interact in a different way. I will think of the university as part of my life, past, present, and future.

My grandfather, having graduated from the University of Toronto in 1926, returned there during World War II to serve as acting warden of Hart House, the university’s student center. I never knew him, since he died before I was born. But his portrait still hangs in the committee room on the second floor of the handsome sandstone building. I still “visit” him when I go there. This is a precious legacy.

Photo by Adobe Stock

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