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.
I’m not much of a legacy admit. I went to Swarthmore College, my dad went to Amherst, his dad went to Columbia, his dad went to Colgate, and, before then, the Randalls weren’t bothering with college degrees. My mom went to Barnard, and so did my dad’s mom, but (until recently) that wouldn’t have been an option for me. My dad’s mom gave some of her papers to Swarthmore, so maybe that did make the college more likely to take me in—but it’s a pretty tenuous connection. I applied to Amherst, contemplating the advantages of being a legacy, but Swarthmore let me in early, so I don’t even know if Amherst would have sent me the thick admissions letter. I can’t say myself how lovely it is to go to the family college.
Legacy admissions ought to be part of a good old-fashioned small-town America. We should have a broadly distributed civil society, local affections, no truck with meritocracy, and legacy admissions part and parcel of a halcyon vision of the good life in the small town, where the classics prof goes to the football game to cheer on the team, and his daughter, having married well to an ambitious fraternity man who was the winning quarterback and then did well by a pajama factory that paid top dollar to all the employees in town, endows the college’s classics library. Oh, and the professor’s grandkids are legacy admits, who have plenty of school spirit and start contributing to the college as soon as they graduate.
Of course we don’t have that America anymore. The pajama factory sent its jobs to Indonesia; the fired workers’ grandkids are on meth; the classics prof’s great-grandkids spout pious woke nothings, get drunk at least once a week, and applied to the family school as a safety—and it’s a good thing, too, because they didn’t have the grades for anything better.
Too much of the time that’s true. But the worst part is that the administration and the faculty aren’t local any longer.
The president and the deans ought to be legacies too. So should the department chairs. A college that’s a real community would have the administrators and the teachers care about the college and the town. Sure, you’d welcome some new blood in from outside—but the college would be run by the community, for the community. The dean of admissions (another legacy) would welcome legacy admits because he shared the affection for the college and wanted to preserve that community of affection. So, too, would the faculty on the admissions committee.
When the administration and the faculty don’t really care about the college and the small town, that’s when legacy admissions becomes deadly. Then it’s just a way for predatory careerists with their eye on their next job to squeeze the locals for their own benefit. Let in any old kid with a family connection, because that’s the way you get the money for the new building, your pet research, ideologically curated admissions to make sure the college has its quota of pod-people activists, and, of course, the portable TIAA-CREF pension. When the administration and the staff don’t care about the college, then legacy admissions isn’t about preserving community. It’s a mutual con game, in which the alumni and the administration try to see who can cheat one another most effectively.
Take a lesson from Vegas: the house always wins.
Legacy admissions isn’t the trouble. The trouble is, American colleges don’t give a big leg up to legacies in their administration and their faculty. Because they don’t, legacy admissions is just a game of spot-the-sucker.
It’d be great to restore the old America that was, and the legacy admissions that helped make it. But I wouldn’t lay bets that we will.