A Symposium on Legacy Admissions: Robert Weissberg

Eliminating Legacies—Let’s Make a Deal

Robert Weissberg

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 next essay is by Robert Weissberg, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.


Ignore the fancy rhetoric surrounding legacy admissions. Deep down, we all know that this newfound passion for merit is a punitive response to the Supreme Court's recent ban on racial preferences in college admissions. It’s pure tit for tat: If whites want to keep blacks out of top schools, then racial preferences supporters will return the favor by keeping rich white applicants out of those same schools. Forget about a reasoned justification for legacy—e.g., grateful parents donate, and these donations help finance poor black students who are unable to pay the full freight. Ignore the statistical comparisons between legacy admits and those admitted based on race-neutral standards. Logic and evidence are irrelevant when the purpose is racial revenge.

Fortunately, this is a game that two can play. If, as is claimed, legacy admissions is just a ruse to sneak in academically underqualified whites, why stop with legacies? After all, schools frankly admit that many students in their “carefully crafted” freshman classes gain entry through the side door. Particularly onerous, at least in my estimation, is how universities exploit football and basketball players—disproportionately black—to generate millions via broadcasting, licensed team logos, and stadium admissions. Many of these athletes suffer career-ending injuries that will doom their already minuscule chance of making it in professional sports, which only adds insult to injury. Technically, of course, this is not about race, but we all know that it is.

We hardly need carefully researched legal briefs to prove this exploitation. Recruits in these sports often receive a fake college education through “gut” courses, where “tutors” may write their papers and take their exams. They can major in “sports management,” and even then, many fail to graduate. Plenty of these students are also troublesome, and campuses are filled with tales of covered-up police encounters and accusations of sexual abuse. If colleges were ordinary for-profit businesses, their treatment of academically struggling athletes in revenue-producing sports would trigger a government investigation.  

Universities should be given two options. First, treat revenue-producing sports as a bona fide business and forget the “scholar-athlete” fig leaf. Recruit players as paid employees with medical insurance, profit-sharing, and a pension. Return to an earlier era when many professional sports teams had corporate sponsors, such as the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons (eventually the Detroit Pistons).

If students and alumni need something to cheer about, just license the school brand and lease out the lavish sports facilities—a huge economic windfall with barely any downside.

Will anybody lament this shift? It’s unlikely. After all, millions in the Big Apple root for the New York Yankees, but how many team members are actual New Yorkers? Do the players even care about New York? They are hired guns whose only connection to their place of work is a uniform insignia, and even rabid fans know it.

Students and alumni will enjoy cheering on genuine undergraduates as they once did before the bogus scholar-athlete era. The downgrading of football and basketball programs may become a status symbol, a badge of honor, and “proof” of academic excellence. Just look at Cal Tech, the University of  Chicago, and MIT, which boast of players with near perfect SAT scores. Ironically, these brainy jocks might become major donors after graduating—think the Koch Brothers and MIT.

But let’s not get our hopes up too high. We’ve seen this movie before. Remember the NCAA’s Proposition 48 (and various follow-ups), which was designed to protect marginal student-athletes by banning them from playing in their first year? These and similar measures largely failed to stop the exploitation, thanks to an alliance of coaches, would-be sports agents, and cash-hungry college administrators. These measures were denounced as “racist,” and it was just too easy to fake high school records to secure freshman eligibility. Everything is embarrassingly obvious—these young men were merely the equipment to be used and then discarded when their eligibility expired.

Returning revenue-generating sports to an earlier, genuine student-athlete era will, of course, mean that fewer blacks are admitted. Is this bad for blacks? Hardly, and the benefits outweigh the costs. Academically qualified student-athletes, regardless of race, will be admitted via colorblind admissions, after which they can try out for the team. Those who are hired for their sports prowess may be encouraged to take courses for free and, conceivably, earn a diploma.

The black applicants who are rejected by Harvard for academic reasons, but who nevertheless decide to play football on the Harvard-sponsored team as paid employees, will receive a far better deal than their compatriots who go through the motions of being a scholar-athlete. They can devote all their time to sharpen their skills, receiving a regular salary and benefits. They can drop the charade and avoid the humiliation of being a dumb jock among the smartest of the smart. The paid competitors, many of them black, now earn an honest living and may increase their chance of going pro. Ignore the race hustlers with no skin in the game, who complain about the “shocking decline of blacks in higher education.” How could anybody defend the exploitation of black men and women?

Let’s make a deal. We’ll end legacy admissions if you stop admitting academically underqualified “scholar-athletes” who just happen to be disproportionately black.


Image: Adobe Stock

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