Legacy Favoritism: Undermining Merit-Based Admission

by PATRICK MATTIMORE | 8/19/04 5:00am

At the Democratic National Convention in 1988, political commentator Jim Hightower remarked that the elder George Bush was "born on third base and thinks he hit a triple." Nice coattails for our current president!

The current President Bush has enjoyed legacy breaks beginning with his admission to Yale clear through to his appointment as commander-in-chief by the Supreme Court in 2000.

Some people have gone further to suggest the president has benefited from affirmative action of a divine design.

Joe Conason, a columnist for the New York Observer asked mockingly in an article on Aug. 17, "Is George W. Bush God's President?" He cited, as authority for that fanatical proposition, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who remarked last year that "there was some divine guidance in the president being elected."

For those of us inclined to accept more pedestrian explanations for the fact that we now have a man of inherited privilege as our chief executive, Bush's pronouncement two weeks ago to a convention of minority journalists that we should do away with legacy admissions was astounding. Perhaps even more perplexing is why those remarks, though widely reported the day after they were made, have escaped serious analysis since that time.

Syndicated columnist Roland Martin asked the president point-blank: "So the colleges should get rid of legacy?" The New York Times quoted Bush's response and added its own qualifier: "'Well, I think so,' said Mr. Bush, who is a son, grandson and also a father of Yale graduates. 'Yeah, I think it ought to be based on merit.'"

Bush elaborated on his position by stating that there should not be "a special exception for certain people in a system that's supposed to be fair." So why has there been virtually no follow-up on Bush's call to end admission preferences for children of alumni?

Frankly, neither conservatives nor liberals want to end legacy admissions. It is a poorly-kept secret that admissions programs at our most prestigious universities admit alumni children at rates two to four times higher than rates for non-legacies. Legacy admits have lower than average SAT scores and lower GPAs.

Much like students of color, they benefit from relaxed admissions standards.

Unlike minority students, legacies do not wear a question mark acceptance tag upon their skin. They get a free boost without the stigma.

While there has been a great deal of fuss over the last 30 years about affirmative action, including several Supreme Court cases, affirmative action for children of privilege has remained largely obstructed from public view.

Now that the president has broached the subject, politicians on both sides of the aisle seem unwilling to confront the legacy issue.

Liberal defenders of legacy preferences profess that alumni contributions depend on legacies, propagating the system builds a familial-type loyalty to the institution and the legacy system works as a trade-off for other affirmative action admits.

Conservatives, of course, believe in things like birthrights. Why shouldn't Dad be able to pass on the keys to the academic kingdom in addition to whatever else he might have that his offspring may need or want?

I have no intention of debating the merits of either side's arguments other than to point out my agreement with the president that preferential treatment for legacies has no place in admissions policies supposedly based on merit.