End the legacy preference in college admissions

A tour group walks through the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (AP photo)
A tour group walks through the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (AP photo)

The bold criminality, ruthless perfidy, and breathtakingly destructive parenting of Hollywood stars, mega-law firm managing partners, and condescending CEOs have brought long overdue attentions to college admissions. The nation is rightly and resoundingly disturbed. University administrators respond with proffered and sanctimonious indignity: “This is not the brand of corruption we cherish and solicit; buy us a building and we’ll do business.” Well spoken. Order restored.

As North Carolina and the nation ponder needed reform, let me argue (yet again) for the elimination of a long accepted and broad-based transgression against equal opportunity — legacy preferences in admissions. Over 85 percent of top American universities employ preferences for the children of alumni. Some are stronger, some weaker. UNC-CH, where I work, uses a legacy bonus in non-resident cases. Still, they are frequently outcome-determinative. They are always indefensible.

Legacy admissions can make racial affirmative action programs look like small potatoes. Harvard enrolls more alumni children than black, Latino, and Native American students combined. They are hardly race-neutral. UNC barred black students completely until the 1950s and admitted only tiny numbers for decades thereafter. Before Texas A&M dropped its legacy program a few years ago, in one season, it aided 321 whites and 3 black applicants.

Besides, it’s hard to think of a more profound rejection of egalitarian, merit-based decision-making than legacy preferences – admission by bloodline. We don’t know everything about our founding fathers; but we know they didn’t think much of hereditary privilege. American universities operate like un-repentant Tories.

The fact that legacy preference has lain unmolested for a half century while we’ve fought like jackals over the intricacies of racial affirmative action says much. Having worked at four state universities, in varied positions, low and high, I can attest that pushing back against alumni preference is tough sledding. Alumni, unsurprisingly, dominate governing boards. They’re well attached to their perks. But can you imagine a dad explaining to his excluded daughter she would have had an equal chance to go to a great school, but she’s from the wrong family?

Continuing acceptance of a legacy bonus also says much about the Supreme Court. John Roberts has longed, for decades, to bring an end to racial affirmative action. With the addition of an ever-disingenuous newcomer, he’ll soon have his way. Trouble is, the baseline from which the court prepares to mandate “colorblindness” is so replete with pocketed discrimination and privilege that the newly declared virtue is a roundly rejected lie. But Roberts, to be sure, will raise no objection to legacies. They’re his folks.

I think, too, the persistence of legacy preferences says a good deal about these enthusiastic advocacy groups that, for two generations, have crossed the nation suing universities to attack racial affirmative action programs. They may, in more recent iterations, indirectly disparage legacy programs – but they save their sought after injunctions to end the use of race.

Through years of litigation, these groups know everything there is to know about university admission practices, including the insidious and equity-impairing nature of legacy programs. But here their commitment to individualized, merit-based ideals seemingly wanes. Dollars, lawsuits and requested judicial decrees are typically reserved to attack minority preference processes.

It is almost as if they’ve quietly concluded that favoring wealthy whites is natural and unobjectionable, while preferences favoring racial minorities threaten the republic. Much modern discrimination is subtle, systematic, tough to unpack. Not this, it’s old school.

So while we’re exploring overarching questions of educational fairness, lets fix this. No acceptable admissions program ought to include the question, “who is your daddy?”.

Gene Nichol is the Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina.

Clarification: An earlier version of this column did not note that UNC’s legacy preferences apply only to out-of-state candidates for admission.