Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Legacy Admissions

The renewed discussion of “affirmative action” in college admissions policies offers me the opportunity to think out loud about a topic that has long troubled me: “legacy” admissions.  In Monday’s newspaper there was a particularly stimulating letter to the editor of the Times, given the heading “Legacy Admissions: Affirmative Action for Whites,” by T. H. Rawls, a one-time admissions officer at Princeton, and (if my memory serves) before that an undergraduate of whom I was aware in the late Sixties.  I could give no better summary of this thoughtful letter than is offered by its editorial heading; but I highly recommend you read it in full.

            I don’t know whether Rawls is related to the famous Princeton alumnus who wrote A Theory of Justice, but the letter raises, in the context of current racial issues, fundamental ethical questions.  Is it really fair in the college admissions process at old Bindwood U to give any weight to the fact that an applicant’s parent, grandparent, or other kinsman graduated from the place?

            Although the American family is in dangerous decline, it still counts for a lot.  Nobody thinks it odd that Hiram Highpockets, Jr., might succeed Hiram Highpockets, Sr., as CEO over at Highpockets Hosiery, Inc., even if everybody knows that a well-advertised national search would have produced hundreds of better businessmen.  In the political sphere of the upstart American democracy we got all the way to our second president (John Adams) before beginning a system of political legacy.  This gives me a rare opportunity to say something nice about Donald Trump. He is neither the brother and son of former presidents nor the spouse of one.  There are at least a hundred million potential presidential candidates in this country, but two “legacy” candidates were our effective options before he entered the race.

Questions of a meritocratic nature were not raised when Ted Kennedy breezed into a lifetime job in the Senate, even as no one did so when, like his father and brothers before him, he had earlier matriculated at Harvard.  Here the analogy becomes more interesting.  Harvard College, which has ethical standards higher than those of the Senate, did expel him when he revealed dishonorable character.  And it is the higher ethical standard most of us associate with the idea of higher education that makes the question of legacy admissions troubling.  Princeton, like most of the other most prestigious institutions in the country, is a private corporation—not a public facility.  It ought to be able to do pretty much what it pleases.  But my forty-year stretch on the faculty was one long, voluntary worry about admissions standards—first as regarded the admission of women, then as regarded the vigorous recruitment of certain racial minorities, especially black Americans.

There are clear ethical arguments to support affirmative action for blacks along the lines of historical and restorative justice.  Perhaps curiously, however, the institutional argument usually made is of a more selfish sort: “diversity” is good for the institution, and therefore by ethical trickle-down, for everybody at it.

I think it obvious that the thoughtful admission of qualified “legacies” is likewise good for the institution.  Though not a ticket of admission, it should not be a negative aspect of young Schnackenfuss’s application that her granddaddy was the quarterback of Bindwood’s undefeated team of 1967, or that his uncle’s princely gift founded the Schnackenfuss Center for Computational Analysis on the south edge of the Bindwood campus.  A very remarkable thing about American higher education, still the envy of the world, is that we have so many excellent private colleges and universities.  Something that has struck me forcefully about the current discussion of the student loan crisis is the apparent belief in some quarters that the costs of higher education are somehow factitious, like the drug prices set by Martin Shkreli at Turing Pharmaceuticals.  In fact those costs are all too real, and they rise inexorably.  That is why college presidents spend so much time fund-raising.          

Unexamined ethical questions may surround the gargantuan endowments, in the billions of dollars, of a Yale, Stanford, Notre Dame, or Duke.  But that money did not come from taxpayers in a congressional bail-out.  Its source is private philanthropy, great and small.  All these institutions are in fact giant charities whose long-term function has been to redistribute wealth in the form of professional training and social capital.  The highest quality American higher education is paid for, in large measure, by people who have experienced it themselves and want to ensure it for future generations—usually beginning with their own.  That is neither a surprising nor a wicked sociological fact.  At Princeton the percentage of alumni who make annual gifts for institutional operations and development is extraordinary, and the sum total of gifts staggering, at least to me.

Yale could, with no difficulty at all, limit its entering class to high school valedictorians.  They probably could fill half of it with left-handed valedictorians.  As long as there are private educational institutions with far more aspiring applicants than there are places, and as long as so many uncertain variables render the admissions process arcane if not occult, there is little danger that most people, let alone everyone, will declare it satisfactory or “fair”.   But there is a tremendous effort made by large numbers of smart and ethical people to square the circle.  Unfortunately, even college professors often talk about the issue of alumni financial support for educational institutions crudely (and ignorantly) in transactional terms.  They may be more reticent in noting the significant number of faculty children in each successive freshman class.  Many large institutions, industrial no less than educational, like to use the metaphor of the family: the “General Motors family,” the “Bindwood family”.  All metaphors reach their terminus, some quite quickly.  But in my view, and it is a view based on some experience, the more closely an educational institution can uphold the family model as opposed to the corporate model the better off it will be.  That does not mean keeping it within the family, but expanding the idea of what a family is.