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Snitz on: Should legacy admission be illegal? Should you contribute?

I graduated from Middlebury College in 1979. As schools go it's pretty good. It ranks #11th (US News) among US Liberal Arts Schools.

When I attended, tuition, room & board were approx $5,000 per year. This year? $83,400. BAM. Harvard is only $77,000; what a bargain!

And these places want alumni to donate? They don't need patrons, they need restructuring. Removing someone from the workforce for four years and burdening them with debt sound like a prudent move to you? Anyone that donates to Middlebury is an idiot.

The Case for Legacy Admissions

Institutional trust depends on loyalty and personal relationships, but loyalty needs to run both ways.

By James Hankins, WSJ

July 19, 2023 1:04 pm ET

In my 38 years teaching at Harvard, I have only twice met members of Harvard’s governing boards, both at dinners. The first time I had no clue about the man sitting beside me. He asked about my family, which I thought an odd question. It turned out to be a conversational gambit allowing him to let slip that his ancestors had come over on the Mayflower. That was rattling enough for a young professor, but what surprised me even more was his follow-up remark. He confessed sadly that his son’s generation would be the first in his family not to serve Mother Harvard. His son hadn’t been accepted into Harvard College.

On the second occasion I knew who I would be sitting next to, because I had been instructed to mention the financial needs of Harvard’s Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, on whose board I served. My dinner partner said he wasn’t making further gifts to Harvard until he found out whether his last grandchild had gotten in. The previous seven had all been rejected. I remember being impressed at the incorruptibility of Harvard’s admissions office. (This was in the 1990s.)

Over the years I’ve met quite a few undergraduates who qualify as legacies. In my experience they tend not to draw attention to themselves, aware of the common undergrad usage of “legacy” as a term of abuse, meaning “not too smart.” That generalization I’ve found to be untrue, and I’ve taught thousands of Harvard students. To mix metaphors, they may not have as much fire in the belly as first-generation Harvardians, but they have always had plenty of power under the hood.

Legacies are subtly different, however. What the legacies I’ve met all had in common, without exception, was an absolute, ferocious loyalty to Harvard. When talk around my seminar table would turn to Harvard and the criticism grew harsh, the legacies would go quiet and look uncomfortable, or even try to speak a word in mitigation of the administration’s latest outrage. This came, I think, from a sense of noblesse oblige. If an institution has shown you special favor, the only decent response is loyalty. If your family has supported an institution, you want it to be above reproach.

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, the usual zealots on the left have been newly enraged about legacies. The left must have a cause as a dog must have fleas, and now that the court has forced the university to acknowledge that admissions are a zero-sum game—preferences for some means discrimination against others—legacies are the new cause du jour. Schools and departments have bewailed the decision, Harvard Crimson editorials have condemned it, protesters have denounced it with cries of “Legacies, out!” An outfit called Lawyers for Civil Rights has already filed a complaint alleging that legacy admissions favor white students and violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

I’m not a lawyer and have no opinion on the legal merits of the suit. I do think, however, that in the case of private universities there is a great deal to be said in favor of preferential admission of legacies—other things being equal, like test scores and grades. Legacy admissions are surely harder to defend in public universities, where taxpayers are footing the bill and expect the institution to be fair to all citizens. Private universities are different. They depend on the generosity of alumni.

The wealthiest private universities, like Princeton and Harvard, can’t begin to maintain their operations on tuition alone. Far from it. At Harvard, tuition revenue pays only 21% of operating costs. It is endowments, built from the generosity of alumni over many generations, that allow them to function as great universities. If we are to continue to have private higher education, endowment funds have to come from somewhere. The question is where.

A few years ago the Harvard administration decided to institute sanctions against members of single-sex “final clubs,” informal social groups students could choose to join. The school penalized members of these private clubs in the full knowledge that they had long been a major source of endowment giving. The administration reckoned that such huge sums were now coming in from India and especially China that they could get along fine with less generosity from Wall Street, which used to recruit mostly through private Ivy League clubs. The newer sources of income also fit neatly with the university’s aspirations to be a global institution.

Now, when the Chinese presence at elite American universities is under political scrutiny, that reckoning doesn’t look as clever as it once did. So again the question needs to be raised: To whom should private universities turn for support? Foreign donors and corporations, some of them silent partners of foreign governments, who are trying to buy access to research and exercise political influence? Or wealthy alumni—legacies themselves and the hopeful parents of legacies—who know and love the institution and want to show their loyalty?

Loyalty should run both ways. As long as the children of alumni meet the standards of admission, it’s unclear why they shouldn’t be admitted preferentially. Nor is it obvious why the loyalty and generosity of alumni shouldn’t be rewarded. In previous generations, before our age of quotas and “equity,” it was thought seemly for an institution to care for its foster children (which is what the Latin word “alumni” means). It made the institution more human.

There is great concern today about the loss of trust in American institutions. Our institutions are ineffective because they aren’t trusted. Institutional trust, it turns out, depends on personal relationships, institutional memory and the conviction that the institution will continue to fulfill its longstanding purposes and not be hijacked by novel agendas. Institutional trust, in other words, requires intergenerational continuity, the kind that comes from family traditions. Change and innovation will always be necessary, but the most successful reforms are built on a basis of trust and loyalty.

Mr. Hankins is a professor of history at Harvard.

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