The Attack on Legacies

In every Marx Bros. movie, there occurs a moment when Harpo works himself up to a frenzy, hyperventilating, jumping up and down and crossing his eyes. These interludes never fail to beguile the viewer, even though they have nothing to do with the plot.
I was reminded of these Harpovian shenanigans when I came across Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admission (Richard D. Kahlenberg, Editor, Century Foundation , 304 pps). This a collection of essays expressing outrage at a practice, common to many first-, second- and third-tier colleges. These institutions have for decades (centuries in some cases) allowed underperforming high school students to be admitted to the freshman class because one of their parents was a graduate.
Manifestly this was unfair. Students with higher grades had been turned away because they didn’t have the advantage of a father or mother with an Ivy or Big Ten sheepskin. Yet the institutions of higher learning offered no apology for their autocratic ways; instead they presented a rationale. It was called Follow the Money. A prosperous parent was likely to make a generous donation to the place that allowed Junior to enter the hallowed halls, even though he failed geometry and had English SAT scores that placed him in the bottom third of his class. And since every school is always bemoaning its increasing debt, rising professorial salaries and benefits, and other fiscal responsibilities, what was wrong with welcoming a few “legacies” in order to pad the bottom line?


Once upon an epoch, Columbia University was quite liberal about its legacies—but very specific about the number of Jews allowed to attend its medical school. Other colleges were no less undemocratic. Segregated schools, glass ceilings for co-eds, quota systems—the whole litany of high-handedness, snobbery and bias used to be as much a part of higher education as textbooks and seminars. But we have walked rather a long path since then. Today, there are more women than men at the nation’s law schools. Ole Miss is as desegregated as New York University. Asians are no longer considered a minority at UCLA. Affirmative Action has allowed African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and other groups access to places that were once the bastions of WASPs much chronicled by the three Johns: Marquand, Cheever and Updike.
No doubt there are still underachievers admitted for family reasons at certain colleges and universities. No doubt the editor of the book is correct: legacy preferences constitute “a relic that has no place in American society.” No doubt contributor Michael Lind is right when he takes up the same point, though with language staler than a sandwich on the back shelf of a dorm refrigerator: “By reserving places on campus for members of a pseudo-aristocracy of ‘wealth and birth,’ legacy preferences introduce an aristocratic snake into the democratic republican Garden of Eden.”
And no doubt the other hard-breathing essayists have much to say on their side. Some are self-congratulatory (Peter Schmidt): It is “entirely possible that the new legal arguments against legacy preferences offered by contributors to this volume could sway the courts.” Some sound a tocsin: (Eric L. Bloom and John Brittain): “Universities should be placed on notice that in the event affirmative action policies fall by the wayside—either because of judicial rulings or voter initiatives—the civil rights community is unlikely to let stand the hypocrisy of continued legacy preferences.” And some present a scholarly consideration of American history (Carlton F.W. Larson): “Each day legacy preferences remain in place in public universities is a betrayal of not only of America’s highest aspirations, but of the explicit command of the Constitution itself.”
All true, all valid, all tedious. Like other fossils of higher education, the legacies, the less- than-talented sons and daughters of alums, are on their way out. To do a Harpo act in 2010, when universities are undergoing seismic changes, is to give the essayists a chance to exercise their gorges and raise their blood pressure. Devoting all this attention to a minor and fading aspect of higher education is not worth the effort. Wise and experienced readers—particularly those whose children are now being educated in colleges and universities—should have better use for their time and their bookshelf space.

2 thoughts on “The Attack on Legacies”

  1. There is nothing “self-congratulatory” about my observation that the legal arguments against legacy preferences offered by contributors to the volume could sway the courts. My chapter in the book is a straightforward history of legacy preferences. It does not offer any legal arguments. And it makes clear that, except where legacy preferences have been caught in the crossfire of battles over affirmative action, the decline in the use of legacy preferences by colleges stalled in the 1980s. I have to wonder if Stefan Kanfer was watching the Marx Brothers when he should have been focused on the book in his lap.

  2. Not all legacy applicants are underqualified. What does it say about a state institution that passes over a qualified legacy for an out of state student (albeit qualified) who will pay higher tuition? I say it’s penny-wise and pound foolish, not to mention biting the hand that feeds you.

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