The New York Times offers a good look at alumni preferences today, particularly in its account of legal challenges to the practice. There’s only been one court case to directly consider the practice, and that, made by a federal judge in 1976 in Durham, found the practice rationally supported, as it generated universities money, and no legal offense, as (in the words of the Times)”neither race nor fundamental rights were directly implicated.” This adjudication seems to have been very reasonable. The article admirably points out another legal avenue that may prove helpful at battering down the walls of privilege – the ending of racial preferences, as Clarence Thomas suggested in 2003:
“Were this court to have the courage to forbid the use of racial discrimination in admissions,” Justice Thomas wrote, “legacy preferences (and similar practices) might quickly become less popular – a possibility not lost, I am certain, on the elites (both individual and institutional) supporting the law school in this case.”
The twin reign of affirmative action and legacy preferences perfectly define the woozy balancing act of the modern university. Michael Olivas, a law professor at the University of Houston, points out in the article that “being eligible for legacy preferences is a near-perfect proxy for being white.” Absolutely – rather like being eligible for affirmative action is a near-perfect proxy for being a non-Asian minority. Universities line their pocketbooks with sweetheart deals for alumni children while assuaging their guilt with racial preferences. They can maximize both profit and moral righteousness at the same time. Great for them. What suffers? Well, blowsy rhetoric about admitting the best and the brightest. They’re let in after more deserving applicants.