A House, Not a Hotel: In Defense of Legacy Admissions

My grandfather attended the University of Toronto. My father attended the University of Toronto. I attended the University of Toronto. And now my daughter is attending the University of Toronto.

This is a large public university that is not particularly difficult to get into with decent grades. But the fact of this great chain of Varsity Blues fills me with joy and strengthens my commitment to the institution. It also gives my daughter a firm sense of being when she is there—she can literally find my photos in the yearbook of the college we both attended. Now, I doubt that my daughter was admitted to the exclusive college at Toronto because I went there. Her grades were much better than mine, and I am not a donor to the college. More to the point, the year before she applied, I wrote an essay criticizing the George Floyd Panic at the college and the provost’s woke responses to it, saying that no parents would likely send their children there in future. Perhaps they admitted my daughter after she unexpectedly applied in order to make me eat crow.

It is easy to forget that “legacy” can mean students who apply to colleges and universities that are below their standards but to which they have a strong commitment. These don’t show up in the official figures because we think of legacy students in the opposite way. But it is critical. My daughter would never have applied to Toronto had I not gone there. I think the university is lucky to have her. Legacy, as with all human relationships, is an ongoing two-way street, a love affair, not a one-night stand. She is at the University of Toronto because I went there, and I, in turn, was there because my father and grandfather went there.

Colleges and universities are long-standing institutions, very long in some cases, that are obliged to consider past generations as well as current and future ones. They owe not only homage and respect to their past students, but they also draw upon the students’ wisdom via alumni networks, histories, and traditions. Admitting some students based on the fact that, in addition to being academically qualified and competitive, they are part of this precious institutional legacy is not only defensible. It is imperative.

[More from Bruce Gilley: “There’s Nothing Left to Lose: On the Stop W.O.K.E Act and Academic Freedom”]

Colleges are not supermarkets that sell what an individual needs, so long as he pays on the way out. My sense of the plaintiffs in the SFFA case is that they are merely angling for their Ivy League degrees so that their parents can boast about their brilliant progeny. I never felt in reading their complaint any care for institutional respect or tradition. “Where’s my Harvard sweatshirt?” seemed to be the animating value.

Colleges, not surprisingly, wish to develop long-term relationships with their students, not just for donations and fundraising but also for broader support for the institution. They are not mere doormats through which atomistic careerists who have been coached for their SATs, or have filled their resumes with volunteer activities, or have excelled in classical dance can gain access and use the credential like a Gucci handbag to continue their relentless struggle to pass others on the way to the top. Colleges rightly spurn such naked individualism, and legacy admissions is one of the finest ways they distinguish themselves from supermarkets.

Like all inheritances, legacy admission is an ongoing relationship that we pass on to those close to us, and, if they steward it well, that they will pass onto others. What creates the special duty of care, what creates the irrational commitment to that which is acquired, is precisely that it was acquired in this way. If I gain access to Harvard via competitive struggle, I will think of myself as the person to whom I have the greatest obligation and will, therefore, rationalize everything I do to clamber over my fellow students like so many animals, and to depart the institution with nary a thought of any ongoing relationship, since it did not come into my hands as such. If, on the other hand, I gain access as an equally qualified, tie-breaking legacy admit, my relationship to the institution will be different. It will be “my house,” not just a hotel. I will interact in a different way. I will think of the university as part of my life, past, present, and future.

My grandfather, having graduated from the University of Toronto in 1926, returned there during World War II to serve as acting warden of Hart House, the university’s student center. I never knew him, since he died before I was born. But his portrait still hangs in the committee room on the second floor of the handsome sandstone building. I still “visit” him when I go there. This is a precious legacy.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a National Association of Scholars symposium on legacy admissions. To read more, click here.

Image: Adobe Stock


  • Bruce Gilley

    Bruce Gilley is a professor of political science at Portland State University and a member of the board of the National Association of Scholars. In addition to his work on academic freedom and the revival of intellectual pluralism on campus, Dr. Gilley’s research centers on comparative development and politics as well as contemporary public policy issues.

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6 thoughts on “A House, Not a Hotel: In Defense of Legacy Admissions

  1. Whether or not legacy admissions are important depends upon how much they affect the decision to admit. If they add one point out of 100, why should anyone care? If they add 30 out of 100, the admitting institution is no more than a club recognizing membership in a privileged class. I can see no justification for publicly owned institutions using legacy admissions, but I can see privately funded institutions using legacy admissions as a marketing device. How better to encourage alumni to contribute than to use donations as a form of pre-tuition? Of course, this view is complicated by the fact that so-called private schools like Yale and Harvard are largely funded by the federal government by grants and programs.

  2. Legacy admissions are often conflated, for political reasons, with affirmative action admissions. They are not the same because the former does not consider race whereas the latter does.

  3. The late John Lederlie, President of UMass 1960-1970, told me something very interesting about Harvard — where it and its peers had traditionally been regional universities, in the 1960s they became national ones.

    This was also when these schools became ticket to the bench — they didn’t used to be.

  4. The flip side of this are the alumni who leave with such a bitter taste in their mouths that they would never send a child of theirs to the same institution. UMass Amherst is a good example, they had so few graduates joining the alumni association that all graduate are now automatically made members of the alumni association upon graduation.

    Another interesting statistic is that one year (I forget which) there were 5000 first offense student cases — and 5,500 freshmen. There are two ways to look at this — either a delinquent student body or a fascist administration — or both. But UMass is no longer getting legacies in the numbers they were in the ’80s & ’90s.

  5. I’ll note that I feel confident that the Supreme Court got its recent opinion correct regarding admissions.

    Having said that, while I get the loyalty to the institution argument here, and find it very valid, a real problem in American politics and law is that certain Ivy League schools have become tickets to position or the bench. If graduating, for example, from Harvard Law School was not now practically a nomination requirement for the Supreme Court, or if going to the Ivy League or similar status school didn’t mean that you automatically had backers into elective office no matter what you’ve done in your life otherwise, I’d feel differently about it.

    Legacy admissions, no matter what their merits may be, do create an old boy networks of sorts, and there’s really no avoiding that. That’s problematic in an era in which being a member nearly is an unwritten qualifier for certain positions.

    1. You’re right that legacy admissions maintain networks. But one could take that as an argument in favor of legacies. The argument would run something like this: functioning social institutions rest on network connections among people, including the commitment of those in them to each other and to their formal organizations. Of course, this entails the perpetuation of social inequality. But the purpose of governmental policy in a liberal democracy is to maintain formal rights before the law, not to try to break down interpersonal networks in order to create a utopia of completely equal, isolated, anomic individuals, undermining the foundations of social order.

      The network argument may apply to HBCUS, as well as to the elite ivy leagues.

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