In the 1927 case of Buck v. Bell, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes handed down the infamous ruling summarized in the subheadline above. He was talking about forced sterilization of the “feeble-minded,” but his words also sum up one attitude towards Harvard’s legacy admissions. You can frequently hear muttering about how unfair it is that Harvard is admitting legacies over equally—or even more—qualified candidates. Anti-legacyism is the last acceptable prejudice. These underqualified, overprivileged, moderately pasty folk need to stop slipping over the admissions border and stealing everyone’s slots. Or so the argument goes.
Harvard’s admitted tendency to “take a second look” at legacy applicants continues to rouse periodic furors. After so many rejections—over 20,000 this year alone—Harvard has gotten pretty good at conveying when it’s not interested. But it has traditionally found it hard to say no to legacies, especially if they have cute trust funds. This generates a great deal of indignation. And indeed, on the surface, the statistics are fairly daunting. Harvard’s general acceptance rate hovers around 7 or 8 percent. Yet the admissions rate was between 34 and 35 percent for legacy applicants to the class of 2011. Given the weight its degrees carry, shouldn’t Harvard base its admissions solely on merit? Why should legacy status serve even as a “feather in the scale,” as Dean of Admissions Marlyn McGrath ’70 put it?
Maybe no one has made the right case for legacies. Sure, their SAT scores may be, on average, slightly higher than the rest of the applicant pool. They may come predominantly from white, wealthy, prep-school backgrounds. Admitting them may encourage their parents to donate large sums of money to the college. But these are separate considerations. Maybe legacies deserve a second glance simply because they are legacies.
Speaking as a legacy myself (my grandmother, Radcliffe Class of 1951, has been suggesting that I write this article for a long time) I would argue that Harvard does owe us a little. The least you can give a child who was forced to grow up in a house with Harvard armchairs is a second look at his application. Scratch any legacy student and you will find someone who, as an infant, was forced to wear a bib that said I Will Go To Harvard Someday, or Future Freshman: On My Way to Harvard, or something of that ilk. If you are a young future-legacy, an entire section of the COOP exists specifically to make your life miserable, with crimson baby booties and Harvard bath towels—even Harvard teddy bears. Your family dinners have been interrupted for years by Harvard students calling to ask for donations. When you were in eighth grade, you had to trek up to Cambridge for your mother’s 25th reunion. It rained the whole time, and you had to listen to fifty year-old Pitches trying to recreate jazz standards.
And yet you still applied. After hearing about your uncle’s halcyon days in Eliot or your father’s failed UC campaign, you still concluded that you wanted to come to Harvard. You reconciled yourself to hearing a lecture on the decline of the core and the “college town” atmosphere whenever your parents came to visit. You girded your loins at the prospect of being rejected where your family members had been accepted. And you sent in your application. Maybe Harvard does owe you.
Certainly there are tougher backgrounds. All those Harvard armchairs do not exactly betoken straitened circumstances. At least one of your parents’ roommates has become a high-powered lawyer, and he probably takes you out to lunch from time to time. But being a legacy with thoughts of applying is a very specific kind of adversity. What if you don’t make it? Will this prove that your parents are in fact smarter than you are—a thought mortifying to most adolescents? Besides, after growing up in a household where everyone has fond memories of The Crimson or the Hist and Lit department, you know exactly what you’re getting into. And although you know that, should you be accepted, your college experience will be different from the one your family members had, you also know that it won’t be radically different. It’s not as though you’re applying to Brown.
In fact, many legacies who apply to Harvard apply not because but in spite of the fact that their parents went here. Harvard has so many opportunities that it can encompass students who are very different from their alumni parents. To coin a metaphor, Harvard is like an expensive restaurant. You and your parents may both eat there, but you won’t eat the same thing. Also, the restaurant is very hard to get into, and the food is terrible because of rising costs. And if you are not wearing the shoes of courage and the shirt of academic endeavor—but there the metaphor starts to break down.
So maybe we legacies do deserve our second look. We know what we’re getting into, and we still apply. That takes a certain amount of chutzpah. And speaking as a legacy, I can say one thing for certain: I didn’t apply to Harvard because my parents went here. I applied because Natalie Portman went here. Maybe the Admissions department should take that into account. If I were just following the family, I’d be at Butler now.
Alexandra A. Petri ’10 is an English and classics concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears regularly.For more information on the ins and outs of Harvard life, visit the My First Year homepage.