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No More Aristocracy



WHAT would you call an agency that reserved one-fifth of the highest stations in life for people of privileged birth? You might call it archaic and aristocratic. You would probably call it unjust. You would certainly call it "un-American."

We call it the Harvard admissions office.

Every class admitted to Harvard contains approximately 20 percent legacy students--children of Harvard or Radcliffe graduates. This disproportionate figure, which has changed little since 1967, is the result of Harvard's explicit policy of giving preferential consideration to legacy applicants.

As Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons '67 said, "As you are talking in [admissions] committee, you are aware of the policy." In fact, Fitzsimmons said that the dean of admissions traditionally personally reads the folders of all legacy applicants.

As in many other private universities, the preference for legacies is significant. In the class of '93, 43 percent of legacy applicants gained admittance, compared to 16 percent of non-legacy applicants. This means that being the child of a graduate--a biological accident--improves one's chances of getting into Harvard by almost three times. Since legacy applicants are almost certainly not three times more likely to be qualified than other applicants, the numbers reflect a clear boost for legacies.

Harvard insists that all of the legacies it admits are exceptionally well-qualified, and that legacy status only comes into play to break a tie between otherwise equally qualified applicants. Although most of us can name one or two examples that call that claim into question, let's take Harvard at its word and imagine the best possible scenario, in which legacy status breaks a tie between two applicants whose qualifications are otherwise absolutely identical.

In this scenario, the child of an upper middle-class Harvard graduate, born near the top of the social heap, gets preference over someone who struggled up from the bottom.

What injustice! Favoring the fortuitously-born for admission into a prestigious university--one of the most significant advantages one can get in this country--is the absolute antithesis of the American ideal of a "level playing field."

HARVARD officials usually offer two justifications for the policy of favoring legacies. Their primary reason is that legacy preference helps encourage contributions from alumni. The second is that it supposedly fosters a sense of loyalty and community with Harvard. We find both reasons morally indefensible.

Fitzsimmons argues that giving preference to legacies is essential to "maintain our position as one of the few universities in the country to have totally need-blind admissions."

In other words, Harvard offers a juicy plum to alumni who might be willing to throw out a few scraps to the less fortunate. It's the trickle-down theory at its most ugly. Harvard's position is exactly analogous to arguing that it was all right for French monarchs to sell hereditary sinecures, because the revenues improved the crown's capacity to provide assistance to the peasants.

Besides, Harvard's claim is suspect on factual grounds. Harvard only channels alumni contributions into financial aid funds to make it appear that such contributions are needed to support students. This fundraising trick may make the sales pitch more effective, but shouldn't convince anyone that need-blind admissions depends upon every last alumni dollar.

Even if legacy-dependent alumni contributions did significantly affect Harvard fundraising--and we question that assertion--we would still oppose the legacy policy on moral grounds alone.

The second justification is even more flimsy. President Derek C. Bok says that legacy admissions foster a sense of "continuity" among alumni. That goal might be appropriate if Harvard were a WASP country club. But Harvard is a liberal university, whose admissions office ought to concern itself with recognizing merit and tapping potential, not doling out hereditary privileges.

HARVARD'S legacy policy might be a little more defensible if legacies represented a broad cross-section of American society, such that the advantage was spread around a little more equally.

But they do not. Fitzsimmons acknowledges that the legacies Harvard admits are predominantly white, affluent Northeasterners, many of whom come from elite prep schools. After all, the parents of most legacies went to Harvard sometime between 1945 and 1969, when Harvard was largely a white Protestant upper-class bastion.

The Harvard policy of favoring legacies thus amounts to de facto discrimination against minorities. When white legacies occupy a disproportionate share of spaces in the first-year class, fewer spaces can be allotted to Blacks, Asian-Americans and Hispanics.

This impact of the legacy policy on minority admissions is so undeniable that even Harvard admits it. In response to a complaint by Arthur T. Hu, who accused the admissions office of discrimination against Asian-Americans, Harvard attempted to justify its abnormally low acceptance rates for Asian-American applicants by arguing that few of them fall into its "preferred categories.' One of these "preferred categories" is the children of graduates. In other words, Harvard University openly acknowledges that its legacy policy is effectively an instrument of racial discrimination.

Minority groups, with few exceptions, have not made the legacy policy a leading item on their agendas. Perhaps some minority activists fear that questioning preferential treatment for legacies would cast doubt upon affirmative action admissions. But the issues are conceptually distinct. Preference to minority groups counterbalances years of discrimination and prejudice, while preference to legacies reinforces the all-white boys' club tradition.

The silence of other Harvard students, especially the campus Left, is equally surprising. Perhaps Harvard students are content to let their own children benefit from an unjust policy to the detriment of others. More likely, students, faculty and administrators take legacy policy as a given, a part of Harvard tradition as unshakeable as the statue in front of University Hall.

Now it's time to question that tradition. As Harvard enters its multi-billion dollar fundraising drive, will it continue to offer spaces in the first-year class to the children of high bidders? Or will it remove a lingering vestige of its discriminatory past by renouncing an undeniably unjust policy?

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