At Harvard’s annual activities fair two years ago, there was an odd club among the jam-packed crowd of sweaty, earnest freshmen: the Fifth-Generation Students’ Union. Clad in boat shoes and sunglasses, sweaters easily tossed over their shoulders à la JFK, the members of the Fifth-Generation Students’ Union entreated passing students to join their organization in order to give legacy students a much-needed voice on campus.
Of course, this wasn’t a real club — it was a joke staged by Satire V, a campus humor publication. But the premise of this gag lies in a seeming contradiction in Harvard’s admissions process. The admissions process looks to promote equity by taking into account race, socioeconomic status, and geographic location of applicants, while also giving preference to applicants whose parents attended the College — often a sign of a relatively privileged upbringing.
The history of this tension is decades long. But whether or not legacy preference contradicts the larger goals of Harvard’s admissions process has often spurred scrutiny and debate.
In 1990, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights investigated allegations that Harvard used illegal quotas to deny Asian-Americans admission. Its conclusion? That no such discrimination existed — the Asian-American admissions rate was lower because of preferences given to legacy students and recruited athletes. The investigation also revealed written evidence of the strength of legacy status in the admissions process. Still, Harvard had “legitimate institutional goals” for maintaining legacy preference, according to the OCR report.
Despite the 1990 investigation — and the unprecedented scrutiny of the admissions process that it brought about — Harvard’s admissions process remained largely unchanged.
Students from the time remember no real campus action against legacy admissions developing during the investigation. Today, things are slightly different. In February of last year, the EdMobilizer Coalition — an advocacy group for first-generation students — published an open letter calling for more transparency in the legacy admissions process. It was signed by 13 different student and alumni groups from elite universities across the country including the Harvard Legacy Project, a group of University affiliates who hope to end the use of legacy preference in college admissions. A month after the open letter was published, students at Brown voted overwhelmingly to reconsider the use of legacy preference in admissions.
Still, legacy status remains a consideration in every admissions process of the Ivy League.
Today, Harvard faces a lawsuit by the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions alleging that the College discriminates against Asian-Americans in its admissions process. This lawsuit and the 1990 OCR investigation afford a host clear parallels.
Both generated moments of serious reckoning over the fairness of Harvard’s admissions process — and such conversations naturally include questions about the legitimacy of legacy preference. Still, during both of these moments, coordinated efforts to dismantle legacy admissions remained nebulous at best.
The Department of Education investigation began in 1988 in response to allegations that Harvard was discriminating against Asian-Americans in its admissions process. Specifically, the Education Department wanted to know whether Harvard had violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin in institutions that receive federal funds.
In 1990, the OCR released its final report concluding there was no discrimination. With this report came glimpses into Harvard’s highly secretive admissions process. Much of this information showed the power of legacy preference.
The report contained, for example, comments that admissions officers wrote on application files. One such comment read: “Not a great profile but just strong enough #s and grades to get the tip from lineage.” Another: “Without lineage, there would be little case. With it, we will keep looking.”
The Crimson also reported that the OCR report revealed that children of alumni and recruited athletes “scored significantly lower on average in every category used by the College to judge applicants, with the sole exception of the athletic rating.” This seemed to directly contradict the University’s claim that the legacy tip functioned only as a tiebreaker between equally qualified candidates.
John L. Larew ’91, former co-chair of the Crimson editorial board, recalls that a majority of the board regularly voted to opine against legacy preference.
“With respect to legacy admissions, we argued on the editorial page that they were a vestige of a more aristocratic era, that they were inconsistent with Harvard’s educational mission,” he says.
Even though the investigation revealed that legacy preference was stronger than Harvard had claimed, there are few documents of anti-legacy admissions activism from the time besides opinions printed in the pages of The Crimson.
Larew points to the possibility that legacy admissions were not contested simply because of self-interest.
“The most cynical interpretation is that current undergraduates are already over the hurdle of admissions, and from here on out the legacy advantage will only benefit them,” he says.
After he graduated, Larew moved his criticism of legacy preference from the pages of The Crimson to the pages of mainstream media outlets. In 1991, he wrote a cover story for the Washington Monthly titled, “Why Are Droves of Unqualified, Unprepared Kids Getting Into Our Top Colleges? Because their dads are alumni.” It went on to become one of the first criticisms of legacy preference to garner national attention.
“For every legacy that wins, someone — usually someone less privileged — loses,” Larew wrote in the article. “And higher education is a high-stakes game.”
Multiple alumni who reported on the investigation for The Crimson say they believed that the unprecedented transparency surrounding the admissions process would lead to change. But, when asked if this transparency ever actually translated to changes in the admissions process, all of them say no.
“The Crimson worked hard to put more information out about what that investigation found, and I think it did bring sunlight,” Julian E. Barnes ’93 says. “But because the government did not find discrimination — because there was not a big campus outcry — nothing changed.”
Despite all of the information released during the OCR investigation, many then-Harvard undergraduates say the investigation was not especially memorable. For this story, I emailed 150 random alumni from the classes of 1991 and 1992 and asked if they remember the investigation. Of the 27 who responded, 22 said they have absolutely no memory of it. Five said they remembered it vaguely.
Though the investigation itself does not seem to be widely recalled, more students do remember the intense emotions that admissions controversies brought up — and still brings up today.
“It does remind me how fraught these issues are,” Cori Flam Meltzer ’92 says. “It just shows how little has changed in a fairly long period of time.”
Benjamin Dattner ’92 says something similar, though he doesn’t remember the investigation. “It’s a very fraught and emotional issue,” he says.
A theme that came up repeatedly as I spoke to alumni was the personal implication of legacy admissions. It is such a charged issue because — then and now — the personal and the political are inextricable. The admissions process is what got us into Harvard. It is what will impact our children one day.
“As an alumnus myself, I want my daughter to get into Harvard. Personally speaking, that would be great,” Dattner says. “On the other hand, you also want Harvard to continue to track the best and the brightest, not those who happen to be born on third base and think they hit a triple.”
I wrote to the class secretaries of every class that was on campus at the time of the investigation to ask if they could pass on a message asking if anyone remembers the investigation and would be willing to speak to me. All either declined or didn’t respond.
“Our Class of 1993 FB page has recently been toxic about this affirmative action case, and as Class Secretary, I have been part of the leadership team trying to keep the space a positive one,” Timothy P. McCarthy ’93 wrote in an email. “This would just re-ignite things.”
Outside Harvard’s campus, advocacy against legacy preference in college admissions has fluctuated: it has flared (sometimes) and been quiet (most of the time).
Shortly after the OCR investigation concluded that Harvard’s admissions practices were not discriminatory, then-Senate Minority Leader Bob J. Dole asked the U.S. Department of Education to review the propriety of legacy admissions.
“Now is the time to take the next logical step on the fairness front. The last thing we need in American education is a caste system,” Dole said at the time. “These alumni perks have absolutely nothing to do with an individual’s qualifications or merit.”
The Department never followed up on the request. Dole’s office declined to comment for this story.
Another congressional voice that arose against legacy admissions bore the name of one of Harvard’s most storied families. During his years in the Senate, Senator Ted M. Kennedy ’54 criticized legacy preference and worked on legislation to end its use in college admissions processes.
In a November 2002 speech, Kennedy declared “The legacy preference rewards students who had the most advantages to begin with. It is a birthright out of 18th-century British aristocracy, not 21st-century American democracy.”
Kennedy proposed a bill in 2003 that would make it mandatory for universities that receive federal funds to report the race and economic status of all legacy admits. It ultimately did not pass.
At first glance, Dole and Kennedy couldn’t be more different. Bob Dole was the leader of the Senate Republicans, a first-generation college student from a small town in Kansas, and received his undergraduate and law degrees from public schools. Ted Kennedy was a Democrat from Massachusetts and had a last name nearly synonymous with Harvard. Why did they emerge as the voices against legacy admissions in an otherwise quiet Congress?
“Legacy preference has always been unpopular with the American public, because they see it as an undeserved leg up for people who are already in the social elite,” says Daniel L. Golden ’78, who in 2004 won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of legacy preference in the Wall Street Journal. “It’s long been criticized by people whom you might describe as populist, people who come from less privileged backgrounds.”
Michael Dannenberg, who served as Kennedy’s senior education counsel during his time in Congress, says he and Kennedy believed legacy preference actively works against the goals of affirmative action — namely, racial and economic justice.
Both Dole and Kennedy, then, saw what they believed was injustice in the admissions process, albeit from different perspectives.
Dannenberg also cites Larew’s Washington Monthly article as one of the reasons he took up the issue of legacy admissions.
“I originally became aware of the legacy preference debate, and the issue in general, from a cover story that appeared in the Washington Monthly, in 1991,” he says. “I remembered that Washington Monthly cover story 10 years later when the race-based affirmative action issue came up, while I was working for Senator Kennedy. It is what led me to raise the issue with Senator Kennedy.”
Today, the landscape of advocacy against legacy preference remains diffuse.
The last surge of interest in the issue seems to have been in 2014, when Evan J. Mandery ’89 published an op-ed in the New York Times calling for the end of legacy preference in admissions.
“[Legacy admissions] is disastrous public policy,” he wrote in the op-ed. “Because of legacy admissions, elite colleges look almost nothing like America.”
Soon after this op-ed attracted the attention of other Harvard affiliates, a group of students, faculty, and alumni formed the Harvard Legacy Project. Mandery, who is a member, described the project as a group that allows people who dislike legacy admissions to make their position known publicly — as opposed to a group that meets regularly.
“There was a spike of interest in the issue following my op-ed in the Times. And I ended up speaking with a number of Harvard students, and that’s when the website and project was created,” he says. “It’s a way to take a public stand against legacy admissions in the Harvard context.”
In 2014 — as in the days of the 1990 investigation — the editorial section of The Crimson served as the hub of much of the criticism of legacy preference that took place on campus. Reina A. Gattuso ’15, also a member of the Harvard Legacy Project, wrote a column at the time in which she criticized legacy admissions. But, since graduating, she has not continued to actively advocate against it.
“I’m not super active in this anymore,” Gattuso says. “I was a columnist at The Crimson for a year and a half, ending in 2015, and after that, I have occasionally spoke out on issues, but I’ve not done concrete activism or advocacy since then.”
As of the publication of this article, the most recent item from the “Updates” section of the Harvard Legacy Project website dated to 2014.
More recently, in February of this year, the EdMobilizer Coalition published a letter in which it argued that legacy admissions are discriminatory and perpetuate economic inequality.
“We are specifically asking our universities to make all internally written admissions policies and data about legacy treatment public and to charge a joint committee of students, alumni, and administrators to re-evaluate its use,” the letter reads.
But Viet A. Nguyen, the founder and executive director of EdMobilizer, says it has been hard to garner support for the movement.
“We had to convince people within these universities, who eventually will benefit from legacy admissions, to say, ‘We don’t want that,’” he says. “Who is willing to invest the energy in dismantling a system that so many people in power benefit from?”
Since the publication of the letter, Nguyen has begun working with student leaders from different elite universities. The plan now, he says, involves gathering information at a local level about perceptions of legacy admissions among students and alumni.
“A lot of the work we’re doing right now is focusing on specific universities, especially ones where student and alumni populations may be more inclined to think critically about legacy admissions,” he says. “If one school [does away with legacy preference], there may be a domino effect. So that’s what we’ve been focusing our efforts on — seeing which one is the first domino.”
But the knowledge of EdMobilizer’s efforts doesn’t seem to have spread to the members of the Harvard Legacy Project. “I don’t know any effort organized specifically around legacy. I’ve never attended any rallies or anything like that,” Mandery, one of the Project’s founders, says.
When I bring up the EdMobilizer letter, he says, “Oh, I don’t know if I saw that.” In a later email, he clarified he had indeed heard about the missive — but did not recognize it at first from the way I described it.
Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 and Director of Admissions Marlyn E. McGrath ’70 declined to comment for this story because of the ongoing lawsuit. But University spokesperson Rachael Dane defended Harvard’s admissions process as a whole in a written statement. “Harvard College is committed to admitting a freshman class that is diverse on multiple dimensions, from its capacity for academic excellence to its ability to help create a campus community that gives each student the opportunity to learn from peers with a wide variety of academic interests, perspectives, and talents,” she wrote.
Since 1990, the argument that legacy preference favors wealthy white applicants has become complicated. As Harvard’s student body grows more diverse, so does the pool of applicants with legacy status. Recent analysis by Dr. David Card found that Asian-American legacy applicants are several percentage points more likely to be admitted than are their white counterparts.
But according to analysis done by Students for Fair Admissions’s expert witness Peter S. Arcidiacono, legacy preference to this day disproportionately benefits white students. Based on his analysis, Arcidiacono claimed more than 21.5 percent of white admits were students with legacy status, while only 6.96 percent of Hispanic admits, 6.63 percent of Asian-American admits, and 4.79 percent of African-American admits were students with legacy status.
Golden points to the possibility that not all legacies are created equal,and that legacies with bigger hooks still tend to be white.
“Somebody who applies who has 15 relatives who went to Harvard may get more of a legacy boost than somebody applies who had one parent who went to Harvard,” he says. “And somebody who applies whose family, over the years, has given a million dollars, may have more of a boost than somebody whose family just started giving and has given $500.”
In any case, Nguyen says he believes legacy preference — regardless of race — perpetuates cycles of economic inequality and should be eliminated from the admissions process.
“The goal isn’t just to get more rich people of color into these universities. The question is how do we get low-income people of color into these universities as well, and those aren’t legacies, typically,” he says. “I do think representation among race is very important, and we are strong advocates of that, but there also needs to be the intersection of class.”
Correction: Oct. 22, 2018
A previous version of this article incorrectly indicated that Evan J. Mandery '89 founded the Harvard Legacy Project. In fact, though he is a member of the project, he did not found it.