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The Valuable Parts of ‘Legacy’

Fitzsimmons Courthouse
Harvard's long-serving Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons '67 (far right) exits the courthouse during the admissions trial.

Among all the justified questioning of college legacy admissions, one question remains for me: Why are legacies called that? “Legacy” is a high-minded word for a concept that can seem to fall short — all it means is that a student’s parent happened to go to the same educational institution that the student ends up at.

Proponents of legacy status, like Harvard, would certainly have us believe that it is a grand, intangible asset. In a filing for the lawsuit against Students for Fair Admissions, University lawyers defended consideration of legacy status because it “cements strong bonds between the College and its alumni and encourages alumni to remain engaged with the University for the rest of their lives.”

I find this reasoning fair enough — in theory. Of course an institution should want its alumni to retain “strong bonds” and stay “engaged,” in order to create a thriving community of graduates with similar experiences and to help the school improve over the years. To that end, I think it’s within Harvard’s bounds to want legacies.

In practice, though, I think legacy admissions fail these goals. This “encourag[ing]” of alumni essentially amounts to the arranging of quid pro quo transactions. The level of “remain[ing] engaged” for alumni is measured in dollar signs. For all the talk about the importance of legacies in grand abstract terms, it all comes down to crass transactions — money for seats.

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I don’t dispute the usefulness of big donations. As The Crimson’s editorial board, of which I am a member, has suggested, perhaps the money from alumni is “designed to help keep Harvard financially afloat.” In particular, donations may provide for a sizeable portion of financial aid, thus ensuring that many students who otherwise could not afford to attend the institution can in fact benefit from the education it provides.

I also don’t dispute the genuine desire to give money to one’s alma mater. I went to the kind of high school that would probably take into account legacy status, and it already targets me in alumni contribution campaigns. They impress upon us the importance of giving anything, even if it’s five dollars, considering our limited financial situations as college students. And I do give, because, however hokey it may sound, I do think of my school as a community that I want to remain engaged with for the rest of my life. More generally, if one has the money, one should do what one wants with it — especially using it for causes dear to one’s heart.

But I do take issue with the apparent quid pro quo nature of legacy admissions. While testifying in the lawsuit in Harvard’s defense, Ruth J. Simmons, the former president of Brown University, admitted her belief that fewer people would donate to Harvard if the school eliminated legacy preferences. Harvard and its alumni alike deserve the blame for leading reasonable people to reach that sad conclusion.

There is a difference between donating to your alma mater and wanting your kid to get in, and donating to help your kid get in — especially if you believe that you yourself got into the school on your own merits. No one else may ever know the real reason why you do what you do in these cases. But the difference exists.

Because legacy status means more if it is earned. Though I’m not a Harvard legacy, I’ll admit that it would mean something if future generations of my family got to go to Harvard. But that legacy would really only mean something to me if my children could get on their own merits — if I as a parent could raise them in the way my parents raised me. Maybe I’m just saying this now, but I hope I’ll still believe it later.

So here’s my two cents: Legacy status is a big deal. Institutions should aim to be so good that alumni want to send their kids to them and remain engaged for their whole lives, helping out in whatever way they can. The creation of legacies, to schools and students alike, will even mean enough to deserve such a grand label. But too often, legacy status is not treated with that reverence. Legacy is worth building, not buying.

Michelle I. Gao ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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