AT GREAT universities like ours, the privileged children of alumni and faculty don’t need to bribe their way in—that’s what legacy admissions are for. Since the bribery scandal broke, plenty of ink has been spilled on the ethical implications of legacy admissions. Seldom, however, are the arguments in favor of legacy taken seriously: let’s break them down.
First, a quick recap. Legacy policies have been formalized since admissions to elite universities became increasingly competitive in the sixties. At Stanford, primary legacies, i.e. the children of former undergrads, have an average admissions rate about forty-five percent higher than that of non-legacies. Even less debated are other Stanford affiliates—the children of faculty, for instance—who also get preferential treatment in admissions.¹ It’s not that legacy candidates are unqualified; they tend to perform above Stanford’s median—in a word, they’re stellar. But because of their privileged position in society, Stanford would normally apply even higher standards. The result: at least forty students a year wouldn’t be admitted without their legacy status.
On the surface, such policies seem blatantly unfair. Giving a leg up to the children of rich parents perpetuates inequality, reduces social mobility, and disproportionately favors white applicants. In general, though, two arguments are put forward to support legacy policies: money and tradition.
The financial argument presumes that parents will donate more to the university if legacy status increases their children’s odds of admission. They may even do so independent of the extent to which their donations affect their children directly. However, the line between “donations” and bribery is a fine one. Policies such as giving every legacy applicant a second read seem less problematic. But the admissions office also gets access to information about each applicant’s parents’ donations, which makes the admissions decision look far more corrupt.
The utilitarian would argue that such policies are justified because Stanford can admit more low-income students if it solicits enough donations from grateful alumni. But the very premise of this argument is questionable: there is substantial evidence that alumni donations do not decrease when schools abandon legacy. Instead, legacy serves as a pseudo-reputable veil for highly selective universities to protect the children of its richest alumni. Even if you buy in to the endowment myth, we should not forget that Stanford has rejected financial growth for ethical reasons in the past. In the 80s, Stanford divested from apartheid-era South Africa, and in 2014, the Board of Trustees took a loss to defund coal.
Clearly, if it doesn’t lead to the promised reward, the money argument is ethically and rationally untenable. But when universities are confronted with this reality, they don’t dismantle their legacy policies; rather, they claim that legacy is needed to protect some obscure and undefined sense of “campus spirit.” The idea is that legacy, as the former President of George Washington University put it, shows “respect for tradition and honors those without whom the contemporary university might not even exist.” Ignoring the fact that vague notions of “campus spirit” and “traditions and honors” mostly protect preppy sailors, let’s take that argument seriously. Who makes Stanford what it is today? And how do we want to pass on this campus spirit to future generations?
Our campus community is supposed to be, as “Our Vision” laid out by Marc Tessier-Lavigne upliftingly put it, an “inspired, inclusive and collaborative community of diverse scholars, students and staff.” But the children of these three constituencies in Stanford’s community get dramatically different treatment in the admissions process. Whereas legacy children get a second read when applying to Stanford, and faculty, especially the famous, can have an intimate chat with the admissions office, clearly no such provisions exist for janitors and dining hall workers.
Admittedly, there are some programs that help staff send their kids to university; a grant program covers some or all of the cost of tuition. But even in this program, the inequality is absurd: when they are employed, faculty become eligible immediately. For the same program, staff have to work at least five years—and this leaves out the thousands of workers subcontracted by Stanford who receive none of these benefits. Restricting preferential admissions to faculty and alumni children obviously perpetuates class inequality; the kids who need it least get the biggest leg up. But there’s another troubling dimension: alumni and faculty are overwhelmingly white while many workers are people of color. Stanford claims to strive for diversity, but tailoring legacy benefits to Stanford’s white affiliates shows the true extent not just of the university’s financial immorality, but also its deep-seated racial hypocrisy.
If we consider university staff part of the Stanford community—as we should—then not extending legacy benefits to staff children forces us to ask ourselves who we are. It may be well worth reserving a few spots for the children of the world’s top professors. But it is also worth supporting the children of the people who keep this university running, who face hour-long commutes because rents rise faster than wages, and whose need for health insurance forces them work well beyond retirement age. Do we want to be a community that does more to support the rich and well-educated than the working-class and least educated? As it stands, that is the community we are.
Ethically and financially, it appears almost impossible to make a case for legacy, but for some inscrutable reason, it probably isn’t going away anytime soon. Could this have anything to do with the Faculty Senate’s influence on admissions or the number of alumni on the Board of Trustees? Surely not. But until Stanford does the sensible thing and scraps legacy altogether, let’s make sure that legacy doesn’t just apply to the rich and white. If legacy admissions are here to stay, they should cover the children of those who sacrifice the most for this school: our great university staff.
¹ To avoid confusion, I refer to all preferential admissions policies for Stanford affiliates as “legacy.”
Image courtesy of SuzyLu on Pixabay.