"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Real Affirmative Action: Getting Rid of Legacy Admissions

The opponents of affirmative action can be regularly spotted astride their high horses pontificating against any manifestation of preferential treatment that may favor anyone, particularly, it seems, anyone who happens to be of a darker hue and of less noble birth. Both horse and rider quickly withdraw, however, when the discomfiting subject of legacy admissions is put forward in a way that could threaten the inheritance of privilege that comes with the familial guarantee of an Ivy League education. Ask George Bush.

Now at last, and deliciously I might add, legal scholars are giving this most annoying topic (around Harvard Square, at least) the attention it deserves. A clip form Inside Higher Ed:

. . . .Colleges say that legacy preferences help build cross-generational relationships with institutions and cement relationships with alumni donors. But educators tend to be much more comfortable defending other forms of affirmative action than the benefits that go to alumni children. Whether colleges have admissions policies that benefit minority applicants, athletes, tuba players, or residents of Wyoming, the theory is that those receiving the benefit either have valuable perspectives or faced disadvantage — and that they will add something to the campus community. That’s a harder argument to make when what sets apart the applicant is likely a form of advantage and socioeconomic status that matches the historically dominant groups on campus.

The latest article to challenge the legality of legacy admissions focuses on an 1866 civil rights law that was enacted as part of the Reconstruction era attempts by Congress to reform the South. The article notes that the primary point of the statute was that all citizens have the same rights and that heredity does not convey rights in the United States. The law was passed with the goal of preventing Southern aristocrats from exercising their traditional control over their local areas. The article goes on to cite numerous cases in which federal courts — sometimes citing the 1866 law — have rejected any discrimination based on ancestry or parentage.

The article acknowledges that courts permit potentially discriminatory distinctions for compelling reasons. But it goes on to analyze fund raising rates at colleges with and without legacy admissions — and argues that there has been no diminished giving at colleges that dropped legacy admissions. Since that undercuts the idea that legacy preferences are needed for the societal good that theoretically comes with donations, the preferences should be all the more vulnerable legally, the article says. . . .

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