Three Boston-area civil rights groups on Monday filed a complaint with the Education Department, asking it to end Harvard University's "legacy" admissions practices, in which applicants get special treatment if they are relatives of alumni or donors.
The groups say legacy policies favor white applicants at the expense of blacks, Hispanics and Asians. Citing a Duke University research paper, the 31-page complaint says that "nearly 70% of donor-related applicants are white, and nearly 70% of legacy applicants are also white." Those applicants are, respectively, nearly 7 and nearly 6 times more likely to be admitted than non-legacy applicants.
“Harvard’s practice of giving a leg-up to the children of wealthy donors and alumni – who have done nothing to deserve it – must end," said Michael Kippins, an attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR). The public agrees: a 2022 Pew Research poll found 75% oppose legacy admissions.
As someone who thinks legacy admissions is bad and who has a kid who'll be applying to colleges in nine years, I endorse the "end it in 10 years" plan. https://t.co/j2AUjwImTT— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) July 3, 2023
The complaint, asserting that legacy programs violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964, comes just a few days after the Supreme Court ruled that "race-conscious" affirmative action admissions practices at Harvard and the University of North Carolina violate the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.
Making the case, the complaint quotes from last week's Supreme Court's decision, which said "a benefit provided to some applicants but not to others necessarily advantages the former group at the expense of the latter.”
Colleges have said legacy programs foster a sense of community -- but that's not the kind of community that's eligible for promotion these days. Of course, legacy practices are also a way to extract more donations from alumni.
While Harvard makes for a high-profile target, legacy programs are common. They also became a major lightning rod in the immediate aftermath of last week's affirmative action decision, particularly among leftist who were outraged over that ruling. Here's Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez playing to her crowd while demonstrating her ignorance of last week's case -- which did not challenge legacy admissions -- and the judicial system in general:
If SCOTUS was serious about their ludicrous “colorblindness” claims, they would have abolished legacy admissions, aka affirmative action for the privileged.— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) June 29, 2023
70% of Harvard’s legacy applicants are white. SCOTUS didn’t touch that - which would have impacted them and their patrons.
In his remarks after the ruling, President Biden said he would ask the Education Department to scrutinize "practices like legacy admissions and other systems that expand privilege instead of opportunity.”
That said, the attacks on legacy admissions are increasingly bipartisan. South Carolina Senator and presidential candidate Tim Scott told a Fox News host that, “One of the things that Harvard could do to make that even better is to eliminate any legacy programs where they have preferential treatment for legacy kids.”
In 2021, Colorado banned legacy admissions at the state's public institutions, and the Times also notes that Johns Hopkins, MIT and Amherst don't offer legacy favoritism. Otherwise, there's been little momentum against the practice among other states or individual schools -- but look for the fledgling trend to snowball rapidly.
As it does, you can also expect journalists, pundits and politicians to refrain from acknowledging a reality that would make for awkward conversation: Among whites admitted to so-called "elite" institutions, Jews are extraordinarily over-represented when comparisons are made using various groups' share of the country's National Merit Scholarship semifinalists, as was done in a 2012 analysis by Ron Unz, which he re-examined this week in light of the Supreme Court ruling. Unz had found that:
"Asians appear under-represented relative to Jews by a factor of seven, while non-Jewish whites are by far the most under-represented group of all, despite any benefits they might receive from athletic, legacy, or geographical distribution factors...
In the three decades since I graduated Harvard [in 1983], the presence of white Gentiles has dropped by as much as 70 percent, despite no remotely comparable decline in the relative size or academic performance of that population; meanwhile, the percentage of Jewish students has actually increased."
Legacy admissions are commonly traced to the 1920s, and seen as having been created to limit the admission of Jews and Catholics. Last week, Jewish Insider noted that "the Jewish community’s history with affirmative action is complicated, with some Jewish groups originally outspoken against it now lamenting its end."
The Anti-Defamation League, for example, filed an amicus brief supporting an affirmative action challenge about 20 years ago, but this time took the opposite side, filing a brief on Harvard's behalf, writing:
“The lack of racial animus, intent to discriminate, or imposition of quotas, as well as the fact that Harvard’s admissions practices today promote (rather than inhibit) diversity, all distinguish those practices from Harvard’s admissions practices in the 1920s and 1930s, which were motivated by antisemitism, imposed a quota on Jews, and were explicitly designed to decrease Jewish enrollment...
In light of those key distinctions, petitioner’s attempt to draw a comparison between Harvard’s discriminatory practices against Jews in the 1920s and 1930s and its current admissions practices is fundamentally flawed.”
Of course, many Asians and whites would challenge the ADL's assertion that Harvard and other colleges are free of racial animus.
In any event, Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, LCR executive director on Monday put forth a principle that a growing number of Americans are amenable to: “Your family’s last name and the size of your bank account are not a measure of merit, and should have no bearing on the college admissions process."