The Right Coast

January 19, 2004
Legacy of Favoritism
By Gail Heriot

Last week's announcement by President Robert Gates that Texas A&M University would abolish its so-called "legacy policy" was good news--great news in fact--though some haved complained that his timing could have been better. Back in December, Gates earned my respect and admiration by deciding that A&M would continue to shun race-based admissions despite the Supreme Court's recent decision "authorizing" such policies in pursuit of diversity. Not surprisingly, Gates' decision to retain colorblind admissions brought down upon him the wrath of Texas legislators, who attempted to bully him into adopting preferences for Blacks and Hispanics. The arguments they made, insofar as they made any, were mainly the same old stuff--we must destroy equality in order to achieve equality--but on one of the aspects of the issue they had a point. It is also wrong to give preferential treatment of the sons, daughters and grandchildren of A&M alumni. Gates says that his had been planning to abolish the legacy program even before he came under pressure and I believe him. For the life of me, I can't understand how these relics of an earlier (and more corrupt) time have survived at state universities more than six minutes into the modern era. It's not that it's wrong to abolish race preferences until one has also abolished legacy preferences; they are independent wrongs. But it would have been a nice gesture to abolish both back in December--not crucial but nice.

The legacy program has tended to benefit White students disproportionately at A&M, though not as strongly as one might have thought. Blacks and Hispanics have benefited too; their proportions among those admitted under the legacy program have not been wildly different from their proportions among those admitted under the regular program. But racial "disparate impact" is not what makes the policy wrongheaded. It's wrong because it injects irrelevant matters into a decision that ought to be based on the student's academic and personal record, not on his pedigree. And it would be wrong even if it had had no racially disparate impact.

Why do universities do it? It's said that it fosters school spirit among alumni. But my suspicion is that its real function is to insulate administrators from fielding endless phone calls from individual alumni hoping to use whatever clout they have. It routinizes that task.("Yes, Mr. Throckmorton, your son did receive special consideration, but unfortunately even with that special consideration, he didn't quite make it. Our admissions policies are just so competitive these days. It has been wonderful talking to you ...") Such a benefit may loom large in the minds of administrators because it affects them directly--larger than the cost in terms of academic standards, which does not affect them except quite indirectly.

The Wall Street Journal's editorial a few days ago was kinder to legacy programs than I would have been. It stated simply:

"There is a genuine debate to be had about whether legacy admissions, particularly at public universities using tax dollars, are good pulic policy. Should the children of some taxpayers be treated more favorably than the children of others? We tend to let the institutions decide what's in their own best interests."

I'm not so sure how genuine the debate is. Yes, yes, yes, I do believe that discrimination on the basis of race is the more serious wrong, since discrimination on the basis of race and not discrimination on the basis of parents' alumni status has long been the poisonous issue in this country's history. There's even a law against race discrimnation (though the Supreme Court seems to have forgotten this). But both of them stink. And if a state university ought to be able to favor the offspring of its old boys over other applicants in order to foster school spirit, what other forms of pedigree favoritism ought to be permitted? What shouldn't state taxing authorities be permitted to give tax breaks to the children of long-time state residents in order to foster state spirit? It's probably true that people whose families have lived in the state for generations are more apt to remain in the state, feel themselves to be part of the state and its culture, and promote the state than transient residents. Transient residents are ... well ... transient. But who cares? Such a policy would be impossible to justify.

The one redeeming aspect of the issue is that legacy preferences are an extremely minor factor in college admssions today. At the University of Michigan, for example, legacy applicants received one point (as opposed to Black and Hispanic applciants who got 20 points) on a 100 point scale. It functioned literally as a tie-breaker. Racial preferences, on the other hand, leap-frogged less-qualified students over much more-qualified students. Minority students admitted frequently found themselves over their head academically. That is much less likely to be the case with legacy students.