Letter to the Editor: Student’s Editorial Fails
By Khan Shoieb '13
Khan Shoeib ’13, a columnist for the opinion section, writes in response to last issue’s Executive Board’s editorial “Legacy Preference Admission Outdated and Unfair.”

In 2003, when Barbara Grutter sued the University of Michigan Law School, she claimed that she possessed the same qualifications as some accepted minority applicants, but was unjustly denied admission because of her white race — a factor outside of her control.

In 2006, when Jian Li filed a civil rights complaint against Princeton University, he claimed that his graduating from the top one percent of his high school class and perfect SAT score did not grant him admission because he was Asian American — a factor outside of his control.

To Grutter, Li and others, we respond, however, by asserting that they have no right to be judged for admission to an institution of learning by the criteria of their choosing — institutions of higher education hold the prerogative to define their mission and determine which admissions policy best enables them to meet their goals.

And thus today, when any elite university grants admission to North Dakotans, oboists and legacy students, it does so because these students — by virtue of factors outside of their control — help advance particular goals for the institution, much in the same way that giving admissions preferences to racial and ethnic minorities helps advance goals of institutional and societal diversity.

Few elite institutions — especially not the College — claim that they have a singular goal of promoting and cultivating scholarly excellence. Instead, at Amherst we seek to serve a wide variety of societal goals, and admission to the College is contingent upon whether one arbitrarily possesses the quality it is looking for.

Implicit in the Executive Board’s argument last Wednesday is the notion that legacy preferences are somehow less meritocratic than other types, that they are worthy of scorn and eradication. But if it is meritocracy that we are after, it seems that we have a tough sell, both an institution and a society. North Dakotans have done nothing to deserve their geographic advantage over New Yorkers, in the same way that Michael Jordan did nothing to deserve his athletic frame. Even if Grutter and Li did not have any tangible advantages in their lives, it is unclear what they did to merit the family environment, social or cultural opportunities that instilled in them the very work ethic on which they rely.

Perhaps more importantly — what did any of us do to merit a society that, by pure luck, happens to value the specific qualities and skills we possess at the time of our existence? Can anyone deny that natural contingencies play at least some role in the course of our lives? Insofar as merit implies the conferring of moral desert, how can anyone claim that they morally deserve something over someone else?

The question, then, is not whether giving legacy preferences in admission is wrong on its face, for it is no more wrong in that sense than giving preferences to racial and ethnic minorities, but rather whether the goals advanced by doing so are justified.

Let’s start with what we know. We know, for instance, that unlike policies of racial segregation, legacy preferences in admission do not represent a value judgment on the part of an institution that one person or group is intrinsically more or less inferior to another. Legacy students are, correctly or incorrectly, assumed to bring certain benefits to the school.

We know that the institution can only promote scholarly excellence, cultivate leaders and stand for racial and socioeconomic diversity in so far as it has the money to do so — and legacy preferences, by virtue of the impetus to alumni giving, help the institution get money.

We know that some institutions believe that legacy students carry with them a certain sense of community and school spirit that in the short term enhances the experience of the immediate class and in the long term strengthens the alumni network, which itself in turn builds the prestige of the College and allows it to better pursue its original societal goals.

Because it is difficult to objectively evaluate the second claim, the heart of the legacy debate centers on how much, if at all, legacy preferences advance the financial needs of the College. The Executive Board claims that “[s]tudies done on the connection between alumni donation and legacy preference have found no real link between the two.”

The Executive Board is most likely referencing the methodologically flawed Century Foundation study cited in Richard Kahlenberg’s op-ed in the Times, published in September of this year. (Kahlenberg, it should be noted, happens to be a senior fellow at the Century Foundation himself.)

But the Century Foundation study, “An Empirical Analysis of the Impact of Legacy Preferences on Alumni Giving at Top Universities,” also says clearly: “[P]rior to controlling for wealth, however, the results indicate that schools with legacy preference policies indeed have much higher alumni giving.”

By controlling for wealth, the only point the study seems to be proving is the a priori claim that needs no study — families that cannot afford to shower their alma maters with money likely will not be able to regardless of whether the school has a legacy policy. Obviously what institutions are after with legacy preferences is the wealth. It makes little sense, then, to control for it.

Unfortunately, the Executive Board claims that we should look at the California Institute of Technology to assure ourselves that an elite institution can fulfill its goals without legacy preferences. By using Caltech as an example, however, and thus by illuminating the stark differences between it and most other elite institutions in America, the Executive Board severely undermines its argument.

It is worth noting at the outset that Caltech’s President himself has admitted that it is a “much, much harder thing” to fundraise without legacy preferences. More importantly, Caltech is a school with a very narrow and rigid mission, albeit a very honorable one. They seek to train and educate scientists, and to an extent their admissions policy — which is “meritocratic” in the sense that there are no preferences whatsoever — is a coerced one. Few students can withstand the rigor of the curriculum at Caltech, which requires as a prerequisite a broad base of scientific and mathematic knowledge and training.

Additionally, Caltech’s focus on scientific research makes it eligible for a wide variety of federal and private grants that liberal arts colleges, with their focus on the humanities, are unable to access. The limited funding sources make it all the more important to draw on wealthy alumni who have an obvious incentive to give to the College, even in hard times, if their children are potential applicants.

The Executive Board’s bid for meritocracy is a failed one. Indeed, we should be wary of striving for a goal when its inevitable method of implementation is a failed one. Caltech, a school with no admissions preferences, also has an average of 70 percent men in their class, and in 2008 it enrolled only one African-American student. Legacy preferences may be wrong, but not under the framework that the Executive Board has laid out.

Issue 08, Submitted 2010-11-03 02:47:22