Thursday, September 30, 2010
Every now and then I run in to an opinion with which I agree notwithstanding the best interests of me and my family. This op-ed in the New York Times against preferences in college admissions for the children of alumni is such an instance. Although I have a quibble or two, the author persuades me that colleges and universities should do away with the preference.
That said, there are a couple of additional points worth making which, for some people, might tip the argument the other way.
First, the idea that one can measure the value of alumni legacy preferences in their contributions is cramped and utilitarian. These preferences also reinforce the continuity of tradition between generations, a consideration that is extremely important to Princeton, for example. Putatively timeless institutions need mechanisms to sustain their cultures over long periods of time, and universities are especially in need of this because their charges pass through in four years (unlike, say, churches, which people can attend for their entire lives). Big universities mostly accomplish this through sports, which have their own problems. Ivy League schools do it through alumni legacy preferences, which keep many alumni engaged in the hope that their children will attend. Pick your poison.
Second, if legacies go away African-Americans will, with some justification, feel that they are getting screwed again. When I was at Princeton the proportion of black students had finally risen to something close to their representation in the wider population -- the president's brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, was a classmate, and Michelle Robinson (now Obama) overlapped me by a couple of years. That cohort is finally old enough to send their own children to college and enjoy the an advantage in admission to Princeton not as blacks but as the children of alumni, and now we are going to declare that illegitimate out of the blue? If I were a successful black alumnus of an Ivy League college I would be pretty unhappy about that.
Release the hounds.
...one can measure the value of alumni legacy preferences in their contributions is cramped and utilitarian. Cramped, perhaps, but utilitarian--so what? How is this way of measuring "value" less appropriate than others?
More seriously, though, That [black student] cohort is finally old enough to send their own children to college...now we are going to declare that illegitimate out of the blue? If I were a successful black alumnus of an Ivy League college I would be pretty unhappy about that. This seems to me to be quota-ism. If alumni preference is a bad idea, it should be done away with promptly. Preserving a bad idea, or even delaying its removal, because this or that group might be offended seems a wasted endeavor, as all it does is perpetuate that bad idea. Regardless of the idea, doing away with it--or starting it up--will surely offend some group. That offense is irrelevant to the merit of the idea.
Finally, on the larger idea of whether legacy preference should be dropped, this strikes me as a decision to be made by the institution in question. The suggestion that the government should interfere and mandate another one-size-fits-all solution, because BigGov Knows Better, strikes me as a fine reason to preserve the practice. Government already is too big and too intrusive.
The answer for the Kenyan's administration seems easy, abolish alumni preferences, except for blacks, at least at the outset. Then the exceptions can be expanded to include homosexuals, union officials, members of Congress and Hollywood folks.
I have been involved with several schools that have a legacy preference and I find the policies tend to make the schools stronger in a number of ways. An added consideration not mentioned by the op-ed author is that in many schools, particularly the "most elite", the number of applicants receiving financial aid has now surpassed the 50% mark - so legacy now and moving forward does not necessarily imply a lack of socio-economic diversity. This can vary by school, of course, and it should, unless we are trying to nationalize education as well. Egads.
Let Princeton be Princeton. Legacy preferences build tradition. I see nothing wrong with Chris Chambers kids being favored over mine in Princeton admissions – I mean that. But not because they’re black necessarily.
Racial preferences are so 1960s – we’re past a generation of use. I submit that they now have unintended consequences because elite colleges actually chase too small a pool. My HS senior niece would be a lock to get into any Ivy were she black – she gets their mail because she has a Bronx address and has a high math SAT. Is she less “worthy”? Blow me.
This will get even more problematical with ongoing inter-marriage. Derek Jeter is half black and so can be categorized as African-American. If he finally does marry Minka Kelly his kids will be 3/4s Irish. Go figure.
"The suggestion that the government should interfere and mandate another one-size-fits-all solution, because BigGov Knows Better, strikes me as a fine reason to preserve the practice. Government already is too big and too intrusive."
Agreed, unless the institution accepts federal funds. Most do. Once you start leaning on federal money, you have to accept the whole kit. Don't want any strings attached? Then don't take federal money.
I'm an up-by-the-bootstraps guy. I received an excellent education by public schools through high school, and a modest education from a public university. It would have made a big difference to me to have been admitted to a top-tier university, on my merits. I resent the idea that some other kid, with an inferior academic record and ambition, would have displaced me because his dad was an alumnus. I did perfectly well on my own path, but my point is that top-tier colleges should be doing everything they can to recruit high-achieving students -- period. Using race or alumnus status of parents works against that.
My kids chose not to attend the same school I attended. My gifts to the school over the years therefore did nothing but improve the school. Oh well.
On another point, I object to the permenant endowments that have removed Princeton and other similarly situated schools from the influence of all market forces. It isn't healthy, for the schools or society, and it's far more pernicious than legacy admissions.
We should require that all non-profits spend all gifts within a stipulated period of time, say ten years. If the organization isn't capable of re-raising that same amount over the decade, and must shrink in size or influence, then I'm fine with that. Heck, I celebrate that.
Anon 2:55 - you seem to be arguing that endowed schools should be made more subject to "market forces" by imposing a solution that is is completely regulatory/non-market in nature.
Donors can make their own stipulations, by the way.
Donors can indeed make their own stipulations, and universities can and do ignore those stipulations. Ask Princeton (and the Wilson School).
As far as your first point, all I'm saying is that the existing set of regulations, allowing forever endowments and requiring only 5% spending per year, has created the problem. The regulation being the problem, I'm advocating a change in it. If the regulation changes to equire all such non-profits (and my point includes organizations like the Ford Foundation and others similarly situated), then my hope is that the permenant endowment will be rapidly expended and these organizations will either raise new money or die. To raise new money, they will have to find a mission in tune with the current "market" if your will.
I don't really care what a school chooses to do about legacies.
But about minorities getting screwed? Put in a grandfather clause. Those already in keep the legacy. New hires and students don't get it.
Then legacies will begin to go away.
And don't expect to please everyone. Miracles are rare.
I'm not so sure. Princeton and most of the Ivies aim at creating and sustaining a particular type of elite.
Elite castes in societies have strong components of culture, internal loyalties, and tradition; such traits do not necessarily align with GPAs and SAT scores.
Would Princeton be better served to become a faceless, traditionless academic institution, soullessly seeking students with the best possible GPAs? Would Princeton be better off as a community whose members feel comparatively intense bonds of community and mutual obligation? Would Princeton better serve the nation as solely a repository of academic merit, or as a place where particular people of diverse talent can meet and share ideas on an unusually friendly and comparatively honest level in an atmosphere created by shared affection for a grand old institution?
Good elites always look for the best from society to join them. That does not mean they jettison their own, necessarily.
If Princeton were a state institution, there would be no question: state institutions must serve the state's interests, which in a democratic society means admission by merit, with qualifiers needed to buy off underperforming minorities and other special interests. But Princeton is not a state institution, and is free to choose its own path.