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A Legacy of Contradiction

Ken Nesmith

Dr. Richard Atkinson, president of the University of California system, recently kicked up a storm of debate by recommending that the SAT not be a factor in admissions. Whines and screams arose from every predictable corner perfectly on cue, an angry harmony decrying the loss of objective standards in society and the consequent social chaos that will surely follow. Through his recommendation, Atkinson seeks not to destroy all social order, but rather hopes to encourage a more accurate evaluation of students’ abilities and to decrease reliance on a test whose credibility as a measure of a student’s intelligence continues to crumble.

The vocal objectors to Atkinson’s recommendation fail to notice that he both recommended the development of another, more relevant standardized test than the SAT, as well as increased reliance on the SAT II subject tests, which most selective universities use to make admissions decisions. Quite simply, the loss of objective standards that seemed such a crime to so many is nonexistent.

Other factors in admission, such as race, face a periodic media firestorm similar to the current rage over the SAT. Conservative think tanks periodically release studies demonstrating how much easier a time minority applicants have gaining entrance to schools than do non-minorities, and columnists attack affirmative action as racism with a caustic intensity that can’t easily be found elsewhere in the mainstream media.

It’s fairly absurd to connect the college admissions process to truly dreadful racisms in history, but that connection is commonly employed by affirmative action opponents to incite more fervent popular opposition to the policies. The UC decision, meanwhile, has been interpreted as a means of increasing racial diversity by setting aside standards that might otherwise limit that diversity.

These impassioned diatribes rail against the evils of this modern-day racism while completely ignoring analogous admissions standards that are logically worthy of equal rebuke, such as legacy admissions. You will not find conservative commentators attacking the disparity between admission rates for legacy students and nonlegacy students at the nation’s top schools. Even at MIT, where we pat ourselves on the back for our meritocratic ways until our skin is raw, admissions staffers report that legacies are granted an additional review before their rejection is finalized. At several schools, such students receive much more than an extra review.

The legacy practice, however, is precisely equivalent to racial preferencing: nothing you have done or accomplished, but rather whose child you happen to be, is a primary factor in your ability to gain entrance to many universities, whether you be the child of an alumnus, a politician, a wealthy CEO, or a minority. The melodramatic stories about the hard-working white kids who didn’t make it in because of their skin compare well to stories of all sorts of hard-working kids who didn’t make it in because their father wasn’t the right person.

The value of cultural diversity can also be well defended. When exposed to others from different backgrounds, students face challenges to their own reasonings and assumptions, and become well-versed, stronger scholars and more open-minded people because of the opportunity. Within the admissions debate, however, there seems to be some fundamental confusion about the task college admissions officers perform each year. No college seeks purely the smartest students, and no college pretends to, although attacks on admissions statistics seem to build primarily upon that errant assumption. Each admissions board, in the process of reviewing the thousands of applications received in the great perennial ritual, works to assemble a class that will best thrive at the college or university. Students may be chosen for any number of apparently random reasons, as the committee selects those with personalities and traits that best meet previously set objectives. A school may seek a class with strong athletic talent, or specialization in math and science, or cultural diversity, or even a class that will preserve what might optimistically be regarded as a sacred social tradition that is passed down from parent to child.

In the more narrow controversy over lineage as an admissions standard, it is not clear why there is so much opposition to employing cultural and racial heritage as a criterion, while no similar objections can be found to legacy admissions. I might speculate, though, that the cause lies close to the core of modern conservative political commentary, where arguments work less as promotions of certain ideas than they do as secondary, defensive reactions to the promotions of undesirable ideas. You will find, in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal or other bearers of right-leaning philosophizing, short-fused attacks on the media’s investigation of the roots of school shooting sprees, yet you will not find any investigation of what led to the shootings. You will find attacks on the tactics of protesters of globalization, sweatshop labor, environmental destruction, or racism, but you will not find consideration of or reaction to the sometimes genuine wrongs that precipitate these protests. You will find invectives against those who practice “class warfare,” but you will not find discussion of the growing gap between rich and poor. During the Clinton years, sure as the sun would rise, you would find consistent attacks on the man and, in considerably lesser quantities and slightly less dubious qualities, his policies. Even now, though, at the beginning of W.’s four or eight years, a majority of such political print space is devoted to sharply attacking those who criticize or disagree with the president and his administration.

In the case of college admissions, it would follow that ideologues would react to educational affirmative action, which is intended to restore equal societal footing to all participants by ensuring that colleges educate members of all races, by resisting the allegation that minorities are being denied anything at all, and then aggressively denouncing the institution. Perhaps it is because much of the conservative demographic is criticized in affirmative action, but not in legacy admissions, that there is this vicious secondary reaction. I can’t help but think, as I glance down the river, that these efforts are misguided.