Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Legacy & Donations: The Real Affirmative Action in College Admissions

The New York Times reports that the civil rights division of the Trump Justice Department has a quiet plan to redirect its resources "toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants."  The idea that universities and colleges are discriminating unfairly against white students by actively trying to recruit students of color, makes a mockery of the very purpose of the civil rights division.  

The discovery of this plot prompted The Daily 202 (a wonderful email service of The Washington Post) to resurrect a recent example of the kind of affirmative action that has taken place throughout history: Jared Kushner's "curious" acceptance into Harvard--detailed in Daniel Gordon's book The Price of Admission--apparently Kushner's father made a $2.5 million dollar gift to Harvard not long before Jared, a mediocre high school student, was admitted.

This form of college admission played a role in my family history as well.  According to my father, his rigorous application process for an elite private college was as follows:

In the summer of 1949, my grandfather, Culver Nichols, himself a Stanford University graduate, noticed that my father, a middling high school student (although editor of the school paper and captain of the football team it must be said) had no plans for September. So Culver placed a long distance call (kids, that was once a big deal) to Stanford and said, "Hey, my son Nicky will be coming in the fall."  That was it, he was in.  

These were the days when Stanford had a cap of 50 on the admission of women, and they were referred to as "the Stanford pigs."  Men were discouraged from dating these "brainiacs" as they were considered unmarriageable.  My father followed that advice, but did take it in hand to lead the campaign as president of his fraternity to allow Jews and Blacks to join it--this was the beginning of his own decades long journey to even the playing field that had advanced him to the 10 yard line.

I might add that while the unfair advantage of admission influenced by legacy and large donations (unique to this country btw) continues to vault thousands of affluent white students ahead of other equally or more qualified applicants every year, it failed to get me (with much higher scores and grades than my father before me) into Stanford in 1979.  Somehow, though I have muddled through life as a Reed College graduate.

It also appears to me that our daughter (herself perhaps buoyed by legacy status into Brown University, although highly deserving of admission on her own merits) has benefitted highly from the university's successful effort to recruit students of color and from other disadvantaged backgrounds. She is in the first Ivy League freshman class to have enrolled a minority of white students.

In planning to use the resources of the "Justice" Department to sue universities like Brown, the current administration is grotesquely contorting the mission of the department and misusing the power of its office.

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