Quote card by Opinion.

This October, the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments against race-based admissions policies that could upend affirmative action. Broadly defined as a set of procedures to remedy discrimination and promote diversity, affirmative action is credited with improving access to education and employment for women and minority groups. The plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case, Students for Fair Admissions, have brought lawsuits against both Harvard University and the University of North Carolina for what they claim are admissions practices that discriminate against Asian American and white applicants. 

Such cases have become commonplace in the American judiciary, appearing before federal courts dozens of times. Cases against affirmative action have also come before the Supreme Court, which has largely upheld the practice. However, there is reason to believe that given the Supreme Court’s conservative makeup, affirmative action will be the latest of progressive policies to be struck down. 

While many universities and employers have been litigated in relation to affirmative action, the University of Michigan has arguably occupied the greatest spotlight. In 2003, U-M was sued for its affirmative action policies resulting in two cases being brought before the Supreme Court. The University won one while losing the other. Soon after in 2006, the State of Michigan voted in a referendum to uphold Proposal 2 banning affirmative action statewide and ending the University of Michigan’s policy. Eight years later, the Supreme Court again heard arguments regarding the State of Michigan’s ban on affirmative action and voted 6-2 in favor of upholding the ban. 

Since then, the University of Michigan has struggled to enroll minorities. Its student body in 2020 consisted of 4.3% of students identifying as Black and 6.8% identifying as Latino, largely unchanged from 2012. Despite concerted efforts to recruit Black students through outreach, such as from its special admissions office in Detroit and extensive investments numbering in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the University of Michigan has come up short. 

While the banning of affirmative action has certainly contributed to the University’s lack of diversity, other policies, specifically legacy admissions, have also hindered the University’s efforts. Formally established in the early 20th century, legacy admissions policies were created to protect universities’ white, wealthy and Protestant student bodies from competing with recent European and Jewish immigrants.

Today, they function in much the same way, favoring the admission of white, wealthy applicants over immigrants, people of color and individuals of lower socioeconomic status. Maintaining this admissions policy thus presents two obstacles for the university. The first: continuing a practice that runs contrary to the University’s commitment to anti-racism. The second: hindering their stated goal of creating a diverse student body.

Although some may be skeptical that legacy admissions could have a sizable effect on the composition of U-M’s student body, an important case study sheds light on this phenomenon. In 2014, Johns Hopkins University quietly phased out legacy admissions, citing its anti-meritocratic bias and its struggle to recruit diverse classes of students. After evaluating data from 2009 to 2019 Hopkins found that Pell Grant eligible students increased by 10%, students on financial aid increased by 20% and racial minority representation increased by 10%.  

For those that claim legacy admissions are integral to a university’s ability to fundraise, evidence points to the contrary. For example, during the 10-year period over which Johns Hopkins eliminated legacy admissions, its endowment actually tripled. Further concrete evidence is given by one statistical analysis that showed no causal relationship between legacy admissions and alumni donations. Another, out of the University of Michigan Law School showed that legacy admissions did not positively impact university fundraising. 

As an alumnus and a former legacy student, I’m proud to be a Michigan Wolverine and grateful of the education that I received at U-M. It’s the same education that I wish millions of students could access, including my own future offspring. However, my conviction is that children of alumni should be judged by their merit, not by their educational pedigree. It is time for the University and for all of us to push for this smallest of changes in order to temper the accumulation of wealth by the elite few and to promote racial and socioeconomic inclusion. 

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear a case that could reshape the landscape of university admissions, the University of Michigan should take a stand and eliminate its legacy policy. Joining the ranks of Johns Hopkins, Amherst, MIT and the State of Colorado would not only be an honor but would also be a continuation of the University’s work to defend affirmative action and improve the diversity of its student body. For if we’re honest, legacy admissions are affirmative action for the rich, and if affirmative action should end for the marginalized, as is likely this fall, it should certainly not exist for the privileged. 

Christoph Baker (LSA ’14) is a medical student at Tufts University.

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