Professors discuss relationship between legacy admissions and U.S. Constitution

Thursday, April 11, 2019 - 8:11pm

Sarah Zearfoss, senior assistant dean of the Law School, law professor Margo Schlanger, and education professor Mike Bastedo discuss their experiences with legacy admissions during a coffee chat in Hutchins Hall Thursday afternoon.

Sarah Zearfoss, senior assistant dean of the Law School, law professor Margo Schlanger, and education professor Mike Bastedo discuss their experiences with legacy admissions during a coffee chat in Hutchins Hall Thursday afternoon. Buy this photo
Zachary Goldsmith/Daily

University of Michigan students and faculty discussed legacy admissions and their Constitutional implications in Hutchins Hall on Thursday afternoon. The Education Law and Policy Society hosted the event to focus on admissions from an equal protection standpoint.

The discussion began with the panel addressing the ubiquity of legacy admissions in highly selective institutions. Michael Bastedo, School of Education professor, specializes in higher education admissions research. He said legacy commonly plays a role in undergraduate admissions.

“Primarily at the undergraduate level, it’s pretty common,” Bastedo said. “It’s more unusual not to practice legacies than it is to practice legacies.”

The question was then directed to Margo Schlanger, the panel’s legal expert and University Law School professor, on whether legacy admits violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

According to Schlanger, it’s a difficult question, because the Constitution does allow discrimination among various kinds of people and groups.

“You can discriminate on how well they did on the LSAT, or what state they’re from,” Schlanger said. “The axes of discrimination that are regulated by the Constitution are special — they are race, ethnicity and alienage.”

However, under equal protection, policies that discriminate are unconstitutional only if there is evidence showing intent.  

Schlanger stated there could be a potential argument under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but because it is not enforceable by anyone other than the federal government, it would fall short of a legal argument.

“It’s not a great lawsuit, but it’s not completely foreclosed by American law,” Schlanger said.

The panel comes amid the recent admissions scandal at schools such as the University of Southern California. However, Sarah Zearfoss, senior assistant dean of the University’s Law School, said such scandals cannot be equated to legacy admits.

“Whatever concerns you have about legacy admissions, they are dwarfed by the grossness of the scandal,” Zearfoss said.

According to Zearfoss, it is important to recognize that legacy admits involve alumni whose donations are impacting the institution in a beneficial way.   

“It might be offensive to us that that person gets a bump in admissions, but that person is giving money to an institution that can then benefit other students,” Zearfoss said. “There is something good that would flow from that in some ways beyond the person getting admitted.”

Referring to the bribes made to college counselors and the false athletic profiles created, Zearfoss argued that they are strictly unethical.

“This is just pure corruption,” Zearfoss said.

Bastedo agreed, but pointed out the variety of “back door” admits into institutions.

“They’re both related and not,” Bastedo said. “It depends on what you would see as corruption.”

Zearfoss said she sees legacy admits in three categories: one being those who are equally qualified for admission, another being those who garner mixed reactions from the admissions team and a third being those who are not qualified. Due to the highly selective and competitive nature of the process, there is always more people applying than they can admit.

“It is very clear to me that having legacy admissions playing a role in the third group is just wrong,” Zearfoss said. “That should never happen. “With the first group, I would say it’s fine even. I actually don’t think it seems problematic to me that a admissions office would say ‘I like everything about this person, and she already has a connection to this school, she knows about it a little bit,’ so at the end of the day that’s going to be the thing that makes me pick her as opposed to someone else. Frankly that is what I do all the time and I’ve gotten very used to the randomness of it.”

It is with the middle group that there is an argument one way or another, said Zearfoss. Though she is not comfortable with using legacy admits in that group, she said she imagines schools could argue otherwise.

Schlanger expressed her discomfort over the entire discussion and was hesitant in readily accepting legacies as part of the admissions process.

“Legacy admits clearly push us towards folks who have had or more likely to be privileged,” Schlanger said. “The whole thing makes me anxious.”

However, Zearfoss contextualized the favoritism to describe its impact on the Michigan Law community.

“There’s maybe five people in class out of 300 whose parent or parents are alumni,” Zearfoss said. “This is a small factor for us. I don’t think it’s distorting the process at all.”

Law student Taylour Boboltz said after the event she was doubtful of the small number of legacy admits Zearfoss referred to.

“I was pretty surprised to hear her say that there’s only five — that seems pretty low to me,” Boboltz said. “As a first-generation student myself, I have felt that there has been a general lack of support at this institution, which may or may not have ties to the bigger discussion of legacy admission.”

The panel concluded with discussions of potential solutions in order to reduce the effects of legacy admission policies.

Schlanger cited financial aid or loan forgiveness as one of the ways to combat the systemic problems.

“With class privilege, we don’t want to do something symbolic,” Schlanger said. “We want to do something real.”

Zearfoss suggested methods of checks and balances and an increase of transparency within admissions itself.

“There are good ways to police this,” Zearfoss said. “People outside the admissions office should be able to see what’s going on within the admissions office.”

Rackham student Askari Rushing appreciated the panel’s ideas, but expressed his desire to have a deeper discussion about the systemic problems.

“Michigan does not represent the larger higher education population,” Rushing said. “It’s great to get the conversation started, but I don’t think it went far enough or addressed the problem that actually exists within the system.”