In Justice Clarence Thomas’ dissent from the 2003 Supreme Court decision that upheld the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action policies, he wrote, “Were the court to have the courage to forbid the use of racial discrimination in admissions, legacy preferences (and similar practices) might quickly become less popular.”

In other words, if there’s no more affirmative action, then the practice of giving preferences to the children of alumni would get a lot more attention – most of it negative. That’s what has happened elsewhere. Legacy preference have been eliminated at state institutions in Georgia, where racial preferences were banned by a court ruling in 2001, and in California, where a ballot initiative outlawed them in 1996. Why? Because administrators and oversight boards decided that if they couldn’t give admissions preferences to underrepresented minorities, they should at least stop giving preferences to a group that is largely privileged and white: the children of alumni.

Texas A&M University – another public school that doesn’t use affirmative action and, as a result, has cut its legacy preferences – is an especially interesting case. A 2004 Houston Chronicle investigation found that for the 2002 admissions year, the school accepted 324 students who would have been rejected without the benefit of legacy. Here’s the unseemly statistic: Of those students, 321 were white and only three were black.

It makes sense that legacy is a pretty good proxy for being white. Even at the University of Michigan – which only ramped up its affirmative action programs a couple of decades ago – alumni are still largely members of racial and ethnic groups that are overrepresented in higher education. Having had a world-class education, they are also more likely to provide their children with expensive standardized test preparation courses, quality high schools in safe neighborhoods and the many other educational benefits that come from being born into an affluent family.

But legacy preferences – which are nearly unquestionably legal – also have at least two legitimate purposes. First, they cultivate a sense of community among alumni (translation: we take care of you and yours – even after you’ve left campus). Second, they increase alumni giving (translation: we take care of you and yours – if you take care of us and ours).

Mainly for the second reason, the presidents of Ivy League universities have openly defended legacy preferences as a necessary evil. Basically, universities trick alumni into believing that their generosity to the school will help their children or grandchildren, and this results in a boost to the endowment, which is in turn used to increase things like academic quality and financial aid for students from less affluent backgrounds (those who don’t benefit from legacy preferences). Plus, it wouldn’t be fair to cut legacy preferences just as alumni were getting more diverse.

So, perhaps because they were comfortably offset by affirmative action, legacy preferences have been allowed to exist without much public acrimony. This was the case at the University of Michigan, where the admissions boost for a largely underprivileged group (those who benefit from affirmative action) strongly outweighed the boost for a largely overprivileged group (those who benefit from legacy). It was a tenuous balance, but it seemed to work. Then the voters passed Proposal 2, banning affirmative action in state public institutions, including the University of Michigan. That was in November of 2006. Just over a year later, racial preferences are gone, but legacy preferences remain. Why?

When asked via e-mail whether University of Michigan administrators have considered eliminating legacy preferences in the wake of Proposal 2, spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham made the answer clear. “No,” she said. Have they seriously considered doing so in the last five years? “No.” Cunningham wasn’t being impolite; she was being absolute.

At the University, legacy is a small consideration in the holistic application review process, which takes into account a large swath of factors. Cunningham said the effect is “negligible” and not a “critical factor.”

In the world of college admissions, simple terms can carry a lot of complex meaning (see “critical mass” and “quota system”). “Negligible” and “critical” are two of those. It’s unclear exactly what they mean because – unlike many of its peer universities – the University of Michigan doesn’t compile data on the effects of legacy admissions.

In the Ivy League and at other private schools, legacy appears to play a large role. At Ivies, those with legacy generally make up between 10 and 15 percent of the student body. At the University of Notre Dame, about 25 percent of enrolled students are legacies. At Harvard University, about one-third of legacies are admitted, while the overall acceptance rate is only just over 10 percent.

Using those numbers to approximate the number of legacies at the University of Michigan likely isn’t accurate, though. A better gauge is the admissions rubric used before the Supreme Court struck down the College of Literature, Science and the Arts’ use of a point system in 2003.

Under the infamous point system, alumni parents or stepparents were worth four points and grandparents, siblings or spouses were worth one. Students couldn’t be awarded both. Even if you had four generations of University of Michigan alumni in your family, they could still only yield up to four points.

To put that into context, the total number of possible points was 150. In most years, getting about 100 put you in good shape for admission to LSA and about 130 for the College of Engineering. GPA was the largest factor (a 4.0 was worth 80 points). Underrepresented minorities received 20 points, and Michigan residents received 10. The essay – those who labored over them in that era will be unhappy to read this – was worth only up to three.

Judging how important legacy was – and, by extension, is – depends on how you look at the rubric. For example, standardized test scores were worth up to 12 points. Let’s say you scored in the 22-to-26 range on the ACT and received 10 points for it. Having an alumni parent would give you the equivalent of scoring between 31 and 36 and then some. That’s a big jump. But a logical examination of the rubric shows that legacy was a relatively small edge.

So if it doesn’t really make that much of a difference, why is it on the application at all? Could it be that although legacy doesn’t play a big factor in admissions, a lot of alumni still think it does and thus are inspired to donate?

Cunningham claims that’s not the case. While no telling data is compiled in this area either, Cunningham said legacy preferences don’t really increase alumni giving.

“Generous giving and active involvement with the University is seen also among alumni whose children have been denied admission,” she said. “There is no tacit or explicit quid pro quo.”

But leaders at other institutions have admitted that the endowment boon is a big part of why they consider legacy. It’s hard to see how the University of Michigan is different. A recent study of an anonymous college studied by Jonathan Meer, a Stanford University graduate economics student and Economics Prof. Harvey Rosen of Princeton University shows that alumni with children were 13 percentage points more likely to give. In the study, that percentage went up as the kids got closer to applying, took a hit around age 14 if they decided not to apply and went up by about 18 to 25 percentage points a few years later if they did decide to apply.

Cunningham said the University of Michigan uses legacy preferences to show graduates that they’re supported even after they leave campus. “Legacy consideration in admissions acknowledges the intrinsic and ongoing relationship between the University and our alumni, a relationship that is respected and highly valued,” she said, echoing the explanation written in the current admissions guidelines. Certainly that’s part of it, but despite the official line, it’s difficult to believe that the risk of losing donations is not a key reason.

And without data it’s impossible to know for sure either way.

University officials say they don’t collect the data because it would take a lot of time from an already stretched admissions staff – and because it’s not a “pertinent” issue, as Cunningham said.

But since Proposal 2 ravaged affirmative action and left legacy alone (why the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, with all its talk of a meritocracy, made that choice is a subject for another article), it will soon become a hotter topic on campus. It already is in the political world. Former Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards criticized it as a “birthright out of 18th-century British aristocracy.” Even President George Bush, one of the country’s premiere benefactors of legacy preferences, has called for its end. Many others on both sides of the partisan divide have done the same.

The time for a good debate on campus is nigh. The current legacy practices certainly go against a public college’s mission to act as an agent of public mobility. And, most important, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to call legacy preferences racist on some level.

Why won’t University of Michigan administrators examine them critically with all the facts in front of them? After all, this is a university, and a public one at that. One of its ideals is open discussion about what it does and why it does it. Any dialogue like that would include statistics from the admissions office as well as candor from top administrators.

Maybe it’s because just having that serious discussion would endanger some level of alumni donations. It could anger deep-pocketed grads, and that’s no small matter. As state funding has declined severely over the last decade, the University of Michigan has had to rely more and more on its endowment. University President Mary Sue Coleman has staked much of her reputation on fundraising, including the successful Michigan Difference campaign that raised $2.5 billion. It has paid off. The $7.1-billion endowment is stronger than ever, throwing off a 25-percent return last year.

So why endanger all of that? Unless forced in the court of public opinion, it doesn’t look like the administration will.

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