Let’s talk about legacy: giving children of alumni preferential treatment in admissions, which sacrifices equal opportunity for continued donations. This is exactly the kind of privilege that most Yalies claim to oppose, but in this case doing so would go against their own self-interest.
The problem is not that legacy is hereditary. After all, there are many other traits that give students a leg up in the admissions process that are, to varying degrees, inherited. Athletic talent, musical ability and socio-economic background, for instance, are often influenced by one’s upbringing. Some people have questioned whether or not some of these traits are really relevant to admissions, but not on the basis of heredity. What makes legacy different is that it has absolutely no intrinsic value; it is a contrived quality. While every parent wants to believe that their little darling is a genius, the fact that this parent went to Yale doesn’t make this belief in any way accurate.
Proponents of legacy point out some positive, almost-moral qualities of the system. I personally believe that self-interest is no basis for morality, but to each his own. They make some compelling arguments, nothing conclusive, and nothing that actually addresses the system’s blatant unfairness, but compelling. For instance, many legacy admits are already well-qualified. This is to say that even though legacy gives certain students an artificial, undeserved edge in admission, at least Yale isn’t admitting unintelligent students, because that, apparently, would be inexcusable. What’s more, the increased donations that result from legacy admission can be used to fund financial aid programs. That’s right, for those of us interested in fairness and equal opportunity, legacy generates plenty of bribe money to go around.
But despite the arguments in favor of legacy admissions, there is still an immoral contamination associated with it; legacy is plainly unfair. No one, no matter how qualified, deserves to bypass the element of randomness that everyone else faces in admission. Luckily for those involved, the legacy system itself absorbs the contamination. Those who would still willingly participate, if given the choice, never have to actually make that choice. It’s easy for them to lie to themselves, saying that they would chose fairness over self-interest, and easier still just not to think about it. Because they are never forced to consider their participation in a system that unfairly benefits them, they are shielded from having to confront its immorality.
I say “they” as if I am not involved, but in truth, we all are. Even those of us who had no legacy bump when we applied to Yale will pass it on to our families. But, despite our veneration of meritocracy, most students are silent on this issue. A few have made the age-old suggestion that the legacy system be completely abolished. It’s a nice idea, but the incentives to continue the system are too strong, and I think it would be naive to suggest that Yale eliminate it. Instead, we should at least have the choice of whether or not to participate.
Sure, right now the children of alumni can simply lie about their legacy status on their application, but they shouldn’t have to. There should be a clean way to opt out. There is no reason that they need to face a choice between the lesser of two evils. As oppressive establishments go, legacy is one of the least complicated. It is controlled by a small, specific group of people and is composed of just a few, arbitrary rules. Us Yalies prefer to tackle ambitious projects, like completely eliminating income inequality or solving racism, but once in a while, let’s focus on something more attainable. Reforming the legacy system would also give Yale’s vibrant social reform community some unassailable credibility. While I’m sure that every advocate for social justice is motivated not by self-interest, but by a desire for fairness, many have never championed a cause in which the two conflicted.
I doubt a significant number of people would actually choose to opt out of the legacy system. Self-interest is, for many, a far stronger force than the abstract idea of fairness. But since it seems that the system will continue, the people involved should bear the moral burden they deserve.
Kathan Roberts is a junior in Pauli Murray College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .