Like those pesky multicolored leaves and depressing darkening days, every autumn for the last 40 years the zombie issues arising from legacy preference descend on Yale, frightening the hell out of both the admissions and Provost’s offices. Every year the zombies have grown bigger, scarier and more destructive of campus harmony.

It’s long past time to put the zombie issues to rest. Not the legacy preference idea per se, for I have come to praise the underlying beneficial core of legacy while burying the issues arising from the barbed wire wrapped around that core. 

Legacy preference (LP) is like an old long-playing record … it keeps going ‘round and ‘round playing the same tune but going nowhere. The polar positions are clearly understood: 1) LP is bad because it favors the scions of mostly rich, white, American alumni and is, therefore, anti-diversity versus 2) LP is good because it keeps donations flowing in from rich, white alumni.

There are a couple of bits of overlooked data that should be thrown into this revolving maelstrom of emotion and policy: first, over the last 50 years, Yale’s undergraduate body has become increasingly non-white, hovering now around 50 percent, while during the same period of time the percentage of LP undergrads has slowly decreased. Second, given the probability that the white percentage will continue to drop over time, this means that the percentage of applicants who are non-white but who are eligible for LP status will increase. Thus, the LP controversy could be seen as one that will “solve itself” or “slowly fade away,” except for the fact that the non-white LPs will probably still largely come from high-income families and thus share all the advantages denied to lower-income families

To resolve this dilemma right now and for all time, how about a policy change that denies LP status to scions of high-income alumni, regardless of race or ethnicity. This seems to me to resolve all the major issues arising from the LP system from both sides of the debate.

First, certainly, Yale’s endowment, currently $42.3 billion, will keep Yale’s coffers reasonably full, even if a few wealthy alumni decline to donate in retaliation for the new policy. I note that many of the biggest donations of late (e.g., the Schwarzman Center) were motivated not by any legacy preference policy, but rather for much more, shall I say, “personal” reasons.

Second, certainly, there is a benefit to the University and to all undergraduates for there to be a core of continuity, especially given today’s societal angst arising from the disappearance in America of many traditions that provide comforting markers for behavior. More to the point at hand, a legacy preference that excludes high-income applicants will lead to greater numbers of lower-income applicants being admitted, further increasing economic diversity within Yale’s undergraduate population.

Third, once wealth, race and ethnicity are removed from the legacy preference policy, Yale can more productively and more easily turn its attention to what the word “diversity” means and how it can benefit the full Yale educational and social experience. Perhaps there will be time and energy to realize that diversity is not just about race but rather more importantly about cultural and individual differences.

The current categories of diversity are Black, Asian, Latino, Indigenous Americans and white. I note that there is no such thing as an “Asian” culture — the continent stretching as it does over 11,000 km and encompassing 48 countries from Turkey to Japan and beyond to eastern Siberia. There is no such thing as a “Latino” culture, a fact one notices immediately on arriving in Buenos Aires after having just left Mexico City. There is no such thing as an “Indigenous American” culture as exemplified by the differences between the Inuit, Comanche and Náhuatl ways of life. There is no such thing as a “white” culture in light of the fact that most of them don’t speak the same language or celebrate the same holidays. There is no such thing as a “Black” culture, which becomes obvious if one compares the lifestyle of Black people living in Botswana with Black people living in Brooklyn.

I have a dream. Someday Yale will proudly list its university diversity using cultural rather than racial categories. But in the meantime, let’s play taps for the legacy preference zombie issues.

JAMES LUCE ’66 is an alum and former legacy preference student. Contact him at