The director of Harvard admissions has said that being a ‘Harvard legacy’ – the child of a Harvard graduate – is just one of many ‘tips’ in the college’s admissions process, such as coming from an ‘under-represented state’ (Harvard likes to have students from all 50), or being on the ‘wish list’ of an athletic coach. For most applicants to Harvard, the acceptance rate is around 5 per cent; for applicants with a parent who attended Harvard, it’s around 30 per cent. (One survey found that 16 per cent of Harvard undergraduates have a parent who went to Harvard.) A Harvard study from a few years ago shows that after controlling for other factors that might influence admission (such as, say, grades), legacies are more than 45 per cent more likely to be admitted to the 30 most selective American colleges than non-legacies.
Preferential admission for legacies ought to be an anachronism, not least because it overwhelmingly benefits rich white students. Harvard’s admissions director defends the practice by claiming that legacies ‘bring a special kind of loyalty and enthusiasm for life at the college that makes a real difference in the college climate… and makes Harvard a happier place.’ That ‘special kind of loyalty’ can express itself in material ways. Graduates with family ties – four generations of Harvard men! – are assumed to be particularly generous, and they cut colleges off when their children don’t get in.
Private colleges have never pretended that any kind of Chinese wall separates the admissions office from the development office. And as long as a student can survive academically, the argument might go, why shouldn’t a mega donation tip the scales? After all, money to renovate the campus art gallery or to endow a chair in sociolinguistics benefits a college no less than having a North Dakotan instead of a Virginian. In one episode of The Simpsons, Mr Burns tries to have his son admitted to Yale. An admissions officer tells him, frankly, that ‘test scores like Larry’s would merit a very generous donation. A score of 400 would require new football uniforms. Three hundred would require a new dormitory. And in Larry’s case? We’d need an international airport.’
WikiLeaks has published all the Sony emails that had been hacked last November, and made them searchable by keyword. In 2014, a senior executive emailed an Ivy League vice-president of philanthropy: he’d like to endow a scholarship, anonymously, ‘at the $1mm level’. In another email, he tells a development officer that his daughter is applying to the college as her first choice. It’s all very decorous. The development staff arrange a ‘customised’ campus tour for his daughter and a meeting with the university’s president; but he asks for no favours and nothing is promised. An email from the president says that his daughter’s application will be looked at ‘very closely’. She gets in. He writes to his sister: ‘David… called me. he is obsessed with getting his eldest in Harvard next year.’ She replies: ‘If David wants to get his daughter in he should obviously start giving money.’ Obviously.