The independent news organization of Duke University

Justify legacy admits

Last year, we wrote an editorial in which we criticized the University’s legacy admission policy for being unfair, as legacy status has no bearing on an applicant’s merit. Moreover, taking legacy status into account does not attempt to correct social inequities, nor does it promote diversity. After discussing the issue with Christoph Guttentag, director of undergraduate admissions, we still maintain that the University’s legacy policy is unfair. But, rather than reject the policy outright, we first want to hear the University’s justifications for the policy, if it has any. Currently, Duke does not present a well-founded defense for the legacy admissions policy, but it must as long as the University is excluding certain applicants based on an unfair criterion. As far as we can tell, administrators are content to blindly accept the status quo. We want to start a conversation about why.

One possible justification Duke could use is that the legacy admissions policy nurtures alumni relationships that ultimately bear monetary fruit. However, a multi-university study that included Duke has shown that preferential legacy admission policies have no significant effect on comparative alumni donations. Since this general study casts doubt upon the alumni donation justification, Duke would need Duke-specific data evidencing the contrary, in which Duke could analyze the effect admitting legacy students has had on alumni financial contributions. Currently no such data exists. Relying on an informal body of anecdotal evidence, which cannot definitely prove a legacy admissions policy is lucrative for the University, is not sufficient justification.

Another possible justification for the legacy admissions policy is that legacy students contribute intangible non-monetary benefits to their communities. Establishing strong familial networks within Duke may add to university identity and spirit, enabling Duke experience that extends beyond graduation. However, this justification is vague and must be fleshed out in order to be viable. What are these intangible benefits? Justifying the legacy admissions policy on these grounds requires explicitly naming these advantages and weighing them against the policy’s disadvantages, specifically denying acceptance letters to possibly more qualified candidates. Do we genuinely believe that the legacy admissions policy keeps alumni more involved in reunion weekends, applicant interviews and such? If so, do these considerations prevail over our desire to have the most equitable admissions process possible? These are questions Duke must ask itself.

As admission to Duke becomes increasingly competitive, the burden of proof falls on the University to prove that a legacy admissions policy brings benefits through alumni donations or through more unquantifiable means. One of Guttentag’s justifications, that “sometimes we do things because we have always done things that way,” is not good enough.

Many years ago, Duke admissions used to have separate admissions committees for applicants of each race: one for whites, one for blacks, one for Hispanics, and so forth. Duke recognized the practice was unfair, could not come up with good justifications to maintain it, and changed its policy. The legacy admissions policy, however long-standing, is not exempt from requiring justification. We challenge the University to attempt to justify it explicitly and specifically. If the policy cannot be justified, it must be abolished.


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