How to Decorously Buy Your Daughter's Way into Harvard


At the London Review of Books blog, Deborah Friedell brings our attention to the genteel, transactional correspondence between a senior executive and member of an Ivy League college’s development staff, as made public in the Sony hacks:

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.

Isn’t it wonderful when nothing is promised, and yet everything is gained:

An email from the president says that his daughter’s application will be looked at ‘very closely’. She gets in.

And for the Sony exec, there is a lesson learned:

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.

Sam Biddle goes into more detail about this email: the specific executive and the specific school (which is Brown, not Harvard, as was my mistake in an earlier draft of this post). Friedell brings up the statistic that legacies get into Harvard at 5x the rate of non-legacy students, and quotes Harvard’s admissions director “defend[ing] 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.’”

Others disagree: in a 2014 op-ed at the New York Times, Evan J. Mandery, a Harvard alum and professor at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice, writes:

Reasonable minds can differ on the morality and wisdom of race-based affirmative action. […] But how can anyone defend making an exception for children of alumni?
One needn’t have a dog in this hunt to be troubled by legacy. It’s disastrous public policy. Because of legacy admissions, elite colleges look almost nothing like America. […] At least as many Harvard students come from families in the top 1 percent as the bottom 50 percent.

He closes out by saying:

Legacy evolved largely as a doctrine to legitimize the exclusion of Jews from elite schools. It endures today as a mechanism for reinforcing inequality, with particularly harsh consequences for Asians, and fundamentally contradicts the rhetoric of access in which elite colleges routinely engage.
Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton and Columbia collectively have endowments of about $100 billion. They have the means to end this abhorrent practice with a stroke of a pen and the financial resources to endure whatever uncertainty ensues. Just a hunch, but I think the economically diverse students admitted to these great colleges would be successful and generous to their alma maters, not in the hope of securing their child a place in a class, but out of genuine appreciation of a legacy of equal access.

Until then, an appreciation of the beautifully cold legacy of “obviously he should start giving money” will have to suffice.

Image via Wally Gobetz/Flickr

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