The end of affirmative action has triggered a reconsideration of legacy admissions. When universities extend advantages to the families of donors and alums, they discriminate against others, especially lower-income and Black students.
Legacy admissions began to get more attention after the Department of Education initiated a civil rights investigation in July 2023 into Harvard’s legacy practice. That was a good beginning, but donors and alums are also responsible for legacy preferences.
Let’s be clear: If it is wrong for universities to give preference to alums and donors, it is wrong for alums and donors to seek those privileges.
When donations to a university are followed by preferential admissions, donors are complicit in the discrimination, inequality and injustice that follow. When donors give with an eye toward future privileges for themselves or for their offspring, they may be engaging in moral licensing: doing good to do bad. Their generosity does not entitle them to advantages that deprive others of opportunities.
It is not surprising that many elite institutions still offer legacy advantages. The policy is a win-win — for donors, alums and the receiving institutions.
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But there are losses for the students not admitted, for our sense of justice and for other universities that might have received the donations.
To be fair, not all donors are looking for a win-win. Some are guided by a moral compass. They give to colleges and universities that promote diversity and equality, with a focus on Black students and middle- and lower-income students.
In 2020 for example, MacKenzie Scott donated $560 million to 23 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
If it is wrong for universities to give preference to alums and donors, it is wrong for alums and donors to seek those privileges.
In August of that year, Jack Dorsey donated $10 million to Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research — even though Dorsey didn’t finish college and didn’t attend Boston University.
In the fall of 2022, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave $100 million to the United Negro College Fund and to other institutions that promote higher education as a means to equality for lower income, Black, Latinx and Indigenous students.
This fall, Blue Meridian Partners’ gave $124 million to 40 HBCUs.
All of this hints at a change in giving norms.
Simply put: There are people in the world who will give generously to support racial equality in higher education. Their giving doesn’t target their alma mater. They don’t anticipate legacy advantages. Their gifts promote the right to education, and do so without deepening inequality.
When donors choose this path, their donations will have a positive impact on a greater number of students, many of whom have endured bias and discrimination. Although these donations cannot compensate for past wrongs, they can promote future good.
Philanthropy is an important mechanism for achieving justice. It gives those who have benefited from collective efforts an opportunity to give back, and some donors agree. As MacKenzie Scott said, “There’s no question in my mind that anyone’s personal wealth is the product of a collective effort, and of social structures which present opportunities to some people, and obstacles to countless others.”
This is not to say that it is always wrong to benefit from one’s charitable actions. Certainly, the warm glow of generosity is a reward in and of itself. But that is very different from a pay-to-play scenario in which giving entails a benefit to the donor at a cost to others.
It is true, however, that legacy preferences can build a sense of community and generate the donations universities need to do the work they want to do. Some donors might not give but for legacy advantages.
Also, an “all in the family” approach to admissions creates a community, one that enhances college life. But who is excluded from that community? And what are the consequences for those left out?
In other contexts, when a donation is linked to a wrong, or a human rights violation, the donor is seen as complicit in that wrong. Donors who give to anti-LGBTQ+ nonprofits are complicit in discrimination against members of the queer community, and those who give to the NRA share responsibility for gun violence.
In the case of legacy admissions, elite universities are effectively discriminating against less privileged students for the benefit of the wealthy — and some donors are enabling them.
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Fortunately, some universities have already taken legacy preferences off the table. MIT and Wesleyan, for example.
Their actions and the recent donations to HBCUs signal an important change in giving norms and perhaps a bandwagon effect. Hopefully, others will follow the money and legacy practices will soon be a thing of the past. Donors are the engine that drive legacy admissions. They can end them swiftly. Why wait for universities to end legacy admissions, when donors have the power to do so?
Patricia Illingworth is a professor of philosophy at Northeastern University and a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Her most recent book, “Giving Now: Accelerating Human Rights for All,” argues that philanthropy can and should protect human rights.
This story about donors and legacy admissions was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.