President Bush’s Comments on Legacy Admissions Spark New Debate
By Ronald A. Taylor
President Bush’s remarks rejecting the use of legacy in college admissions have churned the cauldron of minorities and higher education once again, this time triggering a fresh spasm of comments about the practice — and the president’s motives.
Instead of the Supreme Court, the forum was UNITY 2004, the largest gathering of journalists of color ever, approximately 7,000, and the question came from an African American, Creators Syndicate columnist Roland S. Martin. He asked Bush if he favors the use of legacy in admissions. The president, a third-generation Yale University graduate, said, “I think colleges ought to use merit in order for people to get in.” That came after his initial reply to the query when the president pointed out, “Well, in my case, I had to knock on a lot of doors to follow the old man’s footsteps.”
Following scattered snickers, the president turned serious. “No, look, if what you’re saying is, is there going to be special treatment for people — in other words, we’re going to have a special exception for certain people in a system that’s supposed to be fair, I agree, I don’t think there ought to be,” he said.
Firmly restating his objections to quotas in admissions, he said, “I support colleges affirmatively taking action to get more minorities in their school.” The remarks put him in line with Texas A&M University, which scrapped legacy from its admissions menu in January 2004, after scrubbing affirmative action the previous September.
Cameron Howell, a graduate of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Virginia whose doctoral dissertation is on the topic of legacy admissions, says research done in the 1990s showed that 16 percent of public institutions and 21 percent of private institutions “use legacy in some form.” But it’s unclear how widespread the practice is in the academy, he notes.
Within a day of the president’s answer to the legacy question, university presidents began to join a chorus from the academy rejecting the time-honored practice of preference to the applications of alumni offspring.
Dr. William Harvey, director of the American Council on Education’s Center for the Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Equity, says he is skeptical of the president’s agenda less than four months from election day “when it seems like the appropriate time to have said that was” at the time he commented on a federal appeals court ruling on admissions to the University of Michigan Law School in March.
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