CHAPEL HILL — There is a good deal of populist rage in the air. Some is, no doubt, misguided. American populism has a checkered history.
But some is just good common sense. I know my old man would have thought that bankers who drove the economy over a cliff in a frenzy of dishonesty and greed, and then paid themselves millions in bonuses wrung from the tax dollars of waitresses and construction workers, ought to be horsewhipped. And my old man was often right.
Given the tenor of these times, it might be that we'll begin to pay more attention to ways in which the wealthy and the elite bend the rules in their favor, marginalizing the rest. I think that's the hope of Richard Kahlenberg, editor of a new book unabashedly titled "Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions."
The American legal, educational and political cultures have been obsessed, for over three decades, with the traumas of racial affirmative action. State constitutions have been amended, Supreme Court decisions have cascaded, politicians have declared their fealty to "merit-only" processes, and faculty and students have often become polarized through colliding visions of "equality."
Ironically, legacy admissions - bold preferences for the children of alumni in elite private and public universities - dwarf our timid commitments to racial affirmative action. They also present no conflict between viable equality interests - balancing individual fairness with the need to remedy past subordination - like racial preferences do.
Rather, legacy admission programs reject merit-based equality in favor of heritage and bloodline. It is hard to imagine a more frank and frontal transgression against the American promise. Still, affirmative action for the kids of alumni proceeds unmolested, even unquestioned. We are well accustomed to the already privileged getting their way.
I have worked at four public universities - Carolina, William & Mary, Colorado and West Virginia - in various positions, high and low. Each employed significant alumni preferences. Kahlenberg's book suggests that, nationally, over 90 percent of elite universities use potent legacy preferences; and an applicant's chances are improved by at least 20 percent if he can claim such favored status.
In the recent years examined, Harvard admitted 40 percent of its legacies, compared to 11 percent of applicants overall. Princeton took 42 percent of the alumni sons and daughters who applied, despite an overall acceptance rate of 9 percent. (Unsurprisingly, a Princeton study revealed that legacy admittees had "lower SAT scores and grade point averages" than the rest of the class.) Brown enrolled 33.5 percent of legacies, though taking only 13 percent of the pool generally. Penn did essentially the same. A quarter of Notre Dame's student body were alumni kids.
On the home front, Kahlenberg identifies UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State and Duke as ready practitioners. Duke drew the most attention. Of the 1,700 members of the 2007 entering class, a record 230 (16 percent) were alumni children. According to a 2008 study, the legacies were more apt to be white, Protestant, private school-educated and wealthy than the rest of the class. They also did not perform as well. Similarly, in 2002, 91 percent of the legacy early admits at the University of Virginia were white; 1.6 percent were black and 0.5 percent were Hispanic. A leg up, once again, for the well-positioned.
When pressed, elite institutions claim that alumni preferences are necessary for one reason: money. Happy grads deliver much-needed cash. Kahlenburg's book, though, is replete with studies indicating it's not so. Besides, it's a demeaning argument in the first place. Imagine a university explaining to a rejected applicant: "We denied your right to an equal chance because someone else paid us to do so."
The selective colleges and universities of the United States are unique and disproportionate portals to our corridors of opportunity and power. They are not, however, fair ones. They reflect a studied framework of economic privilege - where the wealthy work to purchase ascendancy for their children. That might be easier to countenance in a land less boastful of its commitment to equal dignity and opportunity for all.
Legacy preferences by public universities are a flat and undeniable violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. They patently transgress Article One of North Carolina's constitution as well. A legislature committed to equal access for all Tar Heels who support the university system with their tax dollars would outlaw the practice. And private universities that skew admissions to favor lineage violate the 1866 Civil Rights Act - which bans discrimination on the basis of "ancestry." No one actually believes that an admissions program committed to equality needs to ask: "Who is your daddy?"
Law professor Gene Nichol is director of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity.