The Blind Admitting the Blind

William F. Buckley had an op-ed in yesterday's Times that was so disjointed I'm surprised they ran it. The cynic in me thinks it ran to defuse Mickey Kaus's constant accusations of liberal bias at the House of Raines. The super-cynic in me thinks it ran as part of the Raines agenda. After all, if the Times is on a crusade to show that conservatives are idiots, what better way than to let an especially famous conservative blabber incoherently in your pages?

I think the point of the piece is that alumni preferences in college admissions should be left alone, or perhaps that alumni preferences are more defensible than racial ones. It's hard to tell, becuase Buckley gets lost in some very odd digressions. Let's do this paragraph-by-paragraph; the piece is dense with dizziness.

The dean of admissions at Harvard, William Fitzsimmons, has defended so-called legacy allowances with heroic attention to data. He told The Wall Street Journal that he read personally "all applications from children of alumni," which last year amounted to (an astonishing) 727. How heavy was the edge given to these applicants? Oh, not much: The average SAT score of legacies admitted is just two points below the school's overall average.

Start with the whole focus of the article. Ask any college admissions officer off the record and over a drink and you will learn that alumni preferences are insignificant. What matters is the large donation preference. Many colleges have specific dollar figures in mind. Alums want their kids to go to theit college, they have often established giving records already, they have an edge in knowing who to talk to when they "make the case" for their children.

On this point, at least, Buckley is no more off the mark than most people who talk about the rich alumni preference while eliding the "rich." It's a common habit. We can afford to be generous with him here, for he will be so generous with us later in his piece.

But how does he justify any preferment at all? Well, alumni recruit students, raise money and "often bring a special kind of loyalty and enthusiasm for life at the college that makes a real difference in the college climate," he said.

Ok, sure, but what's the connection? What does alumni enthusiasm have to do with admissions preferences for their kids? Is it that alumni parents are more enthusiastic than other parents? In which case, if this justification works, why not make the money-for-admissions trade openly? And if recruiting by alumni is so important, how about an open recruiting-for-admissions trade? That such deals aren't made openly is a sign that they violate general social values. At the very least, we need to believe that the deal isn't quite quid pro quo.

Or is it that the Williams, Fitzsimmons and Buckley, are talking here about the children of alumni? That's the only way I can make sense of the "loyalty and enthusiasm" remark. But that would be saying that colleges find that alumni brats are more enthusiastic about college than other students, and that they have no more effective way of estimating that enthusiasm than slapping on a uniform alumni preference. I'm skeptical.

Defensiveness in the matter of legacies is in high gear with the coming Supreme Court arguments over affirmative action at the University of Michigan. Critics are taking the line that legacy preferences are a form of affirmative action that should not be permitted.

I can think of three groups of critics, of whom only one subscribes to this belief. ("Taking the line? Sounds like a mixed metaphor to me.)

  • Most pure meritocrats think that only objective test scores and other direct measures of applicant "quality" should matter for admissions. Thus, as a matter of course, they oppose race-based preferences and alumni preferences equally.
  • Many liberals and some libertarians see nothing wrong with either race-based or alumni preferences. They just think that both should stand or fall together.
  • And many perverse-minded folk such as myself think that legacy preferences should be ended, but not because they constitute affirmative action. "Affirmative action" is a ridiculous term to apply to legacy preferences, since the point of affirmative action is to help the members of disadvantaged groups.

Onwards and downwards.

Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, a Democratic presidential hopeful, has complained that legacy preference "is a birthright out of 18th century British aristocracy, not 21st century American democracy." Well, if you're going to use that kind of language, the United States Senate in which Mr. Edwards resides, however restively, can be denounced as a birthright out of the House of Lords. It isn't very democratic that North Carolina, with a population of eight million, should have as many votes in the Senate as California, with its population of 34 million. So should we leave it that some legacies are O.K.?

Abolish the Senate? Okay by me.

More to the point, you can say that membership in the Senate constitutes a "birthright" or a "legacy" only by doing violence to those terms. The Senate as an institution is a legacy; it's hardly one to its members. And I don't see how the Senate can be considered a "birthright" by any stretch of the imagination. True, it is anti-democratic. But being anti-democratic is not the same as being aristocratic. Judicial review, federalism, and requiring three-fourths of the states for a constitutional amendment are "anti-democratic," too. Are they "legacies?" I don't think so.

Besides, if you object to being under-represented in the Senate, you can always move to a less populous state.

Doubly besides, this paragraph has nothing to do with the rest of the op-ed. I blame cut-and-paste.

So what is the argument for convincing Harvard how it might achieve greater happiness if a new civil rights bill were devised forbidding the least advantage to an applicant at Daddy's college?

Watch this paragraph closely. We'll come back to it later.

Senator Bob Dole, no less, in 1990 called legacy preference an "unfair advantage" for children of "wealthy contributors." One thinks of a lot of advantages children of wealthy parents have. He asked the Office of Civil Rights whether such a practice was illegal under the l964 Civil Rights Act; legacy preferences are not, he was informed, illegal.

I'm not sure what that second sentence is supposed to be doing here. Is Buckley suggesting that because the children of the wealthy have many other advantages, an additional advantage in college admissions is fine?

Are they deplorable? In 1961, C. Vann Woodward, the groundbreaking historian of the American South, was lured to Yale from Johns Hopkins. He became a Sterling Professor. In 2000, Yale created an association of Sterling Fellows. You become one if you contribute a million dollars to Yale.

Whoa! Talk about left field. Perhaps Buckley is proud that his alma mater landed such a famous catch. Perhaps he's a secret Sterling Fellow. Does this little story have anything to do with legacy preferences? Let's see.

In enticing Mr. Woodward to Yale, there was no perceptible gain to American education. There were bright students at Johns Hopkins who no longer could study under Mr. Woodward. And he could have pursued his studies in Baltimore as readily as in New Haven. But Yale wanted a feather in its cap, and got it; and gifts to the students like this are made possible by people like the Sterling Fellows, most of whom, as one would expect, assume that children of Old Boys will be given some sort of special regard.

That first sentence is the kind of thing that no one who believes in free-market capitalism should ever utter. You could equally well say that when a Coke drinker switches to Pepsi, there is no perceptible gain to American thirst-quenching. If you belive in the power of markets to work overall good, you have to believe that the average transaction results in a "gain." Isn't that the point of trusting people and institutions to make their own decisions?

That last sentence is a howler, too. After all, you don't need to be an alumnus to be a Sterling Fellow. Conversely, this discussion of Sterling Fellows would suggest that there are alumni and then there are alumni, and that only the latter really matter in the admissions equation. Not everyone with a Yale degree is an Old Boy.

The percentage of legacy admissions reflects competition. In 1940, 29 percent of the incoming class had Yale fathers. In 1971, it was 14 percent. Today in most Ivy League colleges, it's 10 to 15 percent legacies. The University of Michigan has a 150-point scale by which to judge applicants. The bonus given to children and stepchildren of alumni is four points. One point if your grandfather went there. Applicants from minority families get 20 points.

The University of Michigan, it should be noted, is not an Ivy. It is a large state school, several times larger than tany Ivy. Bakke's wishful thinking aside, schools like Michigan use numerical admissions scales out of sheer necessity. State schools give enormous in-state preferences and are substantially less dependant on alumni giving than private colleges.

Of course, on my explanation, the relative smallness of the preference given to legacies qua legacies makes perfect sense: it's the alumni donors who matter. And, of course, just as the argument that minority preferences are intrinsically wrong doesn't depend on the size of the preference, the size of the alumni preference is irrelevant to its critics. Any such preference is invalid, goes the reasoning.

It feels almost gratuitous to pick on structure, but did you notice that this paragraph doesn't particularly flow from its predecessor, nor does it have any logical connection to its sucessor?

Harvard's business should be its own, though it is not safe to say that our business isn't thought by Harvard to be its concern. There are tribal instincts in life, colleges and universities are part of life, and nobody has proved that any harm whatever has been done by private colleges writing their own admissions policies, as long as they don't illegally discriminate against anyone, black or white.

Remember when I told you to "watch this paragraph?" Now might be a good time to go back and read it. Okay? Good.

Now, this is kind of funny, but I remember that back up there, Buckley was saying that we shouldn't change the law to stop legacy preferences. Whereas, down here, he's saying that Harvard should be free to give legacy preferences, as long as they aren't illegal. Put them together and you have an argument that legacy preferences shouldn't be outlawed because legacy preferences are legal. Gosh, with that kind of reasoning, we shouldn't have passed the Civil Rights Act in the first place. In fact, hell, Buckley's argument would take care of the Thirteenth Amendment (after all, slavery was legal when it was passed) and the whole Bill of Rights, along with the Constitution. You have to start somewhere.

We should not let the logical flaws blind us, however, to Buckley's laughable prose. That first sentence reminds me of nothing so much as Bilbo's farewell speech ("I don't know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve"). The second sentence is just strange, though. "Tribal instincts" is not what I would think of as a rhetorical winner of a phrase. Appeals to tribalism tend to go over better when disguised.

Speaking more generally about Buckley's odd apology for alumni preferences, I'd like to point out that alumni preferences and racial preferences aren't entirely orthogonal. Given that blacks and other racial minorities have been historically under-represented in college admissions, any preference for alumni will be de facto racially discriminatory. To the extent that this preference aligns with wealth and donations, the discrimination will be even worse.

Alumni preferences are grandfather clauses in disguise.