The Myth of Meritocracy Revisited: John Brittain on Legacy Preference (2017)

Longtime listeners know that Sea Change Radio is not a debate format – we do not generally provide a platform for climate change deniers or other purveyors of disinformation. But when it comes to certain topics, we do believe there is room for spirited discourse. Next week’s guest will argue in favor of preserving legacy preferences in college admissions. In preparation for that conversation, and to provide context and a counterpoint, this week we are dipping into the Sea Change Radio archives to revisit our 2017 discussion with Prof. John Brittain.

The official subject matter of Sea Change Radio is environmental sustainability. This week, however, we are deviating from that to talk about a topic that we believe is inextricably linked to sustainability: stratification in education. We are talking with law professor, civil rights advocate, and educational diversity expertProf. John C. Brittain, about educational practices that perpetuate social, racial, and socioeconomic exclusiveness. Elite private schools were once restricted to wealthy white young men. Since the 1960s we have seen some progress at these schools – they all admit women, most have scholarship programs to make room for the non-wealthy, and they generally boast of need-blind admissions practices. But there is one hidden practice, often overlooked, which runs counter to all of that progress: the practice of legacy admissions. That is, giving preference to applicants who have a family connection to the school. The majority of elite educational institutions in this country do this. For example, in 2017, a full 41% of Harvard’s incoming freshman were legacies. Logic tells us that generation after generation, this sort of admission preference can’t be doing much for these schools’ demographic diversity. Professor Brittain and host Alex Wise discuss how legacy admission practices serve as affirmative action for the privileged, the irony that the practice thrives in the United States which holds itself up as a model meritocracy and how schools’ justifications for the ongoing use of legacy preferences don’t hold up to a reasoned analysis.

Narrator | 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise. 

John Brittain (JB) | 00:17 – At many elite post-secondary educational institutions, applicants with an alumni parent are accepted at two to three times the rate of those without leading one commentator to label legacy preference as the biggest affirmative action program and American higher education.

Narrator (2024)| 00:41 Longtime listeners know that Sea Change Radio is not a debate format. We don’t generally provide a platform for climate change deniers or other purveyors of disinformation, but when it comes to certain topics, we do believe there’s room for spirited discourse. Next week’s guest will argue in favor of preserving legacy preferences in college admissions in preparation for that conversation and to provide context and a counterpoint, this week we’re dipping into the Sea Change Radio archives to revisit our discussion with Professor John Brittain.

Narrator (2017) | 01:18 – The official subject matter of Sea Change Radio is environmental sustainability. This week, however, we’re deviating from that to talk about a topic that we believe is inextricably linked to sustainability stratification in education. We’re talking with law professor, civil rights advocate, and educational diversity expert John Brittain about educational practices that perpetuate social, racial and socioeconomic exclusiveness. Elite private schools were once restricted to wealthy white young men. Since the 1960s, we’ve seen some progress at these schools. They all admit women most have scholarship programs to make room for the non wealthy, and they generally boast of need blind admissions practices. But there is one hidden practice often overlooked, which runs counter to all of that progress, the practice of legacy admissions that is giving preference to applicants who have a family connection to the school. The majority of elite educational institutions in this country do this. For example, in 2017, a full 41% of Harvard’s incoming freshmen were legacies. Logic tells us that generation after generation, this sort of admission preference can’t be doing much for these school’s. Demographic diversity. Professor Brittain and I discuss how legacy admission practices serve as affirmative action for the privileged, the irony that the practice thrives in the United States, which holds itself up as a model meritocracy and how schools justifications for the ongoing use of legacy preferences don’t hold up to a reasoned analysis.

Alex Wise (AW) | 03:10 – I am joined now on Sea Change Radio by Professor John Brittain. He is a professor of law at the University of District Columbia. John, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

John Brittain (JB) | 03:21 – Good day to you too.

Alex Wise (AW) | 03:22 – So as a caveat, I’ve known Professor Brittain since, uh, my childhood, and I I wanted to have him on because he’s an expert in educational issues pertaining to diversity, affirmative action, and legacy admissions. So, John, let me give our listeners a, a brief summary of, of your work. You are a attorney in the deep South in Mississippi in the late sixties, early seventies working for civil rights legislation. You have been a professor of law since 1977, I think you were the first African American professor of law at the University of Connecticut School of Law in Hartford, and you played a big role in the development of the Magnet School program in Hartford, Connecticut. It’s profiled in a radio piece on this American life entitled The Problem We All Live With. We’ll link to that on Sea Change Radio. So from your experience helping create this magnet school system in Hartford, can you give us an idea of why diversity is such an essential component to education?

John Brittain (JB) | 04:33 – Throughout education in K through 12 grades and in higher education too, the sociological and educational research shows that a diverse group of students as measured by social and economic status, race, ethnicity, and language offers a distinct advantage both for children of color as well as for Caucasian children. In learning the measures of the advantages of a diverse school of education includes higher aspirations on behalf of particularly the children of color, the two greater goals in life. Another advantage of school diversity for children of color is that it provides access to them with much more harmonious settings and integrated workplaces and integrated housing and in pursuing the advantages of integrated settings throughout life. Of course, everyone wants to know that do children of color also benefit from a diverse school setting rather than, and overwhelmingly a one race, mostly African American and Latino, often compounded by high percentages of children who come from poverty in terms of their academic success. And the results show that children who attend more diverse schools do better in achievement than children who remain, particularly in non-white one race schools. That’s the evidence that school diversity is a proven method of assigning students to schools and of raising achievement.

AW | 06:48 – In both white and African American populations, right?

JB | 06:53 – The Caucasian children do not suffer in high school graduation rates and in college admission rates, and overwhelmingly one race white schools the way that children of color are often disadvantaged by attending, especially the dual segregation based upon race or on language and on poverty. However, the children who are white in diverse settings go on to a far better opportunity to live within the growing diverse world and this nation. Two, to interact with less bias, less prejudice, less fear, and more common acceptance and comradery with children of different races. And the question that hasn’t been answered but asked is whether Caucasians who dominate in the field of management and in business can continue to succeed having been raised and largely a homogenous white community, and yet go to work in an often very racially and ethnically diverse community or responsible for business success by customers and by service providers who often represent a much more diverse world. That is what concerns persons who are white in training their children for a domestic and internationally global diverse world. 

AW | 08:56 – So in other words, if you were coming out of an elite university that wasn’t diverse in 1960 and you are white, it might not really affect you that greatly when you got to the workplace. Anybody who’s seen like mad men, it’s all white men who are in executive positions. As that reality has shifted, so has the reality of what defines elite education. Is that fair to say? 

JB | 09:23 – Yes. It’s also fair to say for an example, using a Supreme Court decision, a dealing with racial diversity and higher education, especially through using means in a careful manner, but not in any kind of quota, not in any kind of direct manner race and ethnicity. That in this, uh, case known as the University of Michigan cases around 2000 and uh, three, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the, uh, university mission law school’s policy where race was just used in a very careful way in one factor. But the significant part about preparing Caucasians for their role in higher achievement in the workplace is that corporate America filed a friend of a court brief saying that diversity was essential not only in working to better and together in the workplace, but also being able to produce products and services in a diverse world.

AW | 10:30 – So instead of diving into the, the arguments for and against affirmative action and the effects of affirmative action, let, let’s fast forward to something a little hidden secret that people tend to overlook within the greater question of diversity in education. And that’s legacy preferences, not only in college admissions, but in prep school boarding, school admissions. It’s something that I took for granted growing up in the northeast. I thought this was just par for the course that if you knew somebody who went to that school, they could help you get into that school. And that was, that was the reality. I assume that was the case everywhere, but it’s, it’s a practice that’s largely been done away with in most developed nations. Why don’t you explain your interest in it in the beginnings of it. Maybe take us to Texas a and m in the early two thousands and what Robert Gates, who was, was he president of the university at that time, what he encountered when legacy preference was put on his plate? 

JB | 11:32 – I backed into the subject known as legacy preferences. I say I backed into it because I had been both a public policy advocate for school diversity, particularly in K through 12 education, but also in higher education. And I’d also been, shall we say, a tactical advocate using strategy and persuasion. One method of persuasion is to point out inconsistencies. So I use legacy preference as a tactic to expose the contradictions for those who pose using some kind of special measures to gain a leg up to emissions into higher education. Let me just read a chapter from my book. Legacy Preferences are for the Rich In 2004, the Communist Blasted America for its frequent departures from the meritocratic idea of our founding fathers, despite their vision of a society that embodies the spirit of meritocracy, where all people are judged not on their progenitor, but upon their individual abilities. The economists upon modern Americans frequently overlook departures from that idea. The editors noted the biggest insult to meritocracy is found in the country’s top universities. These institutions which control access to the country’s most impressive jobs consider themselves far above Washington and its grubby ball system, yet they continue to operate a system of legacy preferences. Affirmative action for children of alumni at many elite postsecondary educational institutions, applicants with an alumni parent are accepted at two to three times the rate of those without leading one commentator to label legacy preference as the biggest affirmative action program in American higher education. That is the subject and the contradiction and the contrast between affirmative action for racial language, minorities and affirmative action for the children of alumni parents at an institution.

AW | 13:48 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio. I’m speaking to Professor John Brittain. He is a professor at the University of the District of Columbia, David Clark School of Law. So I had a discussion with a friend of mine who went to Dartmouth. And Dartmouth, you note in your book accepted in 2008, 164 children of alumni, the highest total in five years, which is 13% of its applicants. That’s relatively small compared to some similar schools in that same year, 2008, you note that Middlebury College, the acceptance rate for legacies was 50%. And Bowdoin College, it was around 40%. My friend had said, well, how will these schools make money if they prohibit legacy admissions being put into play as one of the factors in accepting students without having any real knowledge in it? I said, well, I think that these very well-funded schools will have a little bit of wiggle room to adapt. They have enormous endowments and they need to change their business model. But after reading some of your work, I realized that it doesn’t necessarily even affect it in the short term, does it in terms of the endowment and the, and the money that these schools bring in. Why don’t you explain? 

JB | 15:12 – The false argument is that if select schools in their legacy program, they will lose alumni development or donations. The statement lacks empirical data in support of it, and the method that compared that argument looked at schools that had abandoned or lowered their percentage of legacy admits, and they found no corresponding decrease in what universities call development. But the average person calls it a raising cash donations. In one particular instance, I was involved when I was the dean of the Texas Southern University Law School in Houston with, as you mentioned earlier, Texas a and m. We all know that a and m is a proud institution and like such institutions, it has myths and traditions that embody and invoke the pride. But my work, along with two other co-authors and researchers for a very somewhat controversial op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, the major paper in Houston that at Texas a and M1 of its most important traditions is what is called the myth of merit. And that academic environment, and especially admissions decisions are based solely on individual merit. 

AW | 16:56 – This need blind admissions, right?

JB | 16:59 – Need blind admissions is one form of, um, academic merit. But the most focused method and statistics that admissions look at on so-called merit are the applicants grade point average. And depending upon the level of admission to education, their admission tests such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test or other kinds of tests to, uh, determine who is most likely to succeed. And the, uh, episode arose when Robert Gates, who, uh, later became the Secretary of Defense, and he called himself the Secretary of War as original secretaries of defense were called when the nation was at war. And in some sense, gates faced a question. And the paradox that he faced is that when he came to the school during a period of time in which the courts had banned affirmative action in Texas and Louisiana and Mississippi in a certain circuit of the federal courts, and the Supreme Court later reversed that in these Michigan cases I earlier mentioned, and Texas could resume using affirmative action in a careful way that the Supreme Court describe. There are two major kind of flagship universities in Texas. One is the University of Texas at Austin, and the other is Texas… 

AW | 18:41 – Both public, right?

JB | 18:43 – Both public universities, which is kind of infrequent for these legacy programs. But when Gates announced that he would not resume affirmative action at Texas a and m, although he had very low minority admissions at that time of both African Americans and Latinos, but he pledged to do everything he could to raise admissions by, uh, recruiting and by, uh, other inducements, but by none of the factors looking at admissions in terms of, uh, any special measures. And at the time he made that announcement, he didn’t realize because he was relatively new, that he had a major deep and wide legacy preference program for a school when it was all male up until the sixties and then became co-ed. And they had a legacy preference that was wider and deeper than most, most legacy preference and say that if you are the child of a graduate, you’ll get extra points to get in. And by the way, in some schools, the legacy preference results and more children entering admission with legacy preference than children who admit whose parents didn’t graduate from school. But even if they students who didn’t graduate from the school whose parents didn’t graduate from school, the proportion of legacy preferences are always the highest and even higher than racial and ethnic affirmative action preferences of special admissions in the schools. But any event, when Gates, the president announced that he was not going to resume the, uh, state affirmative action programs at Texas a and m, although the University of Texas at Austin, indeed the legislature had passed legislation authorizing affirmative action he was going to resist. And that set off a firestorm of contradiction. And that’s how I got in it to be able to tease, to prick the conscience of how can you say you don’t want any special measures for racial and language children, yet you have these special measures for your legacy. And after a lot of criticism from the paper, from the legislative leaders, from many others, gates bit the bullet, and he ended the legacy preference at Texas a and m, much to a roar, much to a protest, much to disagreement with his decision at that time.

AW | 21:30 – When affirmative action efforts are blocked by usually conservative political voices. Right now the Trump administration is talking about trying to stop affirmative action in the courts. How does legacy preference legislation get affected by that? Is there a correlation in your view? 

JB | 21:50 – No. Legacy preference is the, uh, biggest contradiction in admissions preferences using special measures for racial and language minorities who were often excluded in the past and still underrepresented today to increase diversity for the educational and the social value is scrutinized, but it’s still legal and it’s still permitted, although there’s a chilling effect for, uh, universities with the kind of political opposition to it. And yet preferences for legacies based solely upon the inheritance by their parents is overlooked as if it, there’s nothing wrong with it, and it should continue without any kind of scrutiny. 

AW | 22:42 – Yes, you’re right that the legacy preference system is quote, affirmative action for the children of alumni. So it’s a different form of affirmative action in terms of that correlation. We have a perfect example right now in the White House. 

JB | 22:56 – I’ll give you it even more than the president himself. I’m going to go to his son-in-law. I read from the, uh, September edition of, uh, vanity Fair Magazine. There is a classic example of the legacy preference, and I’m, uh, reading that quote in a book, the Price of Admissions, Daniel Golden uses Jared Kushner as an example of how colleges operate. Jar got whatever grades he got in high school, but it wasn’t jar that mattered when his application went to Harvard. It was Charlie, his father, in 1998, when Jared was attending the fish school and starting to look at colleges, his father had pledged 2.5 million to Harvard to be paid in annual installments of $250,000. There is no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard. A former official at this fresh school told Goldie, I might add parenthetically, this fresh school is a very select school. His GPA to continue did not warrant it. His SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure there was no way this was going to happen. Then lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were, at the time, other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not. In this way, Kushner set up his son. Charlie was telling the world that’s his father, something about himself, connections, clout. Any idiot can get a genius into Harvard. It takes a mocker. I think that’s a Jewish type of word to get a middling white kid admitted. 

AW | 24:40 – I won’t be grading your Yiddish accent there, but that was not your finest work (laugh). 

JB | 24:44 – <laugh>. You’re correct, <laugh>. But, um, you get the picture. I do. And, um, that takes us right up to the White House. Yes, you can say the same thing about President Trump and his daddy and the University of Pennsylvania and it’s Wharton School of Business. 

AW | 25:00 – And as we laugh about Yiddish accents, there’s actually a direct correlation between the holistic approach to admissions that we’re talking about with Jared Kushner and it’s antecedent, sorry, in the, the influx of Jews that came into elite schools in their twenties before the Great Depression, right? 

JB | 25:21 – And the efforts by Harvard doing a very dark day in which they tried to exclude and to limit the number of Jews gaining admissions to the university. So their history and admissions, including up to now with, uh, Asians, has not been as good as its educational reputation.

 AW | 25:43 – And that that holistic approach is kind of veiled, deep rooted racism. And to call it anything else is kind of, uh, silly. They call it character as a qualifier, which we think of as anybody who goes through the high school process of trying to get into the best schools, is trying to build up their resume and work on their essays and go for these interviews. And all of that is pretty much thrown out the window in most other countries. And that this, uh, holistic approach really negates a lot of the need blind admissions efforts, doesn’t it? 

JB | 26:17 – That’s correct. And there is one other little secret behind, uh, my whole efforts and approach, and it came out with some backlash to, uh, my chapter in this book about affirmative action for the rich and legacy, uh, preferences. And that is many allies in the civil rights movement in law and in other disciplines are graduates of select schools. And they didn’t want to see whether their brethren such as I a, challenging this because they thought it might dry up some of the overwhelming support that graduates and indeed many select institutions from Harvard to Yale have strongly supported civil rights issues in the past. 

AW | 27:12 – I wanted to quote something in, Richard Berg’s introduction to a book, which where your chapter affirmative action for the rich and legacy preferences is included. Colin Berg writes, according to political scientist Thomas Dye in 2011, 54% of America’s top corporate leaders and 42% of its government leaders are graduates of just 12 institutions. I think that’s pretty stunning and it, it kind of gives you a, a, a, a sneak peek into why these elite universities continue and perpetuate the myth of meritocracy in this country.

JB | 27:49 – In many ways, that’s what it is. It is the myth of meritocracy. 

AW | 27:53 – Professor John Brittain is a professor at the University of District Columbia’s School of Law. John, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio. 

JB | 28:01 – Thank you for having me, Alex.

Narrator| 28:17 – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Fela Kuti. Check out our website at SeaChangeRadio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibbin, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.

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