APOLOGIZING, as the NC Senate did recently, for slavery was a nice gesture. Now we should do something about it. Since slavery has been abolished already, without any help from the NC state legislature, we don't need to do that. But there are things North Carolina could, and should, do.
One thing that has already been done by the University of North Carolina is the Carolina Covenant. This is a great idea for the Chapel Hill campus because it opens a magnificent university to more of the people of our state by reducing the economic barriers for poorer students.
It is a great idea because it helps remediate the impact of past racist policies that excluded African-Americans from its campus, except as groundskeepers, housecleaners and maintenance workers, thereby helping to keep these poor people poor. But all that past isn't past us yet. The real, the literal racist legacy of UNC is not a historical artifact; it's a current admissions policy.
In the world of college admissions, legacies are the children and step-children of University alumni, and a "legacy policy" really means a "pro-legacy policy," that is, giving preference to legacies in admission. Legacy admissions, by perpetuating the impact of past discriminaton, are figuratively the step-children of our state's racist past.
In 2005 UNC's Advisory Committee on Undergraduate Admissions reviewed then-current practices and "endorsed the general principle of legacy admissions." In 2004 it was reported that UNC reserves about 80 spaces for out-of-state legacy students. For those against quotas, here's a "quota" to be against.
A purely merit-based admissions process provides advantage enough for these children who had the benefit of parents who were Carolina grads. This is a real, undeniable and irrevocable advantage. Having grown up in educated and relatively well-to-do Tar Heel families, these legacies are likely to be better students. I do not propose that we discriminate against them. This is a case, where we must acknowledge that life's not fair and get over it. But we also certainly don't need to promote and enhance such unfairness.
As affirmative action for rich kids, legacy admissions don't have much to recommend them as measure for promoting equality or social justice -- but they are a good way of getting big donors to make big donations. And that's one of the main reasons that they still exist.
The only good reason justifying legacy admissions is that they build the school's sense of loyalty and community across time. Almost by definition, however, this process of building community across time using legacies is opposed to diversity. Bias in favor of legacies will leave a school in the future looking more like it was in the past than the surrounding population in the present -- as compared to how it would look using pure merit.
The legacy policies are generally more pronounced at Ivy League colleges and at private colleges with Ivy-League-level aspirations than they are generally at public schools. According to The Wall Street Journal, legacy admissions account for 10 percent to 15 percent of students at most Ivy League schools. In 2003, at Penn, Princeton and Harvard, the chances of being accepted increase two-, three- and four-fold, respectively, for legacies.
But private schools, in my libertarian view, should be allowed to continue the practice if they wish -- and the best students should make note of it and go elsewhere if they do.
Because, even in the context of a supposedly non-discriminatory past, legacy policies still perpetuate the past inequities. Even if Harvard in 1850 didn't discriminate against African-American students (which I doubt is true), since most of the African Americans were being kept as slaves and deprived of formal education, not many were ever admitted. This left Harvard, Yale and other such schools with predominately white alumni and thus predominately white legacies.
Legacy admissions aren't an issue for non-selective colleges. Elizabeth City State University may or may not have pro-legacy admissions policy; it really doesn't matter. Anybody can get in anyway. Harvard, Yale and Princeton do have pro-legacy admissions policies, and they really do matter. If you graduate from one of these fine institutes of learning, whether you learn anything or not (cf. George W. Bush, John Kerry or any Kennedy), you may get to run the country. Many brighter and harder working students did not get the same chance, and most no doubt have succeeded in life, but perhaps did not have the same opportunity to succeed at the national level. America is poorer for that.
On this issue we can't fix Harvard, but we can fix Chapel Hill. Ending the legacy admissions preference, by bringing in the best qualified students possible regardless of birthright, would do two really good things: make UNC, and North Carolina, more elite and at the same time less elitist. I'm for that. How about you?
Gary D. Gaddy lives in Orange County not too far from Chapel Hill and holds a doctorate from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
A version of this article was published in the News and Observer (of Raleigh) April 15, 2007. Copyright 2007 Gary D. Gaddy