Though Penn founder Benjamin Franklin once said, “a man who makes boast of his ancestors doth but advertise his own insignificance,” the University acknowledges legacy status to maintain tradition and economic stability.
Such benefits are central to Penn’s well-being, but many people have criticized preferential legacy admissions — both on Penn’s campus and nationwide.
Three-fourths of public and private research universities and most top liberal arts colleges utilize legacy preference. However, 75 percent of Americans oppose the admissions method, according to The New York Times.
The reasons behind opposition are wide ranging, and many books and higher-education articles are written on the subject every year.
Steve Shadowen, a Pennsylvania attorney who studies legacy admissions, believes that legacy preference violates the 14th Amendment, as well as public accommodation statutes.
“It’s very clear that the Founding Fathers wanted to rid the country of the vestiges of feudalism and aristocracy, and a big part of doing that was eliminating preferences based on family lineages,” Shadowen argued. Legacy preference is “a moral abomination, and un-American in the deepest sense of the word,” he added.
While the 14th Amendment only affects state institutions, the public accommodation statutes apply directly to private schools.
“There is deep underlying class discrimination on a widespread scale at almost all elite universities in the country,” Shadowen said.
In conjunction with socioeconomic discrimination, many assert that legacy preference perpetuates racial prejudice.
“Legacy admissions instills white privilege and keeps the cycle going of less diversity at the University,” said College junior Ollin Venegas, the vice president of MEChA — Penn’s Chicano cultural group. “The first Latino came to Penn in the early 70s, and now there are only 3-to-4 percent domestic Latinos, so it’s going to take a long time for us to catch up.”
Penn administrators say they are cognizant of these issues and have worked to promote diversity for decades. The University created an admissions policy to promote race as far back as 1967 and currently utilizes an affirmative action program to benefit minorities in admissions.
“At the end of the day, we need to feel like we’re doing everything we can to create a diverse class, achievement with the highest promise, ever growing to represent changing landscape of the United States as well as the globe,” Dean of Admissions Eric Furda said.
Penn’s “broad outreach and focus on diversity” over the last 30 years will be reflected in future legacy pools, he added.
A preferential admissions policy for legacies also creates the expectation for alumni that their child will be admitted. While studies show that universities with a legacy admissions policy don’t receive more donations than schools without such policies, colleges can potentially lose donations if they reject the child of a donor.
Furda has “absolutely” dealt with angry reactions that, according to him, are intensified by families that have deeper connections to the institution. “That’s what my April’s all about,” he said.
Vice President of Development and Alumni Relations John Zeller agreed that a disappointed child can taint a relationship, but mentioned that “if a son or daughter goes somewhere else and is happy, sometimes families reconnect later.”
“Parents are often unhappy but they understand that admissions standards were different in their own day,” said Sally Rubenstone, senior advisor at College Confidential. “Sometimes though, a rejection that takes wind out of their sails also takes the oomph out of their donations.”
Waitlisting students to “lighten the blow” and avoid some of these conflicts is a very common practice, according to Rubenstone.
“The term you’ll hear is ‘courtesy waitlist,’” she explained. “These serve as sort of honorable mentions and have more esteem than outright rejection, but courtesy students aren’t usually accepted later.”
A final detriment of legacy preference affects the legacies themselves. Many second-generation students complain of an academic stigma stemming from their admissions benefits.
“As a freshman, I remember people giving me that look, ‘oh, that’s why you’re here,’” Engineering senior and legacy Will Safrin recalled.
Wharton sophomore Brett Schlesinger felt the stakes were higher during his application process. “Kids at my school would be like, ‘You’re absolutely going to get into Penn — your parents went to undergrad, grad and postgrad there,’” he said.
When Engineering sophomore Ethan Hassenfeld first looked at Penn, he said that the Fisher-Hassenfeld name on the Quad was “a big turn-off.”
Hassenfeld, who is not a legacy — his grandfather’s brother’s family is the one tied to the University — avoided disclosing his last name as often as possible during his freshman year.
“People were standoffish when they realized I was related to the donor,” he remembered. “They categorized me as ‘not normal.’”Comments powered by Disqus
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