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Partners and Senior Advisors use the firm's blog to write on current ethics and leadership topics.

Legacy Admissions: Another Perspective

I recently read a piece advocating legacy preferences in college and university admissions on economic and philanthropic grounds.  I want to offer a different perspective and a different conclusion.  At their core, legacy admissions policies are an ethical issue.

It is not uncommon in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors to turn thorny ethical issues into legal problems or management problems or economic problems because the latter seem easier to frame, to discuss, and to solve.  Thus, the ethical issues fade away and are never given serious consideration.  This often leads to what Bazerman and Tenbrunsel in their aptly titled book Blind Spots remind us is “the core aspect of bounded ethicality:  the fact that people often act unethically without their own awareness.”

Legacy admissions policies are what psychologists refer to as in-group favoritism, defined loosely as a bias “toward people who share our alma mater, religion, race, or gender.”  (Bazerman and Tebrunsel)  It seems innocent and humane to help those who are like us.  But, simply put, it is a form of discrimination when resources are scarce and those who are different from us are the victims of our actions.  And, there are real victims.  Bazerman and Tebrunsel point out that “because the victims of legacy admissions policies are statistical rather than identifiable, people fail to perceive that these practices cause harm, and the behavior of those responsible goes unchecked.”

Western ethical traditions propose that all people be treated the same unless there is a defensible and relevant difference between them that clearly justifies different treatment.  I think it hard to justify on ethical grounds that because Applicant A’s parents graduated from Hard to Get Into University (HGIU), that this is a “defensible and relevant difference” that should significantly improve his/her chances of being admitted to HGIU over Applicant B whose parents attended other institutions or no institution at all.

I also do not think it works ethically to fall back on an institutional sovereignty argument.  No educational institution today would make the argument that it can legally or ethically discriminate on the basis of race or gender as a matter of institutional sovereignty, although those arguments were made within the not so distant past.  Legacy admissions policies remain legal for now, just as there was a time when discrimination on the basis of race and gender was legal.  But, what is legal and what is ethical is not always the same thing.

Thoughtful and wise leaders of elite institutions will break through their bounded ethicality to consider legacy admissions policies as an ethical question.  During that analysis, they will ask the question … Are the current legacy admissions policies the ethical ground on which we want this institution to stand?

I expect many will answer … no.

Posted in Philanthropy
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