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Saturday, July 29, 2023

College Legacy Admissions - Ethos, Community, And Patriotism

 Now that affirmative action has been invalidated by the Supreme Court, there is a move to eliminate legacy - the policy that gives an advantage to children of alumni. While on the surface this shift seems to be a logical extension of eliminating racial prejudice, it is of a very different ilk.  Legacy is really a membership bonus program not unlike frequent flyer accounts on airlines where travelers are rewarded for their loyalty and their contribution to corporate profits.  A Yale alumnus who has contributed generously to the Alumni fund over many years should be eligible for a bonus for having provided the university with funds for scholarships, infrastructure, and top quality teachers. 

Not only that, legacy programs keep a certain ethos going - a Yale whose matriculants are drawn willy-nilly from the pool of applicants will eventually be no different than a public university and no longer the elite institution it has always been.  

John Harkins, Yale '60 was a proud member of the alumni community just like his father, grandfather, and great grandfather before him.  He was a Yalie, true blue, steadfast in his financial support, attendee at all reunions, monthly contributor to the alumni notes, a conscientious voter on university appointments and campus issues, a member of the New York Yale Club and frequent guest at Washington's many Yale house parties. 

Harkins had attended Andover - as had his father and grandfather - and with his academic and extracurricular record there, Yale would have been a lock even without legacy.  In the late Fifties the university still favored boys from New England prep schools - the era of public school predominance only came years later.

Isaiah Harkins had attended Yale in the years shortly after its founding.  He like the other young men attending the small college destined for international reputation, was a notable in New England society.  He was descended from English royalty but was firmly republican in the Revolutionary War.  He went on to build a shipping business that profited from the burgeoning Three Cornered Trade and invested his earnings in real estate, logging, and shipbuilding. 

The Harkins family continued its patriotic, energetic, and profitable contributions to the new nation, and became one of the wealthiest and best respected of all Beacon Hill families.  It was a family of tradition, honor, duty, and loyalty - a noblesse oblige of the best kind. 

Harkins was not alone as an elite member of New England society.  His classmates were all from well-known families of Boston and New York, all with similar pedigrees. Whether they had prepped at Andover or Groton, St. Paul, or St. Mark's they were of the same lineage, the same storied history, and the same likes and dislikes.  They were to a man conservative in thought, word, and deed - conservative in the best Hamiltonian sense.  They were parsimonious with their great wealth and lived with taste and reserve.  Their homes were appointed with the best of Revere, Chippendale, and Townsend.  Original Turners and Gainsboroughs were on the walls, and the finest Persian carpets on the floors.

All of which created a sophisticated ethos at Yale - one of confidence and tradition. Students would follow one another to Wall Street or corporate America, would distinguish themselves and burnish the family reputation while contributing to the prosperity of many. 

The reign of Inslee Clark, Dean of Yale College in the mid-Sixties changed all that.  Clark opened Yale up to the many - high-achieving Jews from New York, top-ranked students from the best public schools, and a smattering of ethnic diversity; but with these changes - it was about time that Yale secured its position admitting the very best and the brightest, not just privileged legatees - came the loss of ethos, social integrity, and community. 

Yale for three hundred years had been the locus of American ideals, embodying the principles of Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin and exponents of the nation that was created out of the Enlightenment.  Now with 'diversity', that reign of propriety, service, patriotism, and honor, has disappeared.  Yale is now a collection of individuals grouped along racial, ethnic, and gender lines. Identity is the key to belonging.  You represent only the ethnic or racial group from which you come - Puerto Rican South Bronx, black Mississippian, transgender San Francisco gay man. 

A potpourri of America, mixed on the basis of 'identity'.  Yale is no longer the elite institution it once was.  Gone are tributes to American history as one by one Yale's residential colleges are renamed to recognize modern heroes whose achievements are less important than their racial and gender identity.  Yale, like many American institutions has been cancelled, revised, expunged of the past. 

Legacy preference used to matter, for it assured the social homogeneity of the university - not just any homogenous student body, but one characterized by the best American post-Revolutionary traditions.  It was a legacy of Hamiltonian patriotism. 

The Hamilton-Jefferson debates concerning the political organization of America are well-known.  Hamilton favored a limited democracy, one in which men like John Harkins' ancestors assured the consistency of principal Constitutional values - a firewall against the majority easily swayed by demagoguery.  

Legacy admissions mean nothing in the current environment of 'diversity' in which the background of students changes with the times.  In an era of race-gender-ethnicity politics, students have been selected less on the basis of performance and more on identity.  Along with this 'democratization', the cachet of Yale is disappearing. While the name 'Yale' still has impact, it has become only one school among many, indistinct from the public universities of the Midwest. 

Last but not least, the exclusion of legacy from the admissions process means fewer donations. What is the point of supporting Yale, an institution taking whomever and perhaps not one's son or daughter?

Legacy admissions will soon be a thing of the past, so one can only hope that the hodge-podge of graduating students will find some loose change in their pockets to support Yale.  The alumni office has its work cut out for it, creating a new ethos for the new Yale. No longer can one expect the full-throated male chorus of voices singing Bright College Years at reunions - that too is gone in a purge of the old school.  Time will tell if a new ethos will emerge and the name Yale will have salience. 

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