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Michael A. Kippins, a litigation fellow for Lawyers for Civil Rights who filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education over Harvard’s legacy preferences, argued for ending legacy admissions at a Wednesday panel.
Harvard Alumni Against Legacy hosted the event, which marked the new activism group’s official launch. Kippins and Viet A. Nguyen, the executive director of educational equity advocacy group EdMobilizer, discussed misconceptions about legacy admissions and ways universities can end the practice during the panel.
The discussion, hosted at Harvard Divinity School, was moderated by Harvard Graduate School of Education student Jordan A. Weatherl.
Just five days after the Supreme Court ruled to overturn race-based affirmative action in higher education, Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a complaint with the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, alleging that Harvard’s use of legacy and donor preferences in admissions violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The complaint, filed on behalf of three Black and Latinx groups, requested the Department of Education investigate Harvard’s admissions process. The Ed Department opened a civil rights investigation into Harvard’s use of legacy and donor preferences in July.
During the panel, Kippins said he believes legacy admissions create a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” where the country’s highest earners are disproportionately likely to gain admissions to top schools and maintain their status.
“Twelve universities or colleges are producing the top 1 percent of people who are earners, for example, or who run businesses or run for office, or who just in general control money and power,” Kippins said. “And this is one way of ensuring that that power stays put.”
Kippins also argued that eliminating legacy preferences does not have a meaningful impact on alumni donations, contrary to popular belief.
“There are certainly studies out there that say, particularly to this myth, that the top 100 schools have been analyzed and changes to legacy admissions have been shown to have little to no effect on what the donations look like,” Kippins said.
Nguyen said EdMobilizer’s research found that legacy admissions were a major factor “creating economic inequality within higher education” and preventing first-generation students from applying.
“Legacy preferences just kept coming up over and over again. And for us, it was so blatantly clear that this was a classist and racist policy,” Nguyen said.
In response to criticisms of the University’s admissions practices, Harvard spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo pointed to a statement the University released following the Ed Department’s announcement that it would investigate the complaint brought by Lawyers for Civil Rights.
“We are in the process of reviewing aspects of our admissions policies to assure compliance with the law and to carry forward Harvard’s long standing commitment to welcoming students of extraordinary talent and promise who come from a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences,” the July statement reads.
Still, Nguyen said it can be challenging to engage alumni in advocacy work because they have both “the biggest incentive to save” legacy preferences and “the most sway within the institution.”
“Because of Operation Varsity Blues, because of the scandals, because of the affirmative action case — more and more folks are coming out,” Nguyen said. “I think everyone’s realizing that the racial and economic disparities in America have gotten so much worse, so people can’t stay silent anymore.”
When asked whether eliminating legacy admissions could also cause people to rally against the consideration of first-generation status in admissions processes, Nguyen said that the topic “hasn’t come up before.”
“Even when I talk to admissions offices now, one of the proxies to account for race — it has been first-generation status,” Nguyen said. “And I think the reason for that is class tends to be less divisive in the U.S. than race.”
In an interview following the panel, Kippins said he is unsure how long the issue of legacy admissions might be contested legally, describing it as “something that can’t really be pinned down.”
“The investigation needs to be thorough and the Department of Education needs to interview the right people — analyze the right data,” he added.
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