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The other affirmative action. (Publisher's Page).

In January, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would decide whether universities could use a point system that favored minorities in its admissions process, President George W. Bush threw himself into the debate over affirmative action by publicly challenging the University of Michigan's undergraduate and law school enrollment policy.

"I strongly support diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity in higher education, but the method used by the University of Michigan to achieve this important goal is fundamentally flawed," Bush said. "At their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students based solely on their race."

Bush and others who argue against Michigan's policies do so based on fundamental fairness and meritocracy. Yet their position presents a conflict considering they accept and defend another criteria--unrelated to merit--that gives an advantage to members of a specific racial group: legacy admissions.

Practiced by many of the nation's top universities, including the University of Michigan, legacy admissions call for the offspring of alumni and/or those who have made significant donations to an institution to receive an advantage during the admissions process. It is common for students to gain admission based on legacy status even when their academic records, leadership experiences, and other measures of merit are inferior to those of nonlegacy applicants who are not admitted.

The primary motivation behind legacy admissions is financial in nature. Alumni are willing to donate more money to their alma mater when they know their alumni status will get their child's foot in the door. While legacy admission policies may not be explicitly or intentionally racist, discrimination against minorities (as well as nonminorities who are not children of wealthy alumni) is an inevitable result. How many minority applicants can benefit from a policy that until one generation ago didn't accept them?

The legacy policy is affirmative action--a sort of de facto, race-based criteria. It's no different from the Grandfather Clause. Once used in southern states, the Grandfather Clause barred African Americans from voting if they or their descendants had not exercised that right prior to 1867. That was three years before the passage of the 15th Amendment, which granted former male slaves and free-born black males the right to vote. Legacy policies have a similar effect in that only a small number of African Americans and other minorities could possibly benefit from it.

The irony is that Bush is a chief beneficiary of legacy-driven affirmative action. Could he, an admittedly average student, have gotten into Yale if he were not the son of former President George H.W. Bush and the grandson of the late aristocratic Connecticut Senator Prescott S. Bush? Both men were wealthy and prominent Yale alumni.

The idea of eliminating legacy admissions is not relished by alumni, including some African Americans who don't want to lose the perk just as they are moving into the alumni ranks of universities that once excluded them. Nor do universities have an incentive to end legacies; they want every edge they can get to leverage contributions from alumni. But as long as legacy policies play a role, fairness demands that affirmative action at the University of Michigan remains--at least until African American and other minority students are able to benefit equally from legacy status.
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Author:Graves, Earl G., Jr.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:May 1, 2003
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