In light of Senator Ted Kennedy’s passing last week — the loss of the patriarch of America’s “royal” family — I’ve been thinking about legacy and its role in present day America, as well as within the country’s university system.
Though Ted Kennedy inarguably had a profound impact on American politics during his 46-year reign in the Senate, the degree to which his success was “deserved” so-to-say is debatable. While he may have been the beacon of modern American liberalism, championing equality and a better life for the underprivileged, he was hardly a man of pristine moral stature.
For the first part of his life, Kennedy largely rode on the coattails of his father and his brothers. Despite his less-than-stellar grades, he was accepted to Harvard as a prominent legacy. Yet while there, he was expelled for cheating on a Spanish exam, and thus enlisted in the Army where his father used his inner-circle connections to assure that the young Kennedy was assigned to Paris, literally dodging a bullet from the Korean War.
When his brother, John, gave up his Senate seat to run for President, he serendipitously was elected as his replacement in 1962 at the striking young age of 30. And seven years later, he infamously drove Mary Jo Kopechne off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, swam to shore and fled the incident. Though Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, the repercussions of this event haunted his personal and political life.
Nevertheless, Kennedy returned to the Senate after a two-month suspension where he devoted himself to becoming a premiere legislator — his personal means of redemption. Known as the “Lion of the Senate,” Kennedy wrote more than 2,500 bills of which over 300 were transformed into law. He advocated civil rights and voting rights for all, worked to ban discrimination against those with disabilities in the workplace, raised the minimum wage and ensured health care for more than seven million children from low-income families. Yet more than being confident in his liberal ideology, Kennedy understood both the pragmatic need and the tremendous value of bipartisanship. He will be remembered for reaching across the isle and using his profound influence to produce comprehensive bills that reflect political collaboration — fundamental to the sanctity of American democracy. It was along these lines that Kennedy hoped to establish universal health care, which he regarded as the ultimate “cause of his life.”
Thus, in analyzing Ted Kennedy’s roller-coaster life, my moral barometer kicked in as I began to question his legacy. On the one hand, he was the ultimate celebrity politician, thriving on glamour, fame and tragedy more than merit or personal achievements, and on the other, he was a survivor, a fighter and his unremitting determination to impact American politics benefited the lives of millions. Simply put, Kennedy embodies both the pros and cons of legacy — a relatively free ride to the top and sound deliverance once he made it there. Moreover, he fought for the values in Congress that his family name had instilled in him, those of triumph, equality and dignity for all. It was Kennedy’s embodiment of these values that will preserve his family’s name.
While contemplating the merits of Kennedy’s biography, I began to think about the role of legacy here at Cornell. I, myself, am the daughter of an alumnus, and frequently find myself biting my tongue before letting others now that perhaps I have a minor string attached to my name.
My college search process consisted of me swimming upriver, fighting the current ever-so-desperately in order to find a college that my father did not attend. As a stubborn 16-year-old, I was adamant about doing my own thing, finding my own ground and ensuring that I got accepted into a college solely on merit. Yet after months of college tours, dreadful info-sessions and nightmares about SAT statistics, I realized that despite all my efforts to despise Cornell, I just couldn’t do it. Though my father never put pressure on me to attend Cornell, it wasn’t until someone told me that the only thing more ridiculous than going to a college because your dad went there is not going to a college because your dad went there, that I realized whoa — Cornell really is the right place for me.
Yet despite this mini-epiphany, I still sometimes question whether I really deserve to be here — whether at the end of the day, I would have gotten into Cornell without my legacy status. There are those who say legacy is nothing but affirmative action for wealthy people, and sometimes I wonder how true this statement really is. Associate Provost for Admissions and Enrollment Doris Davis wrote in an e-mal to me, “Applications from legacies are reviewed through the same process as all other applications [with] legacy status as one of many factors that may be taken into consideration in reviewing a student’s application.” On par with most of the Ivy League, 14 percent of Cornell’s freshman class this year are legacies. Yet a far more disturbing figure in my mind is that an ABC News story last year cites Princeton’s legacy acceptance rate as more than three times than that of its general applicant pool in 2008.
Thus, given these numbers, it is clear that to some degree, legacies are favored in the application process, at least within the Ivy League. It is what way, shape or form, and why these students are given an extra push, that remains unclear and top-secret information.
Inevitably, alumni financial support is a large incentive to accept legacies — even more so in this economic climate. Yet, there is more to most legacies than merely dollar signs. Ivy Leagues in particular thrive on tradition and history, and maintain their prestigious status in part due to their connection to successful — and loyal — alumni. Legacy only gets you so far. It is once you get through the door — whether that be the gates to the university or the Senate floor — that you have to prove yourself. Because regardless of your last name, it’s what you do once you’re there that matters.
Carolyn Witte is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Wit’s End appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.