November 11, 2018

GUEST ROOM | Want Cornell to Be the American College? Abolish Legacy Admissions

Print More

In his 1972 inauguration speech, former Cornell President Frank Rhodes noted that Cornell, blending the intellectual atmosphere of an Ivy League institution with the practicality of a public university, is a bit of a misfit. That is, it’s not quite intellectually absorbed to be considered among the likes of Harvard, Yale and Princeton, and not so accessible and pragmatic to be considered among public universities.

Last Saturday, President Martha  Pollack embraced Cornell’s ambiguity, suggesting that those hunting the essentially American college will identify Cornell — and perhaps Harvard, Yale and Princeton. That would be true if Cornell’s commitment to the public good — exemplified by both its founding mission and land-grant status -— was not tarnished by an artifact of elitism: legacy admissions.

To advocate so strongly our college’s public mission while consequently employing a practice that gives preference to those who were privileged to begin with is simply wrong. When asked about legacy admissions, Pollack answered that the University is “trying to create Cornell families that go on for generations.” Is this not at least reminiscent of aristocracy?

Why is it that affirmative action is criticized as discriminatory while so many turn a blind eye to legacy admissions? The first is at least defensible. Many, if not most, would agree that underrepresented minorities suffer some sort of additional challenges in life and that diversity does have an inherent benefit. Children of Cornell alumni aren’t facing any challenges in life that others aren’t — except, perhaps, being hauled into the cold Ithaca weather during Homecoming.

One the most-heard arguments in favor of legacy admissions are that they help to bring in donations and grow the University’s endowment. Of course, this makes sense in theory but that doesn’t mean it’s true. MIT has an endowment twice as large as ours even though it gives no preference to legacy applicants (and both Cornell and MIT were founded within five years of each other, so the difference certainly isn’t due to a difference in time).

Another common defense of legacy admissions is that it’s only used to give legacy students an advantage among equally qualified applicants. One Cornell admissions officer said that it gives “some preference … with all other things equal.” Of course this sounds great, but in reality there’s no such thing as equally qualified applicants. If an employer receives 60 applications for one position, it doesn’t throw darts to pick among the top five; the single strongest applicant gets the job. Similarly, admissions should pick the strongest applicants, disregarding legacy status.

Furthermore, we can be fairly certain that Cornell gives more than just some preference to legacy applicants. Cornell doesn’t release statistics on acceptance rates for legacies, but that doesn’t mean we can’t guess. Roughly 15 percent of students at Cornell are legacy students compared to just 13 percent at Harvard. Harvard already admits legacy students at four times the regular admission rate, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that Cornell would enjoy at least an equally large advantage.

Just to clarify, I have nothing against people whose parents happened to go to Cornell — after all, I’m going to have kids eventually — but I do take issue with the preference given to legacies in the admission process. If a student truly deserves to be here, they’ll be able to make it in with or without a “slight preference” because their parent attended Cornell. Admissions should depend on what you’ve accomplished, not on what your parents have. The essentially American college should essentially be a meritocracy. If President Pollack wants Cornell to be the essential American college, she can start by cleansing it of legacy admissions.

Joseph Campbell is a freshman in the College of Human Ecology. Guest Room runs periodically. Comments may be sent to