Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor

October 7, 2023

KOH | Cornell, Pick a Legacy: Admissions or Aspirations?

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In the heart of the quiet greens of the Arts Quad, a stoic Andrew Dickson White, Cornell’s first president, sits and overlooks the campus before the commanding columns of Goldwin Smith Hall. On the other side, the University’s founder, Ezra Cornell, is perched upon a stone podium shaded by leafy trees and eyes the strolling students throughout the day. These two statues uphold and defend the University mission they had long ago declared: to establish “an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”

As I pass by the builders of this University on my way to classes, I am always reminded of Cornell’s motto of inclusivity and diversity. Simultaneously, however, I am also reminded of the University’s hypocritical stance on the riddance of affirmative action, and its continued practice of legacy admissions.

This past June, the Supreme Court reached the historic decision to abolish affirmative action, a race-conscious practice adopted by universities to foster diversity and equality, especially for underrepresented communities. Affirmative action was activated in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson initially for the workplace, before spreading to academic institutions. This 58-year-old practice met its demise because it threatened the “‘colorblind Constitution’”, according to Chief Justice Clarence Thomas in the Court’s opinion.

Many universities, including Cornell, have spoken out in protest. On June 29th, President Pollack released a statement expressing the University’s disappointment in the Supreme Court, and its commitment to its core values: discovery, free speech and expression, a community where “any person can find instruction”, exploration, public engagement and environmental sustainability.  

Other universities had a stronger response. Wesleyan University and the University of Minnesota both announced in July that they would no longer be practicing admission preference for alumni’s children in response to the Court’s ruling. This decision was supported because it was deemed unfair to continue a preference for legacy applicants, which tends to benefit wealthy students over underrepresented communities. They joined other major universities, such as MIT, Johns Hopkins University, and Amherst College, which had all previously decided to end legacy admissions.

Historically and statistically, applicants with legacy have an evident advantage over other students at receiving an acceptance letter in their inboxes. According to a New York Times study, the admissions rate for legacy applicants is a hefty 37 percent within the Ivy League and other elite universities; for non-legacy students, it is a disheartening 9.5 percent. More than half of legacy applicants also tend to be within the 95th to 100th percentile of parental income, confirming that most legacy students come from wealthy families.

That is not to say, however, that applicants with alumni parents are less qualified nor bright than accepted non-legacy students. All students accepted into the University have earned their place on campus; whether or not a student was accepted with legacy admissions or not does not define their intelligence or qualification. However, the statistics provided by NYT suggest a large preference of students with legacy simply because of legacy admissions; when the same legacy applicants applied to other similar universities, they had an 11% admissions rate, which is just slightly over the 9.5% for non-legacy participants. These numbers reveal that the legacy and non-legacy groups were similar on paper in terms of GPA, test scores and other determining factors; they instead prove that the whopping 37 percent admissions rate at their parents’ universities is indeed just because of legacy. In addition, a common trend seen across colleges is that a vast majority of legacy students are white. For example, Princeton revealed that 73 percent of Class of 2023 legacy students identified as white, while it was 70 percent at Harvard in 2019. Diversity among students with legacies at Cornell is also not very prevalent; in fact, Black students were outnumbered by legacy students at Cornell within the freshmen class in 2022.

So, why is a practice that favors wealthy and predominantly white applicants, when schools are striving for diversity and equality, still in practice? With affirmative action now gone, there is no assurance that universities will strive for diversity and equality among students; without this measure, the dominating wealthy and white majority of legacy students will largely remain unchanged even in the future.

Supreme Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his opinion that affirmative action is a form of racialism, and that its elimination would allow us to “see each other for what we truly are: individuals with unique thoughts, perspectives, and goals”. If this is the case, why should a practice that services a group of people based on their parents still be followed? How can Cornell truly live up to its 1868 principle of “any person, any study” when it still uses legacy preference — which is actually rooted in a history of discrimination against Jewish students in order to preserve a Protestant academic setting in elite universities?

So far, Cornell has not addressed legacy admissions at all. In fact, the call to end legacy admissions is nothing new. In 2022, the Student Assembly unanimously passed Resolution 35: Calling on Cornell to Eliminate Legacy Preference in Admissions; this request was rejected by President Martha Pollack.

This action does not line up with President Pollack’s declaration at the Student Assembly that took place on Sept. 28: “Cornell remains verbally committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. In fact, diversity, equality and inclusion and free speech are two of our core values.” The very history and role of legacy admissions counters this statement. When a group of applicants are favored not because of their own merits and accomplishments, but for their parents’, a community of equality and inclusion is a wishful fantasy.

What makes Cornell the tight and proud community that it is has a lot to do with its alumni community. This community is enforced by legacy admissions, but it will not crumble without it. The school’s history, people and opportunities play a larger role in strengthening such a community. As a future alumna, I would want my own children, should they want to attend Cornell as well, to earn their own place as a student without my influence in an equal playing field.

With the end of affirmative action, it is time for the University to reconsider eliminating legacy admissions. This move, should it be made, will be a historic and drastic change, as Cornell would be the first Ivy League school to do so. Perhaps the passing of the 100-year old practice will usher in a new era of admissions where —for the first time in American history — applicants will stand on equal ground, armed with only their ambitions, achievements and effort.

Serin Koh is a third year student in the College of Arts and Sciences. Her fortnightly column And That’s the Skoop explores student, academic and social culture, as well as national issues, at Cornell. She can be reached at [email protected].

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