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#336 Varsity Blues, Legacy, and Equity: the Challenge to the Philanthropy Sector

April 1st, 2019

Richard Marker

This was first posted on 21 March. Apparently a tech error prevented it from being disseminated to all subscribers.

I was a third generation “legacy” attendee of an Ivy League school. Growing up, I don’t recall too much uncertainty about whether I could go there – only if. We attended football games, my family made annual gifts [although, admittedly, there are no buildings or chairs bearing the family name], and I knew all of the school songs [do they still do that?]

My subsequent career has, I am proud to say, justified their acceptance, but I daresay, looking back, I would have been a marginal applicant today. It is my suspicion that the admissions committee did not have a heart to heart about my capabilities; rather, I was a “legacy; next application…”

In those days, that kind of legacy was sort of assumed. It rarely required an affirmative or expensive buy-in. It was the privilege that accompanied privilege.

We didn’t think about that too much in those by-gone days. I became more aware of it during the 11 years I subsequently spent teaching/working at a different Ivy League school as the world began to change and last names more readily attracted attention. But so did proactive “diversity”. There was the sense that whatever favors names or money or national origin or color brought, they were capable students who just happened to have a leg up in the ever more perverse and competitive admission process. [Along the way, I learned that there was a lot more inscrutability to the process than how much money someone had.] [My son and my nephew chose not to attend the family legacy school, so it is left to our 3-year-old grandson and his cousins to, perhaps, resurrect the chain. But that is a long way off – a good thing given the current financial realities. And only incidental to the remainder of this post.]

In any case, over the past days, there have been millions of words written about the admissions scandals – legal and illegal – in American higher education. What concerns me in reading them is that too many of the op-eds and government responses focus on too narrow a question. Here are some of my responses:

• Let’s be cautious about passing new laws regarding endowments and tax deductability. Bad cases make bad law and too quick a “fix” may saddle us with even bigger problems for both philanthropy and education. Both need fixes – but not headline-driven patches.

• I am struggling with the all too thin line between illegal bribery and legal influence buying. Of course, there is a difference, but they reflect deeper systemic issues that encompass both.

• Underlying the bribery is the reality that that not all favored admission is to the wealthy; it is, though, to the wealth of the school Athletes bring a different financial value to a school. All one has to do is look at how much a university nets from a bowl game or a March Madness slot.

• There is a real issue of what the true meaning of education has become. Here is a case where a very dated marketing device to encourage higher education has come back to bite us: Starting in the 50’s, students were encouraged to attend higher education to enhance their earning ability; true and fair enough. But when earning ability supersedes critical thinking and education as a deep-seated societal value, it loses something. [I needn’t belabor this point: We are paying the price today in the character of public discourse, the absence of critical thinking, and the horrendous lacunae of basic knowledge by too many in the USA.]

• This leads us to the challenge to and of education. We have an ethically abysmal system. Even moderately upper middle-class families cannot afford most elite higher education, and lower middle class are even priced out of State schools. And if one takes a look at the shocking attempts to defund and privatize El-Hi education as well, we have a profoundly cynical approach to the concept of civic obligation toward an educated and literate populace. [I am reminded that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin created the first free library out of a belief that a democracy can only function if the demos is literate! How far have we fallen from those ideals?!]]

There are few public policies more transcendent than that of education. With the erosion of the commitment to a thoughtful and thinking population, combined with the sense that, at least at the higher education level, it must be bought, we have a much greater problem than a few wealthy people securing their place in a social caste system.

Philanthropy does not have clean hands in this. After all, the largest gifts typically go to the already wealthy institutions. And while a few outliers like Michael Bloomberg may have committed a 10-figure gift toward scholarships at his own elite alma mater, one has to look very long and hard to find equivalent 7, 8, or 9 figure gifts to the institutions a bit lower on the class scale, but perhaps no lower on the teaching one. Our field talks a lot about equity, power, and the challenge of privilege, but it is rare indeed that our largest investments go to the kinds of investments and grantmaking that redress those societal needs.

More than anything, education needs a major adjustment in public policy – more resources, more affordability, and more genuine commitment to critical thinking. No question that philanthropy can never and should never be expected to do that alone. What we do have is an obligation to make sure that we are using our position of suasion and our resources in ways that narrow the caste, wealth, and learning gap.

If not, we may be sure that Varsity Blues type scandals will continue to cast a harsh light on our privilege.

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