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After crisis upon crisis at Harvard, a long-simmering issue is emerging: legacy admissions

Some say the need to protect diversity and eliminate the practice has new urgency

Elyse Martin-Smith, a Harvard student and political action chair of the Harvard Black Students Association, is working with a new nonprofit group called Class Action to try to eliminate legacy preferences in admissions.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

For months, Harvard University has endured a series of fast-moving crises, with controversies over antisemitism, plagiarism, and free speech blaring across social media and whipping up headlines.

In the background, though, a longer-simmering issue has quietly gained traction, one with the potential to shift the institution’s character profoundly over the long term.

A growing chorus of voices is calling on Harvard and other top colleges to eliminate their longstanding admissions preferences for children of alumni. Known as “legacy preferences,” these advantages tend to favor white students from affluent families.

After last year’s Supreme Court ruling against Harvard, which banned race-based affirmative action in admissions, and the recent resignation under pressure of Claudine Gay, Harvard’s first Black president, some are urging Harvard to do more to protect diversity — and arguing that the need for the university to end legacy admissions has taken on a stark new urgency.

“In the face of attacks on Harvard by anti-DEI forces leading to the devastating loss of president Gay, Harvard must reaffirm its commitment to DEI and racial justice more forcefully than ever,” said Jane Sujen Bock, a Harvard alumna and board member of the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard, via email. “Abandoning legacy and donor preferences is one small step that Harvard can take to create a fairer, more inclusive university.”

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Harvard student Muskaan Arshad questioned the rhetoric of conservatives targeting campus diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts across the country as antimeritocratic. “If you believe in a meritocracy, why isn’t [ending legacy admissions] something you’re pushing for?” she said. “It’s clear the pushback comes from racism, not a real commitment to meritocracy.”

Harvard announced last summer that it had launched an internal review of its admissions policies. Hopi Hoekstra, Harvard’s dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, subsequently told The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, that ending legacy preferences “is one of the things that’s under consideration.”

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A Harvard spokesperson said interim president Alan Garber was not available for an interview.

Harvard is far from alone in offering an admissions advantage to children of alumni. About 500 nonprofit four-year US colleges consider legacy status in admissions, according to a report by the nonprofit think tank Education Reform Now. Every Ivy League school still does, though prestigious universities such as MIT and Johns Hopkins University do not.

Among top schools, the legacy advantage is pronounced: At 12 elite colleges known as “Ivy-Plus,” legacy applicants were about four times more likely to be admitted as students with equivalent test scores, according to a 2023 study by Harvard and Brown University professors.

Critics have long charged that giving children of alumni an unearned advantage is deeply antimeritocratic and reinforces hereditary wealth inequities in society. Fully 75 percent of Americans disapprove of legacy preferences, according to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey.

“Legacy kids have lived, on average, some of the most advantaged lives of all of these applicants,” said Harvard education professor Susan Dynarski during a forum last September at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “They don’t need a thumb on the scale.”

Colleges generally defend legacy admissions as a way to promote community and alumni engagement. “When a Williams student calls a Williams alumnus, the alumnus will pick up the phone and try to help,” said Williams College philosophy professor Steven Gerrard, who attributed that sense of intergenerational connection in part to legacy admissions.

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Elite colleges also have a powerful financial motive to keep legacy preferences, according to a 2022 study by MIT and University of Colorado professors, who found that donations are strongly linked to legacy admissions, and legacy students are generally wealthier and more likely to pay full tuition.

Recent events have sharpened the criticism of top schools such as Harvard, however. James Murphy, deputy director of higher education policy at Education Reform Now, drew a lesson from the way Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania recently “caved to mega-donors,” he said, with their presidents’ resignations.

If a billionaire told them to abandon legacy preferences, he said, “they’d do it in a second. In a heartbeat.”

Since 2015, more than 100 colleges have stopped reporting that they consider legacy status in admissions, according to Education Reform Now. Both Amherst College and Wesleyan University made headlines when they dropped legacy admissions in recent years.

“We wanted to send the word out that we are eager to have a diverse class, despite the Supreme Court ruling,” said Wesleyan president Michael Roth, who described Wesleyan’s announcement last summer as broadly popular. “Both small and large donors think it’s the right thing, and they’re proud of the school.”

Roth stopped short of giving advice to other colleges, but had some stinging words for the Ivy League: “I think it’s obscene for the wealthiest schools in the country to say they need to preserve something that’s unfair, in the name of fund-raising,” he said. “There are schools that have to do some things to be economically viable that they wouldn’t otherwise. I don’t think the Ivy Leagues are among those.”

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Harvard now faces attacks on its legacy admissions policy from multiple directions. The federal government launched a civil rights investigation into Harvard’s legacy and donor preferences last July, triggered by a complaint filed by the group Lawyers for Civil Rights alleging that those preferences “provide a competitive advantage to predominantly white, wealthy applicants, which significantly diminishes opportunities for qualified applicants of color.”

A new nonprofit called Class Action also recently launched a grass-roots anti-legacy admissions campaign aimed at elite colleges nationwide. The first-of-its-kind organization, which includes high-profile academics and administrators as well as alumni, has built a network of student groups on over a dozen campuses including Harvard, according to board chairperson Evan Mandery, a criminal justice professor at City University of New York and author of the book “Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us.”

“I’m steadfastly convinced there will be dominoes, and once one of the Ivys ends it, it will all end relatively quickly,” Mandery said. “Harvard should go first.”

Massachusetts lawmakers have filed two bills targeting legacy admissions. One, from Senator Lydia Edwards and House majority leader Michael Moran, would ban them outright.

Edwards questioned how elite colleges can continue to justify the practice. “They have a financial interest in legacy admissions, and I think they need to admit it,” she said. “You’re really not that elite if you’re for sale.”

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Another bill, co-filed by Representative Simon Cataldo and Senator Pavel Payano, would charge any school that uses legacy or donor preferences a fee linked to its endowment size, with funds destined for community college education. For Harvard — the country’s wealthiest university, with an endowment topping $50 billion — that fee would be about $100 million per year.

Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and editor of a book about legacy admissions, “Affirmative Action for the Rich,” offered one wry suggestion: “Harvard could set aside 10 seats in its class for the highest bidder,” he said. “If that’s the rationale . . . ‘We’ve got $50 billion, but somehow we can’t survive unless we allow people to bribe their way in’ . . . why not have an auction?”

Luke Albert, who recently joined Class Action’s campaign, is a 2022 Harvard grad and the son of a Harvard alumnus, who now views the admissions boost he received as unfair. Albert suggested that now would be an excellent time for the school to act.

“Harvard could use some good PR, and ending legacy admissions is good PR,” he said.

Another campaign participant, Harvard undergrad Elyse Martin-Smith, said she hopes to “use the momentum of the affirmative-action movement” to galvanize efforts to end legacy admissions and help protect diversity.

“As Black students on campus, we are not feeling heard or seen, or like we belong,” said Martin-Smith, who is also the political action chairperson of the Harvard Black Students Association. “There’s a pressing need for change.”


Rebecca Ostriker can be reached at rebecca.ostriker@globe.com. Follow her @GlobeOstriker.