Legacy admissions policy unfair

The College’s admissions policies are flawed, and some one has finally pointed it out. This year’s Frosh Revue, whatever its merits as theater might be (see review in Arts), is impressive for its willingness to challenge – with a sense of humor – some of the more ridiculous aspects of Williams life.

About a third of the way into this year’s show, there is a skit depicting a behind-closed-doors meeting of the College’s Admissions officers. The officers are evaluating candidates for admission, skimming through applications, deciding, out loud, who gets accepted and who does not. Here is the most important dialogue, truncated:

Officer #1: Prep school kid?

All: Accepted.

Officer #2: Athlete?

All: ACCEPTED.

Officer #3: Oh, here’s a prep school kid, who’s also an athlete AND a legacy!

All: Accepted.

The message is clear, and not that far from the truth: there are many factors besides pure talent which matter in getting accepted to Williams. Your high school’s reputation, your athletic prowess and whether or not your parents went here can make or break your chances. While deciding on applicants based upon the first two categories may be acceptable and even understandable, choosing to admit a student based upon an accident of birth is both archaic and in opposition to the spirit of a meritocracy.

Legacy status is, so I understand, far from the most important factor weighed by Admissions. It is supposed to be far down on the list, a sort of tie-breaker category that can help push an application over the finish line. Fine, but why should it be included as a category at all? If the purpose of Williams is to educate some of the finest minds in the country, why try to keep that education within the same family trees? We (in theory at least) choose our legislators and leaders based upon their merit, not on their last names; why should college admissions be any different?

I don’t mean to pick on legacies personally. Several of my good friends had parents who went here, and are just as, if not more, qualified and prepared than anybody else I know. There’s no problem, as far as I can tell, with the academic performance of students with a tradition of Williams in their blood. The problem, rather, is with the philosophy behind treating people preferentially based upon what their parents did. It’s aristocratic, and at odds with the kind of society we should be attempting to create. Unlike a merit-based admissions process, taking legacies into account leaves us with an admissions system that promises equal rights for all – and special privileges, albeit small privileges, for the few.

Couldn’t the argument be made, though, that Williams makes special exceptions all the time in deciding whom to accept? Couldn’t, for example, a comparison be made between according special rights to legacies and treating minorities – both geographic and ethnic – more leniently at the Admissions Office? In short, doesn’t using anything besides pure intellectual, artistic, and athletic merit as bases on which to judge applicants stand in direct opposition to the idea of extending the benefits of education to the best and brightest, regardless of color, class, sex, or birth?

In a word: yes. But letting more ethnic, geographic, and other kinds of minorities in can at least be justified as an attempt to build a more democratic Williams; giving advantage to legacies, on the other hand, does just the opposite.

In an era when student apathy is routinely decried by students and alumni alike and when campus controversies quickly degenerate into the kind of mindless name-calling and sloganeering typified by the Mad Cow incident, it is an encouraging sign that Frosh Revue chose to take on such unpopular – and uncomfortable – social/political issues in their ostensibly light-hearted musical comedy. Through wit and gall, Frosh Revue produced a small moment of questioning in much of their audience, and pushed criticism to the forefront that many of the parents and students in that audience would rather have left in the background. Praise – and continuation of the debate – is appropriate.