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Will Bush truly renounce privilege in admissions?

WASHINGTON -- AS HE STOOD before thousands of journalists of color, President Bush was reminded by columnist Roland Martin that Texas A&M Univeristy recently announced it would end preferential treatment toward applicants whose parents and grandparents were graduates. "If you say it's a matter of merit and not race," Martin asked Bush, "shouldn't colleges also get rid of legacy?" Bush tried to dance for a moment with a light joke saying, "Well, in my case I had to knock on a lot of doors to follow the old man's footsteps." Then he added, "If what you're saying is, is there going to be special treatment for people -- in other words -- we're going to have a special exception for certain people in a system that's supposed to be fair, I agree. I don't think there ought to be."

Martin followed up, "So the colleges should get rid of legacy?"

Bush said, "Well, I think so. Yeah, I think it ought to be based on merit."

One more time, a few moments later, Martin asked, "Just to be clear . . . you believe that colleges should not use legacy."

Bush answered, "I think colleges ought to use merit in order for people to get in."

We don't know yet what Bush thought to himself as he left the Unity conference of African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, and Native American journalists. But even the world's most famous legacy admission and the world's most glaring example of privilege with his C average at Yale, had to realize the seismic proportions of what he said. This was the same man who had his attorneys file a brief just before the 2003 Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to support the white students bent on destroying affirmative action at the University of Michigan.

That summer, the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action at the Michigan law school, judging that race was only one of many factors in admissions. It struck down the affirmative action plan for the undergraduate school, saying the points awarded for race were too arbitrary. In support of the brief, Bush said, "quota systems that use race to include or exclude people from higher education and the opportunities it offers are divisive, unfair and impossible to square with the Constitution . . . the motivation for such an admissions policy may be very good, but its result is discrimination and that discrimination is wrong."

Bush of course never volunteered during his presidency that legacy admissions are divisive, unfair, and impossible to square with the Constitution and that the result was wrongful discrimination. Nor has he been forced to address the issue by an overwhelmingly white press corps (90 percent according to a new Unity survey done by the University of Maryland journalism school). Nor has he been forced to by other black groups, since he has avoided the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus at every possibility.

But yesterday, speaking before the largest group of journalists of color in his presidency, he ran right into the buzzsaw of his own legacy. He simply had nowhere to go. His answer is sure -- if the 90 percent white Washington press corps was paying attention -- to set off a renewed focus on the most obvious hypocrisy during these years of attacks on affirmative action. While African-American and Latino students became the nation's scapegoats of "preferences," legacies who are overwhelmingly white have a two-to-four times better chance than regular applicants of being admitted to Harvard, Penn, and Princeton.

While Texas A&M says it is eliminating its legacies, and while vice presidential candidate John Edwards has called for their abolition, many elite schools, most notably Harvard, defend them. In a Wall Street Journal interview last month, Harvard President Lawrence Summers said flaty, "Legacy admissions are integral to the kind of community that any private educational institution is." Despite Harvard's recent pledge to relieve lower-income families of tuition costs, Summers was crystal clear that legacy admissions -- read that as "legacy admi$$ion$" -- come before anyone else.

Other schools, such as Duke, are just as blunt, saying legacy is a "plus factor." Read that as "plu$ factor." Summers defends legacies, saying, "the way to increase socioeconomic diversity is to admit and recruit more terrific and diverse students." That does not explain how legacies crowd out those terrific students.

That raises the obvious question. Bush, to his credit, did not duck the question on this day. But tomorrow and the next, as he races to his million-dollar fund-raisers full of men and women who, like him, benefited from the privilege of legacy, it is uncertain if he will bring up the subject on his own. If he brings it up himself again, we will know that the world's most famous legacy admission truly renounced his privilege. If he does not, his most famous legacy in education will be hiding behind it while attempting to destroy it for the scapegoats.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is 

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