The historic gates of harvard university. Marcio Jose Bastos Silva/shutterstock
The historic gates of harvard university. Marcio Jose Bastos Silva/shutterstock

In early May, Harvard released a report documenting the university’s ties to Jeffrey Epstein. The report found that Epstein made 22 gifts to the university for a total of $9,179,000, including a $736,000 donation after Epstein was charged with one count of solicitation of prostitution and one count of solicitation of prostitution with a minor under the age of 18, but before his 2008 conviction.

The report recommended the university develop clearer procedures on accepting gifts.

In early July, Harvard released its new gift policy guide. Commenting on the guidelines, Provost Alan M. Garber said, “We want to be responsive to concerns that have become more prominent recently.” He described Harvard as a “diverse community with diverse views, and this is a time of social change, with more calls for transparency and explanation in areas that did not come under close scrutiny before.”

While Garber didn’t specify which “concerns” forced the school’s hand, I’ll propose three: the Epstein fiasco, a U.S. Department of Education investigation into whether Harvard failed to report fully all foreign gifts, and the lawsuit brought by Students for Fair Admissions, which found that familial donations appeared to boost applicants’ chances of admission to the school.

In response, the university’s new guidelines state that gifts “will not be solicited from donors and prospective donors who are known to have a family member applying for admission to Harvard,” said Brian K. Lee, president of alumni affairs and development.

The school’s new guidelines demonstrate that greater transparency in gift solicitation processes at a tax-exempt organization is desirable, but also that terms like “social change” and “transparency” are in the eye of the beholder. At a time when elite institutions are facing greater scrutiny for perpetuating economic and social inequalities, Harvard’s admissions office continues to grant legacy preference to applicants on the basis of their familial relationship to alumni and alumni donors.

Meeting the Basic Requirements

Harvard’s guidelines consist of a set of considerations for how philanthropic gifts are “considered, accepted and administered,” with the understanding that not all donors will be as egregiously toxic as Epstein. For instance, the guidelines stipulate that gifts should avoid conflicts of interest. “A donor may endow a professorial chair, but he or she does not have a say in who holds it,” Garber said.

This sounds like obvious stuff, but universities frequently enter into agreements where the funder exerts influence over academic affairs. Here are three examples:

  • A $50 million gift from Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield to St. Louis University originally stipulated that Rex would have a role in selecting the director of the new Sinquefield Center for Applied Economic Research.
  • The medical school committee at Tufts University, which received funding from Purdue Pharma, decided not to include “Dreamland” on incoming students’ reading lists because the book highlighted the company’s role in fueling the opioid crisis.
  • The Pearson Family Members Foundation sued the University of Chicago to recoup its $22.9 million donation, alleging the university kept the Pearson brothers in the dark about key hiring and planning decisions.

Nor should we assume that schools have codified plans in place to begin with. In January, MIT acknowledged it accepted $850,000 from Epstein from 2002 to 2017, including gifts made after his 2008 conviction. In the absence of formal policy regarding controversial gifts, Epstein’s donations were approved under an “informal framework” developed by the three administrators.

“Each Case is Different”

Like many other schools, Harvard is also facing calls to change the names of its buildings honoring former slave owners, certain historical figures, and other controversial individuals.

The guide states that Harvard “may choose to revoke naming recognition when the gift commitment supporting the naming has not been fulfilled, or where the donor’s actions are so outside the bounds of acceptable conduct, as judged by reference to prevailing societal norms, that continued use of the name is damaging to the interests of the University.” The guide notes that “prevailing societal norms ordinarily will be assessed at the time of the gift, not later.”

Admittedly, there’s a lot of subjectivity at play here, but that comes with the territory. “When it comes to gifts that provoke controversy, each case is different,” Garber said. The guide’s “specific applications and interpretation may vary over time” since it is “intended to be a living document.”

Other schools are grappling with navigating the ethical gray areas surrounding a donor’s conduct and source of wealth. Last October, Brown University unveiled its new policies for gift acceptance. The policy “affirms the enduring principle that acceptance of a gift does not imply endorsement of donor views, businesses or activities, and it also re-articulates standards against accepting gifts if the funds or property were not acquired legally, or if the intended purpose or association with the donor could inflict damage on the university’s standing or integrity, or runs counter to university values.”

Brown issued its new policy after student groups protested donations from an alumnus, Warren Kanders, who is a member of the advisory council for the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society. Kanders is the owner and CEO of Safariland, which previously sold tear gas that U.S. Border Patrol agents used against asylum seekers trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

“An Inequity Machine”

In addition to refusing to solicit gifts from donors and prospective donors who are known to have a family member applying to the university, Harvard’s Lee said, “Similarly, if those same individuals were to offer an unsolicited gift, they would be advised that no gifts to the university should be made at that time.”

While Harvard’s policy severs any link between a family’s donation and the applicant’s prospects, administrators sidestepped an equally problematic issue for equity advocates—legacy applicants and students who earned admission thanks to previous familial donations.

A 2019 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that 43% of admitted white students at Harvard were legacy students, children of staff, recruited athletes, or on the “dean’s interest list”—e.g., their parents or relatives have donated to the school. Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, calls the school “an inequity machine that raises and perpetuates class and race hierarchies and sinks the lower classes.”

Harvard is not unique. According to the Wall Street Journal, 56% of the nation’s top 250 institutions consider legacy in the admissions process. An Inside Higher ed survey reported that 42% of admissions officers at private schools said that legacy is a factor in admissions decisions, versus 6% for those at public colleges.

Admissions officers frequently analyze legacy applicants with startling precision. Dan Lee, a co-founder of Solomon Admissions Consulting, told the Daily Princetonian’s Liam O’Connor that top universities, including Princeton, rank their legacy applicants, and that officers prioritize children whose parents contributed more time or money to their alma mater over those who gave less.

“You Don’t Want to Make Your Alumni Mad”

Harvard’s acceptance rate is 4.7%; Princeton’s is 5%. Its admissions officers aren’t struggling to find qualified students. So why do these schools, which profess to a desire to admit more economically disadvantaged and diverse students, continue to adhere to legacy admissions?

“The most important rationale that colleges cite is a financial one,” writes the Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker. “They tend to believe that giving legacy applicants an edge helps them bring in alumni donations.”

The argument goes like this: Affluent legacy students become alumni, who eventually donate at a higher rate than those hailing from the middle class or Pell-eligible families. This support can then be put to good use. In 2017, Harvard concluded that legacy admissions generate “generous financial support to their alma mater,” which ensures that students whose families earn less than $150,000 a year pay little or no tuition.

Opponents of legacy admissions cite data from U.S. News & World Report’s top 100 universities reports from 1998 to 2008, and found that “there is no statistically significant evidence of a causal relationship between legacy preference policies and total alumni giving among top universities.”

But ending legacy admissions during a pandemic isn’t the kind of financial risk these schools seem willing to take. Furthermore, it isn’t as if alumni are clamoring for them to do so. Legacy alumni benefited from the system, and they hope their children will do the same. The following two anecdotes suggest that these potential donors may be reluctant to advocate a policy fundamentally misaligned to their self-interest.

In mid-January, Vanderbilt alumnus Ravi Guru Singh pledged to donate $5,000 to the school if it agreed to end legacy admission preference, and called on other donors to do the same. A Googling of Singh or Vanderbilt’s policy revealed no new updates in the past seven months.

And the Daily Princetonian’s O’Connor wrote about how, at a previous alumni day event, a woman chastised university officials for limiting legacy students’ college options by offering single-choice early action admissions without sending letters to them. “You want the best students, but you don’t want to make your alumni mad,” she said.

Growing Calls to End Legacy Preferences

In January, Johns Hopkins University announced it stopped using legacy preferences more than 10 years ago. It didn’t appear to have a major effect on fundraising. Its “Rising to the Challenge” capital campaign wrapped up in 2018 after netting $6 billion.

Administrators whose employers grant legacy preference found themselves on the defensive. Joseph “J.T.” Duck, dean of admissions at Tufts, said, “no student is admitted to Tufts because they have a family connection to the university.” Northwestern President Morton Schapiro said the school wouldn’t phase out the practice. Meanwhile, the editorial board at The Dartmouth and University of Virginia’s student council president called on their respective colleges to follow Hopkins’ lead.

Then COVID-19 hit. The crisis forced universities to examine “admission policies and practices and re-center the experience around issues of access and equity,” said Brennan Barnard, co-author of “The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together.”

Before equity advocates could marshal a reinvigorated argument against legacy admissions, George Floyd died. As calls for social justice began to reverberate throughout American society, equity advocates set their sights on a practice that Ivies rolled out in the 1920s to appease alumni who were uncomfortable with the increasing number of Jewish students.

In an open letter sent July 4, over 350 Princeton faculty members urged the school’s leadership to take “anti-racist action,” including a “reconsideration of legacy admissions.” Georgetown University students, faculty and graduates went further, calling on administrators to abandon legacy admissions completely, calling the policy “part of a system of institutional racism that relegates qualified Black students to second-tier status in higher education.”

Time will tell if Harvard’s new guidelines will equip administrators to refuse gifts from future Jeffery Epsteins, circumvent conflicts of interests, and revoke naming rights without a protracted legal battle. At the very least, it should provide more transparency into the gift solicitation process at a historically opaque institution that receives significant federal funding courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer.

But equity advocates will understandably demand more. During a time of profound “social change,” it’s hard to square Harvard’s ban on gifts from donors who have a family member applying for admission, while simultaneously continuing a practice that prioritizes applicants whose parents made gifts two, 10 or 20 years ago.

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