Sunday, May 19College Admissions News

Wesleyan president discusses why he ended legacy admissions

When Michael Roth announced two weeks ago that Wesleyan University was doing away with legacy admissions preferences, he braced himself for a bombardment of criticism from alumni.

None came. The president of the highly selective institution in Middletown, Conn., said he’s received “uniformly positive” feedback from constituents. He thinks he’ll even be able to raise money off the decision.

“The response I’ve gotten from scores of alumni is heartwarming,” he said. “These are people who might have kids—some of them do—and are saying, ‘My kid is applying, but I’m still happy.’”

The announcement went markedly better than his past attempts to put the kibosh on legacy preferences, a move he’s supported for years. In 2018, Roth, who has led Wesleyan since 2007, visited a group of young, diverse alumni he assumed would support his plan.

“I thought it was a no-brainer,” he said. Instead, they were “very strongly opposed” to the idea.

Then came the Supreme Court decision, and with it, Roth said, a sea change in alumni attitudes toward legacy.

“If we’re doing all these other things to increase diversity, especially in light of the court decision, and we still said, ‘Yes, we can give alumni a preference,’ that would make us hypocrites,” he said. “If I thought I couldn’t raise money because of this, I would have to find a different line of work, because this is the right thing to do. But I believe I can raise a lot of money from Wesleyan alums who are genuinely pleased to support an institution that’s aligned with their values.”

Other elite institutions have decided to disregard alumni connections over the years: Johns Hopkins University in 2014, Pomona College in 2017 and Amherst College in 2021, to name a few. But only Occidental College—a small liberal arts institution in Los Angeles, best known as Barack Obama’s first undergraduate destination—and the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities, a public institution, have put a formal end to legacy preferences in the wake of the Supreme Court decision. And among highly selective institutions, Wesleyan still stands alone. (This paragraph has been updated to correct the year Johns Hopkins stopped using legacy preferences.)

Harry Elam, Occidental’s president, told Inside Higher Ed that the college was essentially formalizing an end to a practice that had not existed in any real sense for years. California colleges have been required to report legacy admits to the state since the Varsity Blues scandal broke at the University of Southern California in 2019, and Elam said Occidental has reported none in the intervening years. Occidental is also fairly racially diverse for a private liberal arts institution—45 percent of the Class of 2026 are domestic students of color, according to data from the college.

Still, Elam felt it was important to come out with a public, official stance on the issue in light of the Supreme Court ruling.

“We felt that it was the right thing to do, and now was the time to do it,” he said. “I imagine that schools are doing a close scrutiny of what’s important to them both in terms of what they want to achieve in the admissions process and in terms of their mission and values … it will be interesting to see what happens, but I think more will happen.”

Richard Kahlenberg, a nonresident scholar at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce and a proponent of class-conscious admissions policies, said that with affirmative action out of the picture, the argument for legacy admissions is weaker than ever.

“There was this unhealthy, symbiotic relationship between legacy preferences and racial affirmative action,” he said. “Proponents of legacy preferences tended to like racial affirmative action, because it helps hide the larger inequalities built into the system, and affirmative action supporters liked legacy because they could say, correctly, that there are a lot of preferences, and clearly racial preferences are fairer than legacy preferences.”

A few hours after announcing his decision on July 19, Roth spoke to Inside Higher Ed about the long road to this moment, how the Supreme Court decision tempered alumni backlash and whether he thinks his peers will join him anytime soon. That conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Q: How did you come to the decision to end legacy admissions at Wesleyan? Had you been entertaining the idea before the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action, or did that tip the scales?

A: I have been thinking about this for a while. I thought it was a no-brainer to remove legacy preferences from the admissions process. And then, about five years ago, I went to a group of people who I thought would be very supportive of this, a younger group of alums, a more diverse group than the Board of Trustees. And they were pretty strongly—very strongly—opposed to this idea of mine, of getting rid of legacy. They said, essentially, “Oh, now that we’re going to have kids who could benefit from it, you’re going to take it away? We know it’s not a good thing, but now?” So at the time, I thought, well, it’s such a small thing—I mean, I spent a lot more time talking to disgruntled alums whose kids didn’t get in than happy alums who got their kids some kind of bump. I thought, it’s not worth a big argument about it.

But because of the way the Supreme Court made this decision—by not explicitly overturning previous decisions around affirmative action but gutting it from the inside, making it unconstitutional to judge an applicant by the racial group with which they identify and instead saying we have to look at them as individuals—I thought, well, that would go against what we do with legacy admission. So it just seemed to me that if we’re going to be saying that we want a very diverse campus in the future and we’re going to abide by the law—we’re going to work even harder to recruit Pell-eligible students [and students] from rural America—if while we’re doing all those things we also said, “Yeah, we can still give alumni children a preference,” we would be legitimately criticized for hypocrisy.

Also, we had announced a lot of these [diversity] initiatives already, but nobody really called me to talk about it. But by getting rid of legacy admissions, I was on CNN this morning, I had MSNBC this afternoon, I have The Wall Street Journal—which is great, because I think it’s important to talk about legacy admissions, which affects a tiny fraction of students, but what’s really important is to talk about educational equity.

Q: You’re saying that standing by legacy admissions would cast a pall over all these other efforts to promote diversity?

A: It’s hypocritical. Absolutely. We really curate our classes very carefully. I mean, can you imagine saying, “We’re curating this show at a museum very carefully but we’re going to take a board member’s kid in the biennial because loyalty is important”? There was an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal today by somebody associated with the Claremont Institute at Harvard saying, loyalty is important. That’s like how the mafia approach things! And I think it’s actually obscene that the richest schools in the country are the ones that express the greatest concern about losing money. I’m a college president; I have to raise money. That’s my job. And I’ve raised more money in the last few years than any person in Wesleyan history. If I thought I couldn’t raise money because of this, I would have to find a different line of work, because I think this is the right thing to do. But I believe I can raise a lot of money from Wesleyan alums who are really pleased to support an institution that’s aligned with their values.

Q: Some highly selective private colleges have done away with legacy in the past, but not many. Do you think the trend is more likely to spread among Wesleyan’s peer institutions now?

A: I don’t know. I am really bad at predicting—I’m a historian, and I even have trouble with the 19th century—but I hope so. I think there will be pressure on schools to do this, but I hope we can keep turning the conversation to: Why aren’t more high school graduates prepared to be successful at places like Amherst and Wesleyan and the Ivies? Why are so many people deprived of a decent high school education so that they really can’t compete? Why don’t we support community colleges more than we do? These kinds of issues affect millions of people rather than dozens.

Q: How are you planning to address those more systemic issues? I’m particularly interested that you brought up community college, since transfer pipelines are something that elite colleges historically don’t do very well. Do you think that’s going to change in light of the Supreme Court decision?

A: It is for us. I think Princeton has also announced in the last few years that they’re trying to do more with community colleges, and I think it’s a great thing. I think some of those schools should just open community colleges rather than spend more money on their own students, but that’s another issue. I do think having more community college transfers who want to be in a place like Wesleyan and can thrive there would be great for us.

We also have a three-year program that has not proven very popular, despite everybody wanting to make college more affordable. One way is to compress it, and so we’re going to work harder at making it clear how people can save a year’s tuition by tweaking things a little bit. We also worked with the National Educational Equity Foundation to give free credit-bearing online classes in Title I [low-income-serving] high schools. That will give students both a taste of higher education at this level, and perhaps save a lot of money because they’ll have a year’s worth of college credit. I taught one of those classes myself, and I think there is real hunger for high-level college courses delivered in this hybrid mode.

Q: Do you think ending legacy admissions could help give a bit of a face-lift to private liberal arts colleges even as the country’s faith in their value decreases?

A: Absolutely. I think it’s really important for those of us in leadership positions in higher ed to work harder to restore confidence in our sector. I’m president of Wesleyan and I have plenty of people trying to get in and almost all of them are qualified. But what’s scary to me is that all across the country, Americans report declining confidence and trust in higher education. And I think removing some hypocrisy in the admissions process is a step in the right direction. The challenge is, two-thirds of the students who apply to Wesleyan or other schools like us are perfectly capable of doing the work. They ask, “Why didn’t I get to go there?” And the answer is they just can’t; we’re not big enough. But if the process seems unfair, then there’s going to be a real continued decline in trust. So this is kind of a symbolic step towards restoring some trust in what we’re doing in higher ed.

Q: What has been the general response from alumni?

A: I’m a little surprised, I have to say, because they really are uniformly positive —“Thank you for doing the right thing,” mostly. Some of them are from older alums, people who were at Wesleyan 50 or more years ago, and some of them were from very recent grads. And so I’m heartened by that, because I think a lot of college leaders, when they hesitate about doing this, I don’t think it’s because they disagree with the principle. It’s because they don’t want to annoy their constituency. But I have a lot of faith in Wesleyan constituents, and clearly they believe universities should stand up for certain values. So we tried to do that.