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The Bruno Brief: Should Brown end legacy admissions?

We took a long look at the campaign to end legacy admissions at Brown. The movement, led by the group Students for Educational Equity, is meant to increase enrollment of students from marginalized communities by ending consideration of legacy status in admissions. We heard from Kate Dario ’22.5, who reported this story in last week’s Herald, and Zoë Fuad ’23.5, co-president of SEE.

Subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or listen via the RSS feed, and send us tips and feedback for the next episode: herald@browndailyherald.com. The Bruno Brief is produced in partnership with WBRU.

Ben Glickman 

Welcome back to The Bruno Brief, a podcast from The Brown Daily Herald and WBRU. I'm Ben Glickman. 

This week, we delve into the campaign to end legacy admissions at Brown, led by the group Students for Educational Equity. SEE leaders say that legacy admissions unfairly benefit students who are more likely to be white, affluent and well-resourced. We spoke with Senior Staff Writer Kate Dario, and SEE Co-President Zoë Fuad, about the movement. 

Here's Kate Dario. Can you introduce yourself to the listeners?

Kate Dario 

Hi, my name is Kate. I'm the class of 2022.5. I'm a senior staff writer for The Herald.

Ben Glickman 

So let's get into legacy admissions at Brown. Do you know what percentage of Brown's student body is legacy?

Kate Dario 

Yeah, so according to University Spokesperson Brian Clark, 10% of the Class of 2025 is a child of Brown alumni. And that was really exciting to learn because they simply don't disclose that information, usually.

Ben Glickman 

How transparent has Brown been in comparison to other elite universities about its legacy admissions policies?

Kate Dario 

Brown has been less transparent than most other elite universities. Specifically, there’s been legal battles involving Harvard in particular, which has kind of been in, like, the national zeitgeist. So Harvard has been much more forthcoming about this data. Other elite universities are more transparent about what percentage of students in each class are legacy, or which percentage of legacies get in, but the way that legacy is used in the Brown admissions process is pretty opaque.

Ben Glickman 

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Do we know anything about the role that fundraising and relationships between the University and alumni plays into legacy admissions?

Kate Dario 

You'll hear things that sound conflicting, kind of from both sides. If you were to talk to people in SEE — if you're talking to people who are against legacy admission — they will show you studies that show that legacy admission policies that favor legacy status do not increase alumni giving. But if you talk to the University, they will tell you that maintaining legacy admissions is crucial to maintaining alumni relationships. And they'll say that it does change fundraising, and also that that helps students who aren't legacies and come from less privileged backgrounds attend the University.

Ben Glickman 

So tell our listeners a little bit more about the organization, Students for Educational Equity. What are they calling for, and how did this campaign get started?

Kate Dario 

Yeah, so Students for Educational Equity is a group on campus that does interesting work, kind of (at), I would say, the intersection of how the University can promote educational equity, and then what that looks like, you know, in the broader Providence community.

What SEE is doing right now is, like, an email template. Basically, you can go on EdMobilizer's website and type in your school and your name and then immediately you're granted an email that is sent to the Corporation members and other, like, University leaders like Christina Paxson, Dean Zia, etc. The email says that, as a student and/or alumni of Brown University, that you will be withholding your donations until legacy is no longer a factor in the admissions process.

Ben Glickman 

What would it look like for Brown to actually make this policy change and end consideration of legacy in admissions?

Kate Dario 

Brown would not be at the vanguard of this. This has been done by other comparable universities: Johns Hopkins, MIT and CalTech all do not factor legacy into admission, and there's been no decrease or change in alumni donation or alumni engagement. So it wouldn't be like Brown would be doing something revolutionary and different. I think that what was interesting during the pandemic, and sort of situating this moment in, like, the broader story of making the Brown admissions process more accessible, is Brown, like a lot of other schools, was test optional. And no one was like, oh, the Class of 2025 is the least competitive or like the least talented or accomplished class. 

The president of SEE was sort of saying that that was a way to show that these changes are not going to change what Brown is for the worse, they're not going to diminish anything. They're only going to open up and make Brown a more — you know, I think I've said accessible a lot — but I think that's really what this is about, which is access.

Ben Glickman 

Kate Dario, thanks so much for being on the podcast.

Kate Dario 

Thank you.

Ben Glickman

We sat down with Zoë Fuad, co-president of Students for Educational Equity, to talk about the group’s campaign.

Zoë Fuad, welcome to the podcast.

Zoë Fuad 

Hi, thank you for having me.

Ben Glickman 

So first off, could you just kind of introduce yourself to the listeners, tell them what you do?

Zoë Fuad 

Sure, I'm Zoë (she/hers). I'm the co-president of Students for Educational Equity, as well as the chair of Academic Affairs on (the Undergraduate Council of Students). Within Students for Educational Equity, we have launched a campaign as part of EdMobilizer's national campaign to end legacy admissions at Brown. The campaign launched a couple weeks ago.

Ben Glickman 

So you mentioned that the campaign to and legacy admissions at Brown is kind of targeting first-generation admissions and increasing that at Brown. Tell me a little bit more about what you guys are looking for from the University.

Zoë Fuad 

So I would say it's not just first-generation and low-income students. Legacy admissions also hugely disadvantages those from the middle-income bracket. Professor (John) Friedman, the head of our Economics department, actually published an article a couple years back about the effect that legacy admissions has on creating the "missing middle." But legacy admissions, essentially, by privileging the descendants of Brown alums gives another advantage to those who are already advantaged by the systems of inequity that Brown was founded upon. And by that same token, it's one of the most explicit and direct ways (that) disadvantages students who are historically underrepresented within the University.  

What is exciting, though, is that the Corporation of Brown is having their biannual meeting here on campus in about three weeks. And I'm really hoping that they're going to seriously review not just the question of legacy admissions this time, but really reviewing the entire system that decides policies around Brown admissions and reviews the current mechanics or lack of mechanics for improving that system.

Ben Glickman 

So right now, your campaign is kind of focused on reaching out to a number of stakeholders within Brown, the "constituencies," like you were saying. Do you think that this kind of campaign that you guys are spearheading — is that going to be enough to push for change within the corporation or among other stakeholders?

Zoë Fuad 

So as we know, this is not the first time a campaign like this has happened. But what I'm really betting on is that the Corporation members do have a vested interest in creating a more equitable and accessible Brown, and really creating a Brown that lives up to its name of being this, like, leader in quality and access and progress. My assumption is that a lot of them are just not really tuned in to what the latest research shows about policies like legacy admissions like required SATs and ACTs, because a lot of new research is coming out that shows that this doesn't help the student body. This in fact, like, hurts who gets in, and also affects the rigor of the University, which I think is something that the Corporation really talks a lot about. So I'm hoping by reaching out directly to them and really making this a subject of discussion that we have the potential for change. I don't think it's so much a whole group of unwilling constituencies or constituencies that don't care about equity and access. I think it's just a group that has so far been uninformed because they don't have the time to really look into these things. 

There are a lot of myths surrounding legacy admissions that have led to it being maintained for such a long time. I think the most pressing of those myths is that legacy admissions leads to increased financial aid and that it helps with fundraising from alumni. Multiple studies have actually shown that this is false. Another myth is that legacy students don't get in at higher rates, we know that this is also completely untrue. Ten percent of Brown students are legacy students. Now, we don't know how this translates directly to admission rates, but we know that at Harvard, 14% of students are legacy and that meant a 34% admission rate, which is kind of insane. So out of the number of legacy students applying, a lot of them are getting in. There's also another myth that legacy preferences does not provide a huge advantage to those students. Again, another study debunked this as untrue: It showed that 75% of Caucasian athletes and legacy students would not have gotten in had it not been for those systemic privileges.

Ben Glickman 

So to this point, I know you mentioned that there was a movement a couple years ago to kind of have Brown disclose more of this data. As of now you guys don't have access to that.

Zoë Fuad 

We do not.

Ben Glickman 

I think something you said before is really interesting, which is that this campaign is kind of about bringing the most up-to-date research to the people who can kind of make the changes. I wonder what you think about the idea that there are these alums for Brown who have a vested interest in keeping legacy admissions up and running at Brown? How do you think that your movement can kind of address those people?

Zoë Fuad 

Yeah, I think that's a hard question, because I don't think there is a way to sort of absolve that concern. I think part of this is dismantling so many systems of existing privilege. And that means really asking people to give up that privilege, which I think is something we talk about a lot at Brown. And this is one of those tests of that.

Ben Glickman 

You mentioned earlier that a policy like removing legacy admissions kind of dovetails with policies that Brown’s already implemented, like during the pandemic, test-optional.

Zoë Fuad 

Right.

Ben Glickman 

Tell me a little bit more about what a change in legacy policy would look like.

Zoë Fuad

Yeah, so we know that when Johns Hopkins ended legacy admissions, I think in 2020, it led to a huge increase in low-income and first-generation students. So we're already seeing that result here. Now, in terms of how legacy policy is actually enacted, again, there's no proof to show how it does it for sure. But within the last week, we've heard two pretty different narratives from the administration.

When we emailed to argue our case for ending legacy admissions, Christina Paxson responded with a lot of things. One of the things she said is that legacy admissions does not cut out low-income or middle-income students, because legacy admissions is only used in, and I quote, "a trade-off between students of similar class and status," often who come from the same high school. And that legacy status is used to simply tilt toward one or the other. That whole narrative of how legacy admissions work was kind of contradicted by Dean Logan Powell in the BDH's latest article about the missing middle, in which he says explicitly that no two students are ever compared on the same table at the same time, it's never one applicant versus another, that each is looked at on an individual basis and the factors are weighed in without looking at their peers. And by that logic, legacy preferences does have to, in the end, cut out students from middle-income and low-income brackets, because there's a limited number of spots at Brown, right? If we're saying that these kids are already getting in now, because they have that additional factor of legacy admissions, that takes a spot away from another student who doesn’t

Ben Glickman 

I know that a lot of the University comment about this has sort of struck this tone of, ‘It's not a zero-sum game’ in admissions. Does that justification ring true to you?

Zoë Fuad 

No. That was a really interesting thing to read, because I think Provost Locke said that accepting more middle-income students does not mean accepting less students from any other income bracket. And then he offers no explanation for how that makes sense. There is quite literally a limited number of spots at this university, and it's a real question of resources. You know, we know that our dining services are understaffed; (Counseling and Psychological Services) doesn't have the capacity to offer sessions of more than 30 minutes. When I tried to make an appointment last week, there was a week and a half waiting time. Our RPLs are understaffed: Jameson-Mead — the entire dormitory — still doesn't have a Woman Peer Counselor. So the idea of expanding the student population as a solution doesn't seem to make a lot of sense right now. Really, it's just a question of who gets a spot at the table, and with every legacy preference, there's another non-legacy student, most of whom come from underrepresented populations, that don't get in. 

Ben Glickman 

You said before that this is about kind of putting the right information in front of the right people. Is it frustrating to hear some of these contradictions that maybe suggest that it might not be as straightforward as just giving people the right information?

Zoë Fuad 

I don't know if this is a challenge related to convincing people. We have, from within UCS, organized an open Town Hall set for November 10, where Dean Logan Powell has very generously agreed to come and answer some questions. But the fact that there is no singular narrative coming from the University does make it hard to, I think, work from a collaborative stance. That being said, I don't think the challenge then is convincing people that our narrative is correct, because I think the fact that the University keeps flip-flopping shows a sort of like, insecurity, and their own ethical stance here. I think the University knows that this is wrong, and they keep trying different arguments to work around this issue — arguments which often contradict, and honestly even on their own, none of them really work.

Ben Glickman 

Zoë, thanks so much for coming on the podcast.

Zoë Fuad 

Yeah, thank you so much for having me.

Ben Glickman

This has been The Bruno Brief. Our show is produced by Livi Burdette, Corey Gelb-Bicknell, Max Karpowich, Katy Pickens and me, Ben Glickman. If you like what you hear, subscribe to The Bruno Brief wherever you get your podcasts and leave a review. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

____________________

This episode was produced by Olivia Burdette, Ben Glickman, Corey Gelb-Bicknell, Max Karpawich and Katy Pickens. 

Music:

Denzel Sprak by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)

Gambrel by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)

Haena by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)


Correction: A previous version of this transcript featured an earlier episode of The Bruno Brief. It has been updated to include the correct episode. The Herald regrets the error.



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