Posted on February 4, 2022

Brown University Defends Affirmative Action, Legacy Admissions

Janet Lorin et al., Bloomberg, February 3, 2022

Brown University President Christina Paxson defended the principles of affirmative action and preferential treatment to the children of alumni in admissions in the face of debate over two long-standing practices across American higher education.

“We haven’t found a good alternative” to affirmative action in ensuring a diverse student body, Paxson said in a wide-ranging interview with Bloomberg News journalists on Wednesday. “The moves against taking race into account as one of many factors in admissions basically blocks out a really important piece of information about a person in the life that they’ve experienced.”

American universities’ consideration of race in admissions has been protected by decades-old Supreme Court precedents, but that could change later this year. The high court will address the issue in a case expected to be heard in the term that starts in October.

Paxson, who in July will celebrate her 10th anniversary leading her Providence, Rhode Island institution, argued against ranking applicants “by GPA or test scores and have a cut-off.”

“When we do admissions, we’re really thinking about constructing a class” that brings diversity of perspectives, experiences and backgrounds, she said. “All of this together is what universities need if our graduates are going to be able to grapple with the kind of challenges that we face and overcome some of the real polarization this country faces right now.”

Legacies are often misunderstood, she also said; they’re not necessarily displacing applicants from underprivileged backgrounds. Legacy is “one among many, many factors” in making admission decisions, she said.

And while the assumption is often that alumni parents are white and wealthy, legacy students are increasingly diverse racially and ethnically, and a “fair fraction” received financial aid because their parents were teachers or public servants not commanding high salaries, Paxson said.

“Certainly if the law changes, we comply with the law,” Paxson said as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to consider abolishing the use of race in college admissions decisions.

Brown is in the meantime examining how to build its recruiting networks and strengthen ties with community-based organizations, she said.

Paxson also said that, “I want students from rural areas and urban areas. I want students who grew up on army bases. I want students who are from tight-knit Christian communities,” in building diverse classes.

  • 15% are first-generation college students
  • 48% are students of color
  • 10% are children of Brown alumni
  • About 44% of Brown’s students receive need-based financial aid.