Chicago Tribune: A case for special cases

by Meg McSherry Breslin

Even a newborn, Katie Bufalino spent many a fall weekend on the leafy, tradition-rich campus of the University of Notre Dame.p. The daughter of a Notre Dame alum, she and her Lake Forest family made frequent trips for Friday night pep rallies and Saturday afternoon football games. Blue-and-gold sweatshirts are part of the family uniform.

Not surprisingly, Katie and a younger brother are now Notre Dame students, carrying on the family tradition. Two younger siblings may also attend the university before long.

While there are no guarantees in a highly competitive college admissions environment, the Bufalinos’ status as legacies—sons and daughters of alumni—give them an edge over other applicants to the university. At Notre Dame, legacies make up 23 percent of the student body, among the highest percentages in the country for top universities.

Selective schools have given preferences to children of alumni for decades. Keeping Notre Dame in the family is thought to strengthen campus loyalty and motivate alumni to continue hefty financial contributions.

But with a controversial case challenging affirmative action policies now before the U.S. Supreme Court, legacy preferences are coming under fire because they clearly favor whites. Sons and daughters of African-Americans, for instance, are only now emerging on college campuses in large numbers, so decades-old legacy policies don’t apply to many of them.

Critics charge that it’s hypocritical of President Bush to challenge a University of Michigan policy that gives minorities an advantage when he benefited from a special preference of his own. Bush was a three-generation legacy at Yale despite a less-than-stellar high school record.

Playing both sides

Notre Dame finds itself in a complex position within this national debate. While the university wants to tightly protect its legacy preference, it is also a strong supporter of affirmative action and is working aggressively to boost the number of minorities on campus.

Notre Dame’s admissions director, Dan Saracino, said the Bush administration’s position against Michigan’s affirmative action policy—and the ensuing debate about the legacy policies he benefited from—have only helped put the complex admissions process into a clearer light.

“I’m glad that Bush weighed in on it,” Saracino said. “It shows that affirmative action cannot be looked at as an island. You’re attacking the group that has benefited from some kind of special consideration for the least amount of time, when we have for hundreds of years given special consideration to other groups.”

As Saracino sees it, preferences of all kinds are just a natural part of the admissions process. Universities need to look at a variety of factors—from legacy status to the number of oboe players in a given year—to achieve a lively and interesting freshmen class, he said.

“Half of our alumni children would not be admitted without special consideration and we don’t apologize for it,” he said. “At the same time, we look at affirmative action for ethnic minorities in the same way that we look at special consideration for alumni children, athletes, students with special leadership abilities and any student who brings something to the university that is unique.”

In Notre Dame’s case, there’s also the added challenge of maintaining the university’s Roman Catholic identity and its storied athletics program.

This fall, nearly half of the 1,094 legacy applicants were admitted to Notre Dame, the vast majority of them white. At the same time, the university has shifted its minority recruiting efforts into high gear, flying in top students for all-expense-paid campus visits and beefing up minority recruitment on the West Coast and in other underrepresented areas.

Seeing benefits

This year, some of those efforts appear to have paid off, as the number of minorities jumped from 16 percent of the admitted class last year to 21 percent this year, the highest leap in campus history.

Still, Saracino’s office is always flooded with calls this time of year from angry parents whose children weren’t admitted. Yet at least some current students think the university is on the right track.

That includes not only a lifelong Notre Dame fan like Bufalino but also an Asian-American junior from California who has just joined what he calls “the Notre Dame family.”

“My family is an example of somebody who was freshly introduced to this university, and we’ve spread the word about Notre Dame,” said Richie Dang, who followed his brother to the university. “If our diversity numbers increase, there will be legacies built into that too. Now the children of the new minorities will have a better chance.”

May 25,2003

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