Photo courtesy of Cornell from Inauguration on Friday

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest column submitted by Aaron Griffin, Cornell’s class of 2010.

It was written in response to an editorial by Ithaca Voice Reporter Jolene Almendarez, “Editorial: Cornell’s legacy admissions unfairly help the rich.”

Submit guest columns to jstein@ithacavoice.com.

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Curricula vitae are deceptive things. Attendance and graduation from one of this nation’s premier research universities and oldest law schools carry with them certain regrettable stereotypes. Critics embrace misguided assumptions of an entire lack of sympathy, if not empathy, on the part of the graduate relative to those whom critics view as disadvantaged. These assumptions saturate the entire thesis of Ms. Almendarez on President Garrett’s comments defending in part legacy preferences in admissions to Cornell University.

I recognize how tempting it can be for critics to look at President Garrett’s comment in light of her accomplishments and assume that she does not understand what it means to be disadvantaged. The appearance of a surname, specifically those that appear like that of Garrett and me, engender assumptions of advantage. The additional resemblance of President Garrett’s and my educational résumés makes me keenly aware of these realities.

One cannot assume that eventual success confers antecedent advantage. Neither Ms. Almendarez nor I can pretend to know President Elizabeth Garrett’s story. However, I do know my own.

The guiding premise of Almendarez’s criticism is her lament that she “couldn’t say something that might make a difference” were she to apply to Cornell University. In her situation, she regards her inability to claim legacy status at New York’s land-grant university as a binary that would guarantee or damn her hopes of gaining admission. She neglects noting the associated advantages of her ability to self-identify as the child of a Mexican immigrant.

Photo courtesy of Cornell from Inauguration on Friday

I too lacked the ability to state Ms. Almendarez’s “something that might make a difference.” Additionally, I lacked the ability to claim any other kitsch elements of contemporary diversity. None of this changed the nature of my upbringing.

My mother raised me alone. My father was not absent wholly from my life, but for all intents and purposes, I was the product of a single-parent household as a result of divorce. Winters without heat were a none too uncommon occurrence. Upstate New York’s winters are not temperate. My mother toiled and studied to provide for me while she earned her undergraduate degree in so doing burning as one would kindling my eventual ability to gain the advantage as a first-generation collegiate applicant to Cornell University.

The lesson incumbent in my mother’s actions taught me an indelible way of life: work tirelessly to better the lives of your loved ones and you. The seeds of this lesson took root while I attended a school district in New York that ranked perennially among the districts most at risk in the State. I took more Advanced Placement exams than my district offered courses. I graduated first in my class. I applied to Cornell University. I was rejected.

Why then do I defend a system that may in small part have resulted in my initial rejection?

I harbor little ill will toward a system that made me work harder and become better. This may seem alien to Ms. Almendarez. I chose to work for the advantage that would be conferred upon my children. After a year of growth and proving at the alma mater of the nation, I transferred back home to Cornell University.

I attended classes at Cornell University. I graduated in the upper echelon of the College of Arts and Sciences in three years’s time. I did so in classes where I competed with and learned alongside legacy students. Never did they treat me as lesser because of my socioeconomic background. On a few occasions, aspersions were directed at my single-mother household. More frequently, the disadvantage of my background was doubted because of the color of my skin or the constitution of my surname. Legacy students committed neither offense.

Cornellians of legacy understood the purpose of their families’s alma mater. Their families underwrote a large portion of my tuition as a testament to the University’s belief in meritocracy. I graduated from an endowed college in the Ivy League with debt less than that associated with the typical education from a member school of the State University of New York. It is precisely legacies’s understanding of Cornell University’s history that makes this reality unnovel.

Diversity, what becomes the touchstone of Almendarez’s point at the end of her piece, has meant at Cornell University since its founding that those who are privileged and disadvantaged will gain favor in their admissions based on merit. It would be a nonsensical reality if a University whose charter provides for the eldest lineal descendant of Ezra Cornell to have a seat on its board did not value legacy in any form. It would be equally implausible for Andrew Dickson White, an archetypal son of privilege, to have excluded considerations of legacy knowing their role in the growth of great American universities. Cornell University was to be truly diverse.

The socially privileged and disadvantaged came to Cornell University to influence and augment one another. Recent frolics in academia unearth the historical and bigoted motives for appending legacy status in admissions at peers of Cornell University. Conflating the role of legacy preferences at Cornell University with their tainted race-, religion-, and class-based applications at other Ivies misunderstands grossly President Garrett’s and my University.

The institutions that utilized those tactics existed for well over a century before admitting students of color and two centuries before admitting women. Cornell University is distinct in that it never manifested such bigotry. Religious, racial, gendered, and socioeconomic minorities never were excluded systematically and gained admission in the first few classes of the University. Legacy preferences on East Hill are the fictionalized monster under the bed. They never were the real boogeymen that they were at other members of the Ivy League.

Critics who purport that legacies add no diversity to an institution fail to see the mutability of the term. What they sincerely seek to say is that it does not meet the flavor-of-the-era diversity that suits their interests. Ms. Almendarez neglected to note the advantage in admissions that she would have received for having a mother who was a Mexican immigrant. Most data indicate that the associated statistical advantage equated to an SAT appreciation that she would receive is equal to or greater than that which legacy applicants receive. To have that advantage available, all she “had to do was be born.”

I enjoyed neither admissions advantage. This does not prevent my recognition of utility in legacy preference. Legacy preferences reinforce loyalty and investment in Cornell University. These future investments will pay for students like me to attend this great University. These preferences enrich Cornell University not only in filling the University’s coffers but in realizing the founders’s vision of a homogenized community in which the advantages or disadvantages of one’s upbringing are rendered irrelevant.

It is not “the rich” in this case, as Almendarez alleges, who are trying to take something away. It is her opinions that invite true deprivation. Others and I toiled and studied to earn the advantages of legacy preference for our children from origins just as humble as those of Ms. Almendarez. Should it all be for naught? I plan to repay my alma mater and purchase opportunities for future students who overcome similar disadvantages. My children will understand that it is a privileged obligation of Cornellians to improve social mobility.

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