Photography by Claire Cenovic
On October 23rd 2023, the Columbia Policy Institute’s Human Rights Center published an open letter on Columbia University’s legacy admissions policy, addressed Dean Sorett of Columbia College, Dean Chang of the Engineering School, and Dean Rosen-Metsch of the General Studies School— and Provost Dennis Mitchell.
The three page letter, co-signed by 15 Columbia University student groups, states that elite private institutions such as Columbia must take their own steps towards ensuring racially equitable admissions. Due to the school’s “unique obligation to be a leader in the fight for racial equity in higher education,” the letter argues for an official end to legacy admissions at Columbia University.
Pointing to the University’s “long history of directly displacing Black residents through expansion, pricing out our neighbors through gentrification, and enacting outright anti-Black violence upon residents of Harlem as well as its own Black students” and establishing “the practice of instituting admissions quotas of Jewish students to curtail the number of Jewish students admitted” to the school, the students argue that Columbia must both rectify the inequities they have created and serve as an example to other elite schools that still consider legacy in admissions decisions.
“Columbia has been a leader in making things worse in the past and so it has an obligation to be a leader and making things better now,” says Glynis O’Meara (she/her, CC’25), Co-center Director of the Human Rights Center of the Policy Institute. “It’s on Columbia to be the first to ban legacy admissions, and bring the rest of the universities with it”.
The Columbia Policy Institute, Columbia University’s “progressive, non-partisan student run think-tank,” was inspired to consider the issue of equitable admissions in the wake of the Supreme Court decision to repeal affirmative action in U.S. colleges this past June.
“We are a group with name and reputation at an Ivy league university, and so we should be the ones talking about equitable admissions,” says O’Meara.
After researching the legacy policies of other universities compared to the racial demographics of their alumni, the Center concluded that tackling legacy admissions is the most reasonable first step toward creating more equitable admissions policies on campus.
“What are changes can you enact to make admissions as racially equitable as possible?” asks O’Meara. “There’s a ton of them, but the lowest hanging fruit is legacy admissions, by which I mean, it’s really actionable. It’s harder to hold the school accountable to things like recruiting from more diverse communities.”
On August 23, 2023, President Shafik announced the creation of a working group led by Interim Provost Dennis Mitchell to review the University’s current admissions policies. Working with the three Columbia undergraduate deans, the group’s stated goal is to conduct a “high-level review of current admissions policies” to create adjustments to admissions policies as needed at each school—Columbia College, SEAS, and General Studies.
However, no further updates from Shafik or the members of the working group have been shared despite their promise to issue a set of recommendations by December 2023, and the group has not given students any opportunity to share their thoughts on the University’s admissions policy.
When emailed for a comment on the progress of the working group and an updated timeline for the release of their recommendations, Provost Mitchell and Dean Sorett of Columbia College did not respond.
O’Meara hopes to see the working group take comments from student groups on campus that have a greater stake in racially equitable admissions, such as the Black Student Union and the Asian American Alliance.
A June 30th message from Jennifer Rosales, the Vice President for Inclusion and Engaged Learning/Chief Diversity Officer, stated that more information on admissions changes would be communicated in the “months to come,” but no public announcement about changes to the Barnard admissions policy have yet been made.
As per Shafik’s August announcement, Columbia will announce the recommendations of the admissions working group this December. A decision to end legacy admissions will force other academic institutions to reckon with their own admissions policies under a new precedent set by the University.
“Bigger picture, we need a myriad of changes for admission. I would like to see that start now,” says O’Meara. “I don’t think it’s inconceivable that Columbia ending legacy admissions will make a huge dent in legacy admissions policies across the country. And the best case scenario is that this class that is currently applying to college will be the last class for which legacy is considered. That will be so big.”