Race, Power, and Institutional Memory in College Admissions

Margaret Parker & Julia Tayloe-

As the spring semester warms up and we immerse ourselves in campus life once again, most of us will give little thought to the college decision process that current high-school seniors are navigating. In less than two months, many members of Davidson’s Class of 2022 will receive their official acceptance letters, over which the Office of Admission has extensively deliberated. The Office’s decisions are informed by a broad array of data: SATs, GPAs, peer recommendations, personal essays, and, perhaps most controversially, whether the applicant is descended from Davidson alumni. With 52% of the national population opposed to the use of legacy status as a factor in college admissions decisions (Gallup), it is time for Davidson to reconsider the policy’s role in shaping our campus community.

At Georgetown University, the conversation about legacy status led to a landmark change in admissions policy. In 2016, a press release announced that Georgetown will give descendants of people enslaved by the University the same “consideration” in admissions decisions as descendants of alumni. This move came out of the research done by the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, who cited the University’s 1838 decision to sell off 272 of the University’s slaves in order to pay off institutional debt. Research on the part of the Georgetown Memory Project suggests that these individuals’ living descendants may exceed  20,000 in number (NPR).

The fraught relationship between race, institutional memory, and financial resources extends beyond the origin of Georgetown’s endowment. The alumni, and thus the pool of potential legacy students, at elite institutions like Georgetown and Davidson are characterized by a relative lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity. Davidson first opened its doors to non-white students in 1962 and to women ten years later. For this reason, the vast majority of Davidson’s alumni are white men who could afford to pay tuition with little or no financial aid. Consequently, legacy students are more likely to hail from white, wealthy families. While the vast majority of Georgetown’s legacy applicants still represent a history of exclusion similar to Davidson’s, their decision to include the descendants of slaves in that community reflects a willingness to engage with the institution’s complicated history with money, race, and power, a conversation that Davidson has not yet initiated.

Like Georgetown, Davidson College profited off of slavery. Offering legacy status to descendants of slaves tied to Davidson is a small step towards acknowledging and addressing the role Davidson played in white supremacy. As Davidson begins to investigate its past through the Commission on Race and Slavery, there must be a continued effort to examine how today we are still impacted by this history.

Davidson’s class of 2021 is 67.7% White, in part because legacy-preferred admission only benefits applicants whose parents and grandparents were not only able to afford Davidson, but allowed to attend. Allowing the descendants of slaves, off of whose suffering Davidson profited, to receive the same benefits as the descendants of Davidson alumni would be one small step toward mitigating the pernicious legacy of racial oppression on this campus.

Giving a leg up to a handful of applicants of color isn’t going to solve Davidson’s race problem; it will barely scrape the surface, if that. However, refusing to consider it sends a strong message about what–and who–the Davidson community considers to be of value.

Davidson has a long history of trailblazing admissions policies, including being the first liberal arts college in the country to review applications on a “need-blind” basis. We are now afforded another chance to be a leader in this arena. The Commission on Race and Slavery has the opportunity to explore the relationship between historical white supremacy and the Davidson we see today.

Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation has set an excellent precedent as to what informed and conscientious investigation looks like: illuminating the specific decisions the institution made regarding the enslavement of innocent people, and using that analysis to inform their response to issues of race, oppression, and equity.

The logistics of identifying descendants of slaves owned by the College may seem daunting, but this is exactly the type of investigation that the Commission is cut out for. At this point, we are faced with a pivotal choice: to preserve an incomplete image of progressive excellence at the expense of genuine and informed reconciliation, or to actively engage with everyone with a legitimate legacy of Davidson in their lives, including the descendants of those enslaved here, in the hope of creating a truly inclusive Davidson tomorrow. 

Domonoske, Camila. “Georgetown Will Offer An Edge In Admissions To Descendants Of Slaves.” NPR, NPR, 1 Sept. 2016, www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/09/01/492223040/georgetown-will-offer-an-edge-in-admissions-to-descendants-of-slaves.

Gallup, Inc. “Most in U.S. Oppose Colleges Considering Race in Admissions.” Gallup.com, 8 July 2016, news.gallup.com/poll/193508/oppose-colleges-considering-race-admissions.aspx.

Margaret Parker ’21 is an undeclared student from Gainesville, Florida.  Contact her at maparker@davidson.edu

Julia Tayloe ’21 is an undeclared student from Arlington, Virginia. Contact her at jutayloe@davidson.edu