Suzy Weiss is White Right

Maybe you’ve heard this one: Suzy Weiss is a graduating high school senior who sported a .000 admissions batting average for her top college choices of Yale, Princeton and Penn. Rather than take the news gracefully, Suzy took to the streets—er, the pages of the Wall Street Journal.

Read Weiss’s inflammatory article here if you haven’t done so. It’s a wonderful introspective into the minds of entitled and, to be fair, brutally overworked and overstressed high school teenagers (in an aside, what should readers conclude when the ostensibly nonpartisan motivations of a naïve teenage girl perfectly align with the talking points of the anti-pluralism right?).

The reactions to the Op-Ed covered usual territory, although some are remarkably searing. Kendra James at Racialicious.com points out the double-standard of “blame the blacks” narrative; when white girls fail to get into college, they have that option, but when minorities do not, whom can they blame? And Aaliyah Martin writes the best combative response yet: “I Took Your Spot at Harvard.”

But each of these responses has a fatal flaw: they fail to address Suzy’s fundamental claim, not that she was treated unfairly, but in fact that “we were lied to,” as Weiss asserts. By not addressing that point, these responses seem to say implicitly, “Yes, you were lied to—but in the name of diversity.” That, to my mind, grants Weiss far too much credit.

Because in fact, Suzy wasn’t lied to at all. If Suzy actually were honest, her closet-emerging, head-dress wearing polemics are far from the heroic truth-telling she fantasizes. It’s not as though colleges try to hide this stuff: Brown posts its affirmative action policy on its web site. And if Suzy actually read the pages of the newspaper in which she wants her “satire” to be widely distributed, she would have known that Fisher v. University of Texas has been ascending through the US Federal Court system for years.

And yet Suzy is right, even if she doesn’t know it. Colleges did lie to her—and to all of us—although rarely at the expense of middle class white girls from suburbia. The myth of meritocracy in college admissions exists not in opaque diversity policies, but the unabashed and outrageous money-grab that occurs every April during admission decisions.

These are the whisper-through-the-vine stories that, though obviously never officially corroborated, transform that iconic acceptance letter into a shameless annual fundraising drive. In short: rich people pay for their children’s entry, or behold the obvious promise of future donations to achieve the same. A New Jersey real estate magnate paid Harvard $2.5 million to ensure his son’s acceptance. A son of then-Senator Bill Frist got into Princeton because the Frist family donated tens of millions of dollars for a student center. Harvard has a longstanding tradition of “Z-Listing” wealthy legacies, an attempt to split the baby of egregiously under-qualified applicants and the politics of potential fundraising: would-be rejects receive a sort-of acceptance in which they’re told to take a year off before matriculating, sneaking them (and their low scores and grades) through the back door when no one, including the US News College Rankings, is looking. In a nail-biter, I’ve decided not to share personal accounts of millionaires’ or billionaires’ children getting into Harvard despite far lower grades and scores than their peers, but if you don’t believe that this happens, your Brown degree has already been revoked (part of Paxson’s new graduation requirements).

This is an entirely separate issue from the already-prohibitive cost of getting to the Ivy League fair and square, including expenses varying from test prep to a $35K tuition at Dalton. This is truly something else–an ethical nightmare where we sell our most revered perches in the “meritocracy” to the highest bidder.

The left and the right, then, would clearly agree that blind meritocracy is absent from admissions decisions. But the right’s bête noir, affirmative action, can at least be justified on putative ethical grounds. What is the moral justification for taking Suzy’s “spot” by selling it to the child of a hedge fund manager?

This is not to defend Weiss and her worldview, even if she insists it was “just satire.” It’s hard not to believe that, given her sense of entitlement, Suzy wouldn’t have taken the opportunity to buy her way in to her favorite schools had her family been so fortunate. After all, getting the Wall Street Journal piece was itself a matter of pulling some family connections.  The left seems to indulge in the preening idea that Weiss is a sour-grapes reject on the outside looking in. In fact, proverbial Weisses are all around the Ivy League—certainly plenty are here at Brown. While the “rest of us” took the textbook route, they took the checkbook route.

It’s a blight on the integrity of the Ivy League, whatever may be left of it. But that reputation is not static. Forging an inter-Ivy Code of Conduct that explicitly ignores family wealth determinations would be an excellent, and courageous, first step.

Late update: Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden has written a book about the issue of wealthy donors and the prospects of their children’s admissions into elite universities. It was not a source consulted in the research for this article.

6 comments

  • ohudson

    Though she appears entitled and whiney, Weiss is spot on about the whole diversity racket.

    Since when did universities go from valuing diversity of ideas to diversity of pigmentation?

  • Neil Singh

    Amazing work as always, Ben!

  • Ben Wofford

    Thanks Brigham. You raise a lot of fair points—it’s the best counter-argument, the ethical judgment that universities clearly have already made. That judgment more or less says that the tradeoff of doing something unethical (selling admissions spots) is worth the larger ethical gain of allowing more students to attend Brown tuition-free than otherwise might. For me, I think the solution is for universities to be point-blank honest about the world we live in. The Code of Conduct idea (literally thought up at random last night, so take with grain of salt) imagines that universities call it like it is: you (wealthy parent) *already* reside in the uppermost strata of educational advantages. You *can* send your child to Dalton. You *can* buy the best SAT tutor in the world. Your child *can* fund a non-profit startup and other shiny resume padders.

    So it’s not necessarily turning a blind eye to wealthy donors—you’re right, we do need them money—but but communicating to those donors that they have an obligation to convert some of that money into developing their child to at least partially mimic the extent to which underprivileged public school kids in West Philly have to work for it as well, bringing some (albeit perverse) semblance of solidarity to campus when accepted students arrive—which, after all, is the purpose of affirmative action to some extent, right? Admittedly, it would only work if all the Ivies took the pledge together.

  • Great article, definitely a fresh perspective on the whole affair. Some of the other bogus I’ve been reading about this, especially the article on racialicious.com has just been straight drivel (seriously, that article came off more racist than Weiss’ argument…well, maybe not more…). I would be interested to see what you think about the Need-Blind acceptance policies that a lot of the Ivy League Schools have or are adopting. That, at least, cuts out a chunk of bias based on money. If they are really as blind to need as they say they are then the only people they are letting into the school based off of money are the ones that have the balls to say it straight up. Furthermore, spots are certainly being sold to those who donate, but another question to ask is “why are they doing that?” I don’t think it is right, but hey, Brown needs money to continue to function, so, if it comes down to two students who are basically equal except for the size of daddy’s checkbook, then why not pick the golden goose? Food for thought from your favorite Devil’s Advocate, although that title may not be exactly appropriate as even my ‘thought-provoking counterarguments’ are mostly in line with yours. Great article, though, keep it up and I’ll keep reading.

  • Carter Johnson

    Excellent, Ben, and so unfortunately true.

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