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Legacy admissions at elite schools - lowering the bar
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Submitted by ybc on September 9, 2006 - 4:04pm
How Lowering the Bar
Twice a year, after reviewing applicants to Duke University, Jean Scott lugged a cardboard box to the office of President Terry Sanford. Together, Ms. Scott, director of undergraduate admissions from 1980 to 1986, and Mr. Sanford pored over its contents: applications from candidates she wanted to reject but who were on his list for consideration because their parents might bolster the university's endowment. Ms. Scott won some battles, lost others and occasionally they compromised; an applicant might be required to go elsewhere before being taken as a transfer.
"There was more of this input at Duke than at any other institution I ever worked for," says Ms. Scott, now president of Marietta College in Ohio. "I would have been very pleased to have the best class as determined by the admissions office, but the world isn't like that."
Over more than 20 years, Duke transformed itself from a Southern school to a premier national institution with the help of a winning strategy: targeting rich students whose families could help build up its endowment. At the same time, and in a similar way, Brown University, eager to shed its label as one of the weakest schools in the Ivy League, bolstered its reputation by recruiting kids with famous parents. While celebrities don't often contribute financially, they generate invaluable publicity.
Admissions policies are just one ingredient affecting a school's resources and reputation. Having a championship basketball team, a standout academic department or an innovative curriculum, for example, may also boost applications and donations. Moreover, the influence of parental wealth and renown on university admissions is not a new phenomenon. Traditionally, universities have relied on gifts from alumni, who are rewarded with "legacy" preferences for their children.
What makes Duke and Brown, among other institutions, stand out, is the way in which they ramped up and systematized their pursuit: rejecting stronger candidates to admit children of the rich or famous, regardless of their ties to the university.
Both schools had a behind-the-scenes power broker, a go-to man for prominent parents seeking to fast-track their children's applications. Duke had Joel Fleishman, 72 years old, a wine connoisseur who sits on boards of companies run by Duke donors and the parents of Duke students. At Brown, the contact was the late David Zucconi, a barrel-chested ex-football player with a bone-crushing handshake, a booming Bronx accent and a resemblance to actor Jason Robards.
In the world of higher education, children of the rich and famous are known as "development cases," pursued by presidents and fund-raisers often to the dismay of admissions staffs. Duke landed the children of fashion mogul Ralph Lauren and other corporate titans. Some of them became major donors, helping boost Duke's endowment from 25th in 1980 ($135 million) to 16th in 2005 ($3.8 billion).
Brown raised its profile by enrolling children or stepchildren of politicians and celebrities, including two presidents, three Democratic presidential nominees, two Beatles and seven Academy Award winners. A particularly controversial case was the son of Hollywood superagent Michael Ovitz, whose application sparked a debate within Brown.
Celebrity students generally lag behind their classmates in academic honors. But their prominence -- and that of their parents -- helped transform Brown into a top destination for students with a creative or artistic bent. Brown accepted just 13.8% of applicants for this year's freshman class, the lowest percentage in its history, as the number of applications rose sharply. Its endowment has risen from 29th nationwide in 1980 ($123 million) to 26th in 2005 ($1.6 billion), although it remains the lowest in the Ivy League.
This success, however, carries a cost. As the number of applicants has soared in recent years, premier schools admit as few as one in 10 students, a far more selective rate compared with a generation ago. To make room for an academically borderline development case, a top college typically rejects nine other applicants, many of whom might have greater intellectual potential.
Some colleges have been known to accept all applicants from a given high school to conceal the development admit, and thereby avert criticism from rejected students. Known in the trade as "considering context," the practice shortchanges worthy applicants from other high schools who might otherwise have made the grade.
Duke has acknowledged the existence of development admits. University spokesman John Burness says the ensuing donations help the university fund facilities improvements and financial aid, among other areas. He says the donations "frequently do not fund" Duke's endowment, whose rise is "principally related" to a successful investment strategy.
Brown's dean of admissions, Jim Miller, says the school wouldn't comment on the credentials of any particular student, citing confidentiality rules. In general, he says, "all students at Brown are admitted because the university believes they are qualified, can meet the rigorous demands of our academic program, and will be active and contributing members of our community."
When Mr. Sanford (1917-98), a former North Carolina governor, assumed Duke's presidency in 1970, he found a university with a budget deficit and alumni too young to make bequests any time soon.
"Terry said: 'What we need is some first-class funerals,' " recalls his biographer, Howard Covington.
To increase donations and help make Duke a top-tier school, Mr. Sanford turned to an old friend, Croom Beatty, a teacher and fund-raiser at a North Carolina boarding school. Now retired, Mr. Beatty recalls Duke's student body in the early 1970s being dominated by middle-class public-school students from Northern and mid-Atlantic states. They were admitted largely on the basis of high SAT scores. After graduating, they "didn't connect with Duke," and their giving was insufficient, he says.
At Mr. Sanford's urging, Mr. Beatty scoured the nation's prep schools for applicants whose families could enrich Duke. "I handled the private schools," he recalls. "I basically kept a list of people whom it would be in Duke's best interest to have them come." For these applicants, Mr. Beatty says, a subpar SAT score was not necessarily a barrier if they showed what he called "other areas of leadership."
Duke's recruiting also involved raiding wealthy families traditionally associated with other top universities, especially Yale. The Mars candy-bar clan, the Kohlers (Wisconsin makers of plumbing fixtures) and the Wrigleys of chewing-gum fame started sending their kids to Duke.
Texas oil magnate Robert Bass, a Yale graduate, and his wife Anne, a Smith College alumna, donated $10 million to Duke in 1996, three years after their son enrolled, and another $10 million in 2001. Anne Bass joined Duke's board in 2003. Through a spokesman, the Basses decline to comment.
Word spread in private-school circles that Duke was hunting for development cases. "I would say to the parents, 'Duke is a long shot. I would recommend a less competitive school in the South,' " says Mary Anne Schwalbe, college counselor at Manhattan's Dalton School from 1979 to 1985. "The parents would say, 'I've been in touch with somebody there and it's looking good.' "
Texas entrepreneur Milledge "Mitch" Hart III, co-founder of Electronic Data Systems Corp., didn't know anyone at Duke in 1981. But after his daughter told him it was one of her top two choices, Mr. Hart called a former Duke dean he knew who promised to introduce him to the right person: Joel Fleishman.
Mr. Fleishman has held numerous titles at Duke, from senior vice president to professor of law. His power at the university stemmed in part from a long association with Mr. Sanford, which dated to the president's days as governor. Mr. Fleishman's résumé also includes a variety of affiliations with nonprofit foundations and companies.
What it omits is his role at the vortex of development and admissions. Mr. Fleishman, who served as chairman of a 1983-92 fund-raising campaign that raised $221 million, courted potential donors and pushed to admit their children.
Ms. Scott, the former admissions director, recalls having conversations with Mr. Fleishman about candidates. Harold Wingood, a senior associate director of admissions from 1986 to 1992, says Mr. Fleishman would "call either me or the president's office" to advocate for development cases.
Mr. Fleishman wrote a wine column for eight years for Vanity Fair magazine and cultivated Duke donors with vintage selections. "Joel used to give very expensive bottles of wine and put them on his university expense account," recalls former president Keith Brodie, who succeeded Mr. Sanford in 1986 and sought to restrict the practice of development admits. "Because they were millionaires, you had to buy an expensive bottle." Mr. Fleishman, now a professor of law and public policy at Duke, declines to comment.
Mr. Fleishman met the Hart family at the airport and escorted them to the house of the Duke president, where the family stayed for three nights, Mr. Hart recalls. His daughter enrolled at Duke -- followed by three more of his children. In 1986, after Mr. Hart pledged $1 million to a fund-raising campaign led by Mr. Fleishman, Duke established the Hart Leadership Program, which teaches students leadership skills.
Mr. Hart says all four children were "competitive academically" and that no one at the university, including Mr. Fleishman, solicited a donation. "I had to offer him," Mr. Hart says.
At the same time, Mr. Hart acknowledges the role wealth can play in admissions. "Do I think money can make a difference... . Yeah, sure," he says. "Human nature is going to be human nature."
Mr. Fleishman's friendships with Duke donors gave him a valuable entrée into businesses far afield from academia. Take, for example, Ralph Lauren. Two of the famed designer's children, David and Dylan, graduated from Dalton School in Manhattan in 1989 and 1992 respectively and enrolled at Duke while Mr. Fleishman ran the fund-raising campaign.
A person familiar with their Dalton records describes David as a "B-plus" student with SAT scores in the 1100s. Dylan had better grades and SATs in the 1200s. In that era, Duke's average SAT score was close to 1350.
Sondra Feig, then Dalton's college counselor, says the Laurens had earlier "learned an important lesson" when Brown turned down their older son. Andrew had a B average in high school with an SAT score lower than that of his siblings, according to a person familiar with the records. He enrolled at Skidmore College and later transferred to Brown.
For David and Dylan, Ms. Feig says, the Laurens hired an experienced, independent college counselor. "They learned who to go to and how to do it. That's what did it for Duke."
Phyllis Steinbrecher, the Laurens' independent counselor, says she has dealt with Mr. Fleishman on development cases, although she declines to identify the students. Mr. Fleishman and Ralph Lauren were certainly familiar with each other: According to Dr. Brodie, the designer was a regular guest at dinners Mr. Fleishman hosted for parents of students he'd helped.
Mr. Lauren has pledged a six-figure gift to Duke. In 1999, Mr. Fleishman became a director of Polo Ralph Lauren Inc. As of the company's most-recent filing, he was earning $35,000 a year as a director plus $7,500 as chairman of its compensation committee and $2,000 per meeting. He also owned or held options to buy 37,500 shares of Ralph Lauren stock, worth at least half a million dollars, public filings show.
A Polo Ralph Lauren spokeswoman says Mr. Lauren, the company and David Lauren decline to comment. Andrew and Dylan also wouldn't comment. There's no evidence that Mr. Fleishman's directorship or Mr. Lauren's donation to Duke was tied to admitting the Lauren children.
Mr. Fleishman also sits on the board of Boston Scientific Corp., whose chairman, Duke alumnus Peter Nicholas, is one of Duke's biggest donors. His three children graduated from the university.
Mr. Fleishman sits on more corporate boards "than a lot of people, especially nonpresidents," says J. David Ross, a former vice president at Duke. Mr. Ross says he believes the directorships weren't payback for admissions. Duke spokesman Mr. Burness says Mr. Fleishman "is a person of considerable distinction and accomplishment, and it's no surprise that a number of leading nonprofit and corporate organizations have invited him to share his wisdom as a member of their boards of directors." Boston Scientific declines to comment.
In 1969, Brown eliminated requirements compelling students to take classes across the academic spectrum, part of a broad revision of its undergraduate education. The "New Curriculum" had an unintended side effect: expanding Brown's appeal to Hollywood celebrities whose children hoped never to open another math or science text.
Brown's lack of requirements was "a huge part of what made me want to go there," says Tess Curtin Lynch, 23, daughter of comedian Jane Curtin. As a student at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, her grades were "brought down by math," she says. The first time she took the math SAT, she says she scored 550 out of 800. Her college counselor at Harvard-Westlake told her she would need at least 600 to be competitive at Brown. Her family hired a tutor, who helped lift her score to 660 (along with a 700 verbal mark).
Not only is Ms. Lynch's mother well-known, but her father is a Brown alumnus, giving her "legacy" preference. Brown alumna Nancy Josephson, an influential Hollywood agent, wrote her a letter of recommendation.
"I'm willing to admit I had the best possible set of circumstances," says Ms. Lynch, who graduated from Brown in 2005 with a degree in art history. "I was very lucky. I don't know what my situation would have been without these steps up."
In 1979, Brown cemented its rising stature by enrolling the late John F. Kennedy Jr., who was widely expected to follow his father, grandfather and sister Caroline to Harvard. But Mr. Kennedy wanted to escape his family's shadow. After graduating from Brown in 1983, he enrolled at New York University law school.
"The greatest advantage to Brown I was able to achieve was the admission and matriculation of JFK Jr.," says James Rogers, admissions director from 1969 to 1988. "People began to talk about Brown. If somebody who had as many admissions options as he had would choose Brown, there had to be some reason."
In 1989, Brown installed a president known for his fund-raising prowess and celebrity friends: Vartan Gregorian. As president of the New York Public Library, Mr. Gregorian remade a stodgy institution into a chic place for charitable donations.
Keenly aware that Brown's endowment was only one-tenth of Harvard's, Mr. Gregorian corralled the son of billionaire Gordon P. Getty. William Paul Getty graduated in 1989 from the Groton School. Mr. Gregorian was a trustee of the J. Paul Getty Trust and a friend of William's mother, Ann Getty. She joined the board of the New York Public Library in 1985 and donated $1 million to the institution.
"I wanted Gordon Getty's children to come to Brown," Mr. Gregorian recalls. "I told admissions, 'The Gettys' son is applying and I know them very well.' "
Mr. Gregorian says he didn't expect a financial quid pro quo and that he recommended five other colleges for William Getty to consider. The former Brown president says he would not "compromise his integrity for wealthy individuals."
William Paul Getty "dropped out in six months," Mr. Gregorian says. He described William as a "good student but not serious." The Gettys didn't make a significant gift to Brown. Reached at his California home, William Getty declined to comment.
Mr. Gregorian, now president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a philanthropic organization founded by Andrew Carnegie, acknowledges facilitating admissions -- including of another student who left after a short period -- but says intercessions on his part were rare. He says the children of the famous flocked to Brown not because they got an admissions edge, but because of their anonymity on campus, the flexible curriculum and the student body's "esprit de corps."
Parents looking for a contact at Brown invariably came across the name David Zucconi. Mr. Zucconi held various titles in 44 years as a Brown employee, but one job remained the same: behind-the-scenes liaison to the rich and famous, a role he took on with unusual gusto. The 1955 Brown graduate drove a large white Cadillac convertible and invariably dressed in a blazer and university tie.
Mario Zucconi says his brother's name was passed between Brown alumni in the know. "He was out with Walter Matthau. He had drinks with Walter Cronkite. They wanted to get their sons or daughters in."
Mr. Cronkite says he doesn't recall meeting Mr. Zucconi. He says his son enrolled at Brown but dropped out.
"I spoke to Zucconi several times about some of my development cases," says Bruce Breimer, director of college guidance at Manhattan's Collegiate School. "He would interview the kids, write a report, pave the way, let the admissions office know the prominence of the family. The buzz was, 'He's the guy to go to.' "
Mr. Zucconi helped Vanessa Vadim, the daughter of actress Jane Fonda, navigate the application process, according to William Nicholson, a former Brown admissions officer. He recalls that Mr. Zucconi and Ms. Fonda had lunch at Brown's faculty club, he recalls. Mr. Nicholson says Ms. Vadim "did not need a lot of push" and would have been a strong candidate anyway.
Stephen Rivers, a longtime friend and publicist for Ms. Fonda at the time, confirms Ms. Fonda knew Mr. Zucconi. "He dealt mostly with Debi, Jane's assistant at the time, and I met him and spoke with him several times as well."
Although he embodied Brown to alumni and celebrities, Mr. Zucconi had detractors within the administration who felt that the onetime Brown halfback specialized in end runs around their authority. Besides the usual list of candidates, Brown admissions officers often had to swallow a separate "Zucconi list."
"He got some kids into Brown, pushing, one way or another, who should never have been there," recalls Mr. Nicholson, the former Brown admissions officer. "Usually they were children of great wealth or alumni. I would try to accommodate him. Sometimes the kids whom he referred were God awful. I'd call him and say, 'Dave, you've got to do some screening.' "
Mr. Gregorian says trustees, alumni and other notables used Mr. Zucconi as an unauthorized back channel, something he says shouldn't have happened. "I established a process that no case can go directly from Zucconi to admissions," he says. "Zucconi didn't think anybody that applied to Brown should be turned down."
In January 2003, at the age of 69, Mr. Zucconi died of cancer. At the funeral, Mario Zucconi recalls, "at least a dozen people said to me: 'If it wasn't for your brother, my son or daughter wouldn't have gotten into Brown.'"
In the late 1990s, the son of the man often called the most powerful in Hollywood applied to Brown, prompting an intense internal debate over how far the school should bend its rules for a development case.
Brown president E. Gordon Gee was enthused when Christopher Ovitz, son of superagent Mr. Ovitz, sought to enroll. Mr. Gee, who had recently arrived at Brown after presiding over three public universities, felt hamstrung by its endowment. Mr. Ovitz had a track record of educational philanthropy, and Mr. Gee believed he might also open doors to a vast array of Hollywood entertainers and executives.
Chris Ovitz's academic credentials, however, were below Brown's standards. Thomas Hudnut, headmaster at Harvard-Westlake private secondary school, says Chris "was very socially mature and got along well with adults. He was physically and academically immature. That's a very tough combination for a boy to have."
Mr. Hudnut says he encouraged the Ovitzes to send Chris to boarding school, where he would be under less of a microscope, but "they weren't ready to do that." Instead, Chris transferred to Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, an arts-oriented school that caters to Hollywood children.
Of five Crossroads classmates who enrolled at Brown, four were inducted into the Cum Laude Society, signifying that they ranked in the top 20% of their high-school class. According to a copy of the class yearbook, Chris was not in the honor society. Says Erin Durlesser, one of the four: "He definitely was not academic in my opinion. ...The ones who also applied to Brown felt it was inappropriate competition."
Michael Goldberger, then Brown's admission director, balked at Chris's lack of credentials. According to people familiar with the situation, he cautioned Mr. Gee that accepting Chris would damage Brown's credibility with high schools in southern California.
The president pressed the issue and they compromised, according to former Brown officials. Chris was admitted as a non-matriculating "special student" allowed to take classes at Brown. If he proved his mettle, he would be granted status as a regular student. The school hoped that would jolt him into performing better, according to a person familiar with Brown admissions. Mr. Goldberger declines to comment.
James Ellis, a lawyer for the Ovitz family, defends Brown's admission of Chris. "If diversity in terms of background and experience that kids bring to a college campus has any meaning at all, having spent time with Chris and [his sister] Kimberly...these kids have perspectives and experiences and backgrounds that I just think are tremendously valuable and unique and would be a benefit to any campus," Mr. Ellis says.
Chris Ovitz left Brown within a year and later obtained a bachelor's degree in history from UCLA, his father's alma mater. According to Mr. Ellis, Chris is now director of business development for an Internet startup. President Gee left Brown for Vanderbilt University in 2000.
Chris's admission fostered a relationship between his family and Brown. In 2002, his sister transferred there from New York University. Michael Ovitz has hosted a reception for Brown President Ruth Simmons at his Brentwood mansion as well as speeches on campus by director Martin Scorsese and actor Dustin Hoffman. Mr. Hoffman himself is the father of two Brown undergraduates.
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