A letter from a reader: Legacy parents' revenge

November 12, 2007:

The handling of an alumni child's undergraduate application is the most influential determinant of the parents' subsequent attitude toward the university – especially their willingness to contribute money. When I was Penn's chief fundraiser, my staff asked me to call on a Western Pennsylvania alumnus who appeared to have significant unrealized giving potential. Somehow in my briefing I didn't note that his two sons had been rejected by Penn a total of four times! Failed applications included the College of Arts and Sciences, the Wharton School, the law school, and the medical school. It was one of my less successful visits.

For good or ill, many schools give some additional weight to an applicant's "legacy." Nonetheless, many alumni children are rejected. How this is communicated is critical. A personal on-campus interview for all applicants is not feasible at schools that receive thousands of applications. But it is essential for alumni children in order to shape the frame of reference for a possible rejection. After the admission office decision, an advance telephone call with the negative (or positive) result is desirable to maintain good relations with the alumni parents.

Like many other alumni parents, I had a child rejected by Princeton. It was especially disappointing because of their miscommunication in the admission process. My daughter was a highly recruited high school field hockey and lacrosse player. She was tops on the Princeton coach's desired list, but the coach decided to not expend an admission chip on Jennifer because of the assumption that she would be admitted as a legacy child. Unhappily, my clout was insufficient.

So Jennifer enrolled at Penn, from where she graduated in four years after a wonderful education and an outstanding athletic career achieving All-Ivy status in two sports. One of the highlights of my years at Penn occurred in a freshman lacrosse game against Princeton; Jennifer scored eight goals while the orange and black as a team scored only seven. This was followed by an even better feeling when I, as Penn's vice president for development and university relations, enjoyed seeing us pass Princeton for the first time in that year's total gift funds received.

Not every disappointed alumnus parent has the same opportunities for revenge.

Emeritus professor of management
The Wharton School
Philadelphia, Pa.

Editor's note: This is taken from a book of short essays Webber is compiling on the "humorous and bizarre incidents" he experienced during four decades as a professor, department chairman, and university vice president.

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