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Alumni react to legacy admissions

Claire Heininger | Wednesday, April 21, 2004

When Chuck Lennon gets an angry phone call from an alumnus whose son or daughter didn’t get into Notre Dame, he takes it as more of a compliment than an insult.”I’m glad people are interested because it shows they care about this place,” said Lennon, executive director of the Alumni Association. “We are obviously concerned, but I’m happy they care enough [to call] … It shows they had a good experience here and they want their children to have a good experience here.”Lennon, who has held his position for 23 years, has seen firsthand the University’s sustained commitment to admitting and enrolling the children of alumni – a commitment that has led Notre Dame to claim the highest percentage of legacies in the country at 23 percent. Such figures lead to high expectations and high rewards for legacy applicants and their families, but can also result in crushing disappointment and anger, said director of admissions Dan Saracino.”Notre Dame has to walk this fine line – we have a family, and a family that should be inclusive, not exclusive,” he said. “We do make a commitment to alumni children, and we shouldn’t apologize for that. “But bending does not mean breaking. Bending does not mean automatic.”While few alumni parents – or any parents, in an era when Notre Dame’s academic profile is consistently climbing – believe their children’s acceptance should be automatic, many do retaliate when they feel that Notre Dame hasn’t bent far enough, said vice president for University Relations Lou Nanni.”Some are deeply hurt, very angry, some are disillusioned, some want to understand why and ask questions, some are disappointed but understand,” said Nanni, who receives feedback from the Development Office and International Student Services in addition to the alumni constituency.”In any family, there is a time for us to listen and absorb the blows,” he continued. “We need to let them vent, take their shots and respond with kindness and compassion.”Saracino and his staff do an exceptional job in this role, Nanni said, adding that following through on the hate mail and the backlash is just as important as delivering an outstanding incoming class. He pointed out that while many parents experience pain and resentment in the short run, in the long run the Notre Dame admissions office often earns their respect. “You can deliver bad news harshly or with compassion,” Nanni said. And delivering with compassion, he explained, means not just “throwing numbers” at parents who demand an explanation – such as the shrinking gap between the profile of legacies and of the entire competitive applicant pool – it means being sympathetic to specific situations.Saracino knows a lot about that.”I will get on the phone with a father who’s on the phone saying ‘It’s not a family, my son didn’t get admitted too,'” he said. ” [But] the integrity of the admissions process is, to me, paramount. And that means we’re not in it to be liked.”Both Saracino and Lennon emphasized that alumni children’s applications receive an even more careful evaluation during that process, as each is examined by a fourth reader in addition to the usual three.”That’s where the difficult decisions come in,” Lennon said. He said that while he tries to offer those unhappy with the University’s decisions two options of their own – transferring or obtaining a Notre Dame degree on the graduate level – a few parents are left so unsatisfied that they send back yearbooks, class rings and on rare occasions even withdraw their donations.However, over the 23 years, Lennon said he could “name on one hand” the alumni who have actually revoked financial support. Far more common are those who just want to be heard, and Nanni believes Notre Dame does a good job of listening.”A good parent is going to occasionally listen and absorb some criticism,” he said. “And as stewards of the larger Notre Dame family, it is an important part of our role.”