Ortiz: An egalitarian Northwestern

Sterling Kossuth Ortiz, Assistant Opinion Editor

Throughout my life, I’ve acutely understood my class position and reliance on the welfare state. From living in New York City in a homeless shelter to living in public housing and then needing heavy financial aid to attend my middle school and high school in South Florida, I’ve grown up needing various kinds of support to be the best person I can be. 

Even at Northwestern, I’ve been reliant on heavy amounts of financial aid. Without the support I receive, I couldn’t even imagine attending this university. Given my background, this situation invokes feelings within me I find hard to communicate. On one hand, I am thankful beyond words for the opportunity that various institutions and governments have given me my entire life, with NU being the latest benefactor. On the other hand, I am hyper-aware that these institutions still further many disparities.

I find the ongoing case against NU decently underwhelming compared to the headlines. The most public part of this lawsuit attempts to use University President Morton Schapiro’s words from a 2019 interview against him, saying that because he reviews some applicants’ admissions and conducts interviews, NU favors said applicants. The scope of this accusation includes the 550 applications in 2019 reviewed by Schapiro.

I am not a lawyer and do not understand U.S. or Illinois law fluently, so I cannot give a legal perspective on this argument. However, I believe universities should outlaw any unreasonable bias within college admissions, and Schapiro’s disclosure in the interview counts.

I find trouble not with Schapiro reading college applications but with the fact that “the breakdown among applicants is not random. The group includes legacy students, children whose family members have donated to NU, and connections of his who asked him to read their child’s or relative’s application,” as reported by The Daily in 2019. I believe that this factor makes Schapiro inherently biased, that even if he wants to be fair to these applicants because he receives these applications as a favor or as special status, Schapiro will reward these applicants over another student. 

In effect, NU allows Schapiro to create a two-tiered system of potential students. One tier goes to the wealthy and well-connected, whether their wealth comes from special status or finances. Another tier goes to the rest of us, the tens of thousands of applicants who strive to attend this elite university and face long odds because we have no strings to pull nor any impressive wealth to use. I believe this separation is fundamentally unfair and contradicts any hope of an egalitarian NU.

For specifics regarding NU that are both egalitarian and expansionist, I wrote about some ideas in my article “Toward 20,000 undergraduates” last quarter. I also recommend McCormick Prof. Luis Amaral’s opinion piece in The Daily that came out earlier this month titled “Northwestern is great. Why can’t we have more of it?” 

Relating specifically to admissions, I found Nathan Robinson’s “Admit Everybody” article he published in Current Affairs in 2018 to be particularly thoughtful. In the piece, Robinson responds to the idea of defending the SAT and ACT as valuable college admissions tools by starting to reimagine college admissions without meritocracy. Specifically, Robinson advocates for a “vision of universities … as a place where anybody can come and learn, so long as they can do the work,” and for universities to admit students “by selecting a random group of students from among all of those marked (qualified)” without considering any other factors. 

I propose this idea, not as an endorsement, but because I believe it adds an important perspective to the conversation. In practice, I believe in a partially-blind admissions process, where NU and other universities set admissions quotas for Pell Grant recipients and other current minorities of all kinds and multiply the amount of admitted students by several factors. NU should copy best practices from universities that provide social mobility to students, such as the State Universities of New York and the California State Universities. I believe this combination, among others, would create an egalitarian NU that produces better outcomes for the University.

Sterling Ortiz is a SESP fourth-year. You can contact him at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.