The Democratic Merit Project challenges institutions to operationalize “merit” in a way that promotes the conditions necessary for a thriving democracy and to define and use merit as an incentive system to reward those actions that a society values. One principal objective of the project is to link diversity and equal opportunity with the democratic mission of higher education. This objective is stimulated by the proposition that, in the United States, institutions of higher education are not uniformly meeting their responsibility to promote diversity and energize democracy by admitting students who have the will to advance a democratic society.
When measuring merit among applicants, colleges and universities too often focus heavily on traditional “objective measures of excellence” based on what students have done, who their parents are, and how they have performed on standardized achievement tests. This strategy assists in reinforcing the selectivity of some institutions while ignoring or deemphasizing what students might produce or contribute to the larger society after they graduate—a transformative way of contextualizing the concept of merit and connecting merit to democratic values.
The Democratic Merit Project was developed in 2007 from a proposal crafted by Lani Guinier, Bennett Boskey Professor of Law at Harvard University, john powell, then Executive Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and Williams Chair in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Moritz College of Law, Ohio State University (currently Director, Haas Diversity Research Center and Robert D. Haas Chancellor’s Chair in Equity and Inclusion, University of California, Berkeley) and Claude Steele, then Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences and Director of Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (currently Provost and Professor of Psychology at Columbia University). New grant support from Public Interest Projects – Fulfilling the Dream Fund has enabled the Kirwan Institute to make progress on this project in the following areas:
- Engage more deeply in the national conversation about the value of diversity—particularly racial and ethnic diversity—and democratic merit in higher education including enhancing the project’s web presence.
- Deepen our understanding of how traditional measures of academic merit may have constrained progress toward the public mission of colleges and universities.
- Gather public opinion about the value of diversity in higher education, the public mission of colleges and universities and the college admissions process.
- Employ systems science methodologies to produce a comprehensive structural analysis of factors that influence access to and diversity in higher education and the causal interactions of these factors.
The on‐line survey project addresses the third goal above. This goal is stimulated by the understanding that while many of the barriers to equal opportunity in higher education are structural in nature and race neutral on their face—historic overreliance on standardized test scores in the college admissions process, for example—the public and private attitudes and opinions of individual actors do indeed influence these structures and can energize or restrain the creation and implementation of strategies and mechanisms designed to eliminate structural barriers to educational opportunity. For example, research suggests that most white Americans harbor some level of subtle implicit bias toward African Americans and other people of color. These biases can influence decisions at every level of public and private enterprise, from sentencing decisions made by judges to funding decisions in public programs designed to lift up poor people and people of color.
So, why do these opinions and attitudes matter? They matter because our individual and collective understanding of race and how race operates in the society strongly influences the “distribution of opportunity” in our society and the development and implementation of strategies to overcome racialized barriers to opportunity in education and other critical life domains. These attitudes and opinions also influence the relative position of race and social inequality on the “public agenda.”
As we design tools to counteract a growing “colorblind” ideology in the U.S. and level the opportunity playing field, should these tools look the same for all groups or should we take into account differences in the attitudes and opinions of various audiences about the operation of race on the distribution of benefits and burdens in our society? The answer is certainly that differences must be accommodated. As this survey suggests, reality is nuanced; very often different groups look at the same picture and see very different scenarios and causal relationships. The more we know about these differences in attitude and opinion, the better equipped we will be to conceive of strategies to create a society in which all citizens have equal opportunity to achieve success.
by Thomas Rudd