The Democratic Merit Project

This project has received generous support from Public Interest Projects – Fulfilling the Dream Fund

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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.

Goals of the Project

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 will enable 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.

Project  Staff and Advisory Committee

Tom Rudd, Senior Researcher and Project Director
Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity
The Ohio State University
423 Mendenhall laboratory
125 South Oval Mall
Columbus, OH 43210

Advisory Committee

Georgina Dodge, Ph.D. 
Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Vice President
University of Iowa

Susan Sturm, J.D.
George M. Jaffin Professor of Law and Social Responsibility
Co‐Director, Center for Institutional and Social Change
Columbia University School of Law

James L. Moore, III, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, College of Education and Human Ecology
Director, Todd A. Bell National Resource Center on the African American Male
The Ohio State University

William Tobin, Ph.D.
Scholar In Residence, Social Science Research Institute
Duke University

Commissioned Papers


Short Concept Papers

William A. Tobin, PhD, JD  – Click here to read paper.
Social Science Research Institute, Duke University
Member, Advisory Committee, Democratic Merit Project

Online Opinion Survey

Click here to access a summary of responses to the democratic merit project online opinion  survey.  This survey is intended to broaden our understanding of current attitudes about the mission of higher education, the college admissions process and the value of diversity in higher education in the U.S.


Educational Disparities Causal Map

With a commission from the Democratic Merit Project and in consultation with the Kirwan Institute staff, Dr. Peter Hovmand, founding director of the Social System Design Lab at Washington University, has developed a comprehensive systems dynamic model of structural barriers to higher education. The primary objective of this model is to help conceptualize the feedback mechanisms that create barriers to higher education when following traditional merit based admissions criteria. The model represents accumulated disparities that influence college enrollment from early childhood through young adulthood to adulthood and includes key feedback mechanisms underlying barriers to higher education and selected outcomes of educational achievement at the population level.  Click here.


Project Reports and Discussion Papers 


Innovative Admissions Practices/Policies

In an effort to illuminate democratic merit in the academy, the Kirwan Institute is interested in learning about innovative college admissions practices and policies that are intended to have a positive impact on racial, ethnic and socio-economic diversity on the campus. These might be policies and practices that supplement, compliment or shift traditional admissions criteria.  We understand that even small scale innovations can have significant outcomes. So, regardless of magnitude, we are interested in learning about innovations that have had positive outcomes on your campus or that have the potential to do this.  All information will be posted on this website.  Please send summary information to:

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