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America's Image as a Meritocracy Frays at the Edges : Equality: The myth and the ideal are being tested against actuality in a faculty dispute at Harvard Law School.

April 10, 1992|R. RICHARD BANKS | R. Richard Banks is a Harvard Law School student

The collapse of a myth and the exposure of the secret it concealed reverberate through the venerable--and now it seems vulnerable--halls of Harvard Law School.

Last month, 200 students and a third of the law school faculty met in a lecture hall for an "emergency" student-initiated forum. A week earlier, Harvard Law School students and faculty converged not on a classroom, but a courtroom--the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. A student group, the Coalition for Civil Rights, argued in its lawsuit against Harvard University that the law school violates students' civil rights through a discriminatory hiring policy that excludes black women, Latino and Asian faculty members.

The day before the "emergency" meeting, Jesse Jackson spoke in support of the student activists. Behind the podium and beneath the portraits of William Brennan and Oliver Wendell Holmes, both alums, hung a huge banner:


While it has always trumpeted its academic excellence and claimed to have created a true meritocracy, Harvard Law School recently admitted that its faculty appointment decisions result as much from politics as from merit. Hence the reference to "lies" on the rally banner.

In its 175-year history, Harvard Law School has never had on its tenured faculty a black woman, a Latino, an Asian.

For all the many ways in which Harvard Law School stands apart, the school nonetheless presents a microcosm of society's conflicts and contradictions.

In February, the law school faculty bent its usual rules and offered faculty positions --among the most coveted jewels in legal academia--to an ideologically balanced slate of four white men, a vote that the dean later characterized as politically expedient. Voted on individually, none of the four likely would have commanded the necessary two-thirds vote of the faculty.

In the past, the faculty has manipulated the meritocracy argument to boost its own status and to rationalize the exclusion of others, usually women and minorities. Harvard Law School extended few offers to minority or women scholars, the argument went, because they weren't good enough. Since the law school neither accepts nor solicits applications for faculty positions and has rarely disclosed its procedures, the "not good enough" claim survived for years. Free of outside scrutiny, it could not be strongly refuted.

Now, with this undeniably political appointment, the pretense of strictly merit-based decision-making and the rationalizations for not offering positions to minority professors all fall by the wayside, into the rubble of unattained ideals.

The same myth of meritocracy animates much of our public debate. Those who work hard achieve; those who haven't achieved haven't worked hard. Merit or lack of it causes one to rise to the top or settle to the bottom.

Yet the image of meritocracy has also been manipulated to enforce rather than ameliorate social hierarchy. Inclusion of racial minorities in the mainstream of American life--outreach, recruitment or, worst of all, numerical goals or quotas--has been portrayed as threatening the otherwise merit-based nature of American business and educational institutions.

Just as the myth of pure meritocracy is collapsing at Harvard Law School, its seams are also splitting in the larger society. While people may invoke the rhetoric of meritocracy to attack affirmative action and justify exclusion of specific groups, there is also a growing awareness that those at the top aren't there because of merit, just as those at the bottom aren't necessarily there because of lack of merit. The fabric of our faith in meritocracy has frayed. And with good reason.

Realizing that merit does not make America go round, we've abandoned the ideals that, although never truly attained, spurred our nation to greatness. Ghetto youngsters who eschew the promise of long-term progress for instant riches, chief executive officers who lust for profits and big salaries at the expense of research and development, even ordinary folks who don't care enough to vote in a presidential election, all reflect a growing cynicism.

Ideals are, by definition, not perfectly attainable. But to restore our faith in our nation, we must strive for them nonetheless.

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