Two decades ago, Lani Guinier became a liberal icon when President Bill Clinton proposed—and then withdrew, under conservative pressure—her nomination to head of the Justice Department’s civil-rights division.
A racially charged 1993 Wall Street Journal op-ed unfairly labeled Guinier a “quota queen,” a term, Yale Law Professor Stephen Carter noted, that “resonates mellifluously with welfare queen.” Worse was Clinton’s reaction. The president and his nominee had been law school classmates at Yale, and Clinton attended Guinier’s wedding. Yet in withdrawing her nomination, Clinton unjustly characterized Guinier’s advocacy of efforts to ensure minority voting rights “undemocratic.”
Guinier went on to become Harvard Law School’s first black female professor and a thoughtful author of several books on race, gender and inequality in higher education. Her latest book is The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America. As the subtitle suggests, Guinier turns Clinton’s unfair characterization of her writings on its head, advocating more democracy, not less, in American universities and life. And far from endorsing racial quotas, she suggests that affirmative action is a poor substitute for rethinking our admissions process from top to bottom.
Basing decisions about who is admitted to college on an individual’s merit rather than allocating seats based on patronage or favoritism or lineage is properly seen as a major advancement. Guinier does not want to destroy the concept of merit, but to “redefine” it to go beyond “student performance on standardized tests.” She suggests we shift “from honoring testocratic merit to honoring democratic merit.”
“Democratic merit,” Guinier explains, goes far beyond examining test scores to look at the skills and commitment among student applicants that our democracy requires. Invoking Harvard economist Amartya Sen, Guinier writes that merit is “an incentive system that rewards the actions a society values.” Today, she says, our society should value people who combine two sets of attributes: (1) knowing how to solve problems, which requires not just cognitive skills but also the ability to collaborate with others, and to think creatively; and (2) a “commitment to building a better society for more people” rather than just pursuing one’s own selfish ends.
Guinier argues that the heavy reliance on standardized test scores in college admissions is deeply problematic on many levels. The tests are designed not to tell whether an individual will contribute to the strength of our democracy but only how he or she will perform academically in the freshman year. “If all we cared about is how well you do in your first year of college, we would have college programs that last only one year, right?” she quips. And SATs don’t even explain first-year grades very well, she says, citing economist Jesse Rothstein’s finding that SAT scores explain 2.7 percent of the variance in freshman grades.