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.
Moreover, although the SAT was meant to be a way to move beyond admissions based on connections to instead identify Thomas Jefferson’s “natural aristocracy of talent and virtue,” today, Guinier argues, “the SAT scores are accurate reflectors of wealth and little else.” Georgetown researchers Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl have found that on average, the most socioeconomically advantaged students score 399 points higher than the least advantaged on the SATs 400–1600 scale.
On top of this, the SAT fails to measure creativity, collaboration, grit and many other factors that University of Chicago economist James Heckman and others have found to be more closely connected to long-term success for many students than cognitive skills alone.
Finally, Guinier writes, the testocracy “values perfect scores but ignores character.” Indeed, because doing well on the SAT is seen as a product of talent and hard work, the winners often lack the sense that they owe anyone else anything. The old inherited elite sometimes recognized that the accident of birth triggered a need to give back. “The new elite, on the other hand, feels that it has earned its privileges based on intrinsic, individual merit,” Guinier writes, and therefore feel no “obligation or shame.”
As a result, our testocracy fails to produce what our democracy needs, Guinier argues. Leading colleges claim to serve the public interest, which is why they receive enormous tax breaks. Princeton University’s informal motto, for example, is “Princeton in the Nation’s Service and in the Service of All Nations.” That commitment is what justifies an estimated $45,000 per-pupil tax subsidy of Princeton students. And yet in a recent year, more than half of Princeton graduating students went into investment banking or consulting, careers “lacking in any element of social service,” Guinier notes.
In an interesting twist, Guinier, who used to be a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, suggests that Justice Clarence Thomas’s opposition to affirmative action “is right—but for the wrong reasons.” Guinier suggests affirmative action “has failed because it has not gone far enough to address the unfairness of both our current merit system and its wealth-driven definition of merit.”
Affirmative action tends to “simply mirror the values of the current view of meritocracy,” Guinier notes. Colleges tend to admit “the children of upper-middle[-]class parents of color who have been sent to fine prep schools just like the upper-middle[-]class white students.” Universities often seek what Guinier calls “cosmetic diversity” of wealthy black students, many of whom are recent immigrants. One study, she notes, finds that “more than 90 percent of parents of Harvard’s African students had advanced degrees.”
Minority students might serve as “canaries” in the defective mine, putting all on notice that the system of merit unfairly mirrors wealth. But by “admitting a small opening for a select few students of color,” affirmative action policies actually help buttress the larger unfair apparatus, she charges.
Guinier suggests that universities, rather than considering race as a way of papering over deeper inequalities, should turn to a more transformative model of admissions, which is illustrated by the Posse Foundation. Founded in 1989 by Debbie Bial, Posse seeks to identify students of all colors from disadvantaged neighborhoods who embody democratic merit. Through intensive interviews and group projects, Posse picks students who show grit, who demonstrate that they can collaborate with others, think creatively and show leadership. Many of these students end up involved in public service. The former admissions dean of Middlebury College told Guinier he strongly supports Posse. “What’s more important,“ he asked her: “someone with all As or someone with some Bs who goes out and makes a difference in the world?”