Merit Over Identity
I start from the following proposition: being female is not an accomplishment. My being female should play no role in my being hired for a job. Of course, my sex undoubtedly has made me the target of sex preferences on numerous occasions, thus casting doubt on any actual qualifications I might presume to possess.
My being female should be particularly irrelevant in a university. Until recently, universities were dedicated to the Enlightenment ideal of universal knowledge. A male Chinese engineer and a female Nigerian engineer may have no spoken language in common, but they can communicate through the universal languages of mathematics and physics. Whether the buildings they erect stand or fall depends not on their nationality or sex but on their mastery of engineering principles.
I will go further. Being black, gay, or gender-fluid are also not accomplishments, and should have nothing to do with faculty hiring or student admissions. The only thing that should matter when, say, a medical school hires a researcher in pancreatic cancer is whether that oncologist is the best in his field.
The diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) bureaucracy is the nemesis of the Enlightenment ideal of knowledge. It puts relentless pressure on every academic department to hire on the basis of race and sex, not on the basis of intellectual achievement. Every faculty search today is a desperate effort to find even remotely qualified minority or female candidates. Being female or a non-Asian minority confers an enormous advantage in the hiring and tenure process.
Yet despite this obsessive attention to diversity, many departments still do not pass the DEI proportionality test. So DEI bureaucrats are on a crusade to extirpate the sources of bias that allegedly stand in the way of proportional representation. Every colorblind objective test of academic skills—SAT, LSAT, or MCAT—is under attack as racist and is going down.
Consider Step One of the United States Medical Licensing Exam, which tests students’ knowledge of basic physiological processes. Step One changed to a pass-fail grading system last year because black and Hispanic students disproportionately got low scores, impeding their ability to land the residency of their choice. Whether the students who will now squeak by with a pass are the most qualified candidates for those residencies is of no interest to the gatekeepers.
Scientific institutions are now reformulating research priorities to increase the diversity of federal grant recipients. The National Institutes of Health has shifted funding from basic science to research on health disparities and racism simply because black scientists do more research on these race topics and less on pure science.
Reality check: the reason why colleges are not proportionally diverse has nothing to do with bias or exclusion. The reason is large racial differences in academic skills. This is an uncomfortable subject, and one that is taboo on college campuses, but if we are going to indict American universities and other institutions for systemic racism, we should get our facts straight.
In 2019, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 66 percent of black twelfth-graders did not possess even partial mastery of basic twelfth-grade math skills, such as being able to perform arithmetical calculations or to recognize a linear function on a graph. Only 7 percent of black twelfth-graders were competent on those basic twelfth-grade math skills, and the number who were advanced was too small to show up statistically. The picture was not much better in reading.
In 2021, the American College Testing organization rated only 10 percent of black high school seniors as college ready, based on their combined math, general science, and reading scores on the ACT. Whites were five times as likely to be college ready.
These gaps do not subsequently close in college but are replicated in every graduate measure of academic skills. They mean that, at present, you can have diversity, or you can have meritocracy. You cannot have both. It is mathematically impossible to produce 13 percent black representation in chemistry, nuclear biology, or medicine, say, without lowering meritocratic standards.
Of course, there are many individuals from underrepresented groups who meet existing standards. Far from being discriminated against, however, they are treated like “gold dust,” as an astrophysicist in the University of California told me.
Thanks to DEI ideology, we are opting for diversity over meritocracy. Indeed, diversity is simply a code word for preferences. But those preferences do not do their alleged beneficiaries any favors.
If MIT admitted me for the sake of gender diversity and I had a 600 on my math SAT while most of my nonpreferred peers had close to a perfect 800, I would struggle in, if not fail, my math classes, because the teaching would be pitched to the class average. I would likely have done perfectly well, however, at a school where my peers matched my own level of academic preparation.
So, too, for the recipients of race preferences. They would be academically competitive in colleges where their qualifications matched those of their peers, but when they are catapulted into schools for which they are not prepared, they struggle, as numerous studies have documented. Racial-preference beneficiaries intending to major in STEM are far more likely to switch out of their intended major than their nonpreferred peers. The DEI bureaucracy then informs them that their academic difficulties are the result of their school’s systemic racism. The solution to their struggles is of course to increase the size and power of the diversity bureaucracy.
Indeed, we are witnessing at this very moment a great institutional mitosis, as existing DEI bureaucracies spawn identical bureaucracies. These latter go under a new name, however: “offices of belonging.” If you thought that “inclusion” encompassed belonging, you underestimate DEI’s fecundity in generating new sinecures.
A university’s task is the pursuit of truth. The DEI bureaucracy, however, is founded on a lie—one that teaches students to think of themselves as victims and to see racism where none exists. It is iatrogenic, creating through racial preferences the very divisions and discomfort that it purports to solve, in an endless, vicious circle.
By all means, let us redouble our efforts to make sure that all children are prepared to succeed, by focusing on a child’s earliest years. Campus diversity bureaucrats have nothing to contribute to that effort. They do, however, suck up vast sums of money, narrow the acceptable range of discourse, and force the adoption of double standards of achievement.
The university should embrace a single colorblind definition of excellence. It will only do so, however, by eliminating DEI fiefdoms and by replacing identity with merit as the touchstone of academic accomplishment.
Read the full piece from the City Journal here.