Diverse Issues in Higher Education
by ANGELA P. DODSON
Dec 5, 2008, 22:26
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Lani Guinier, the Bennett Boskey Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, is among a panel of speakers participating in “The Future of Diversity and Opportunity in Higher Education: A National Forum on Innovation and Collaboration,” conference here this week.
Co-sponsored by Columbia University; the Center for Institutional and Social Change at Columbia Law School; Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey; and the College Board, the conference opened Wednesday and sessions will continue at Rutgers University through today.
Conference organizers said 325 people had registered, including college presidents, provosts, foundation leaders, researchers, policymakers and professors from a wide variety of institutions.
Scheduled to speak Thursday evening about merit and the mission of higher education, Diverse caught up with Guinier before hand to talk about alternatives to traditional admissions criteria such as test scores and grades that can be used to identify students with the potential to succeed in college and contribute to a global society.
The following are excerpts from our conversation with Guinier.
Q: The topic of your panel discussion, “Reconnecting Merit and the Mission of Higher Education,” is intriguing. How did these two things become unconnected?
There is a sense in which the admissions practice has become the mission. That is … selectivity in admissions is a way of enhancing the reputation of these institutions, as if their mission is to be selective. Whereas I certainly would argue that … the mission of institutions of higher education, whether they are public or private, is a public mission, and it is a democratic mission — that there is a social compact between universities and the larger society … in which we subsidize institutions of higher education. We don’t expect them to pay property taxes. They don’t have to pay taxes on the income from their endowments. They get enormous subsidies for research, as well as for student aid. They get academic freedom and autonomy, and in exchange there are expectations that these institutions will contribute to the larger project of democracy by providing upward mobility and opportunity for people to improve their lives and that of their children, producing new knowledge [through their research] and training future leaders.
But rather than focusing on the extent to which they accomplish that mission, which I would call “democratic merit,” that institutions that realize their role in a democracy are democratically meritorious, we should think about institutional metric. Instead of focusing on democratic merit, it focuses on individual merit and the individuals they attract to campus. They gain lots of prestige based on the accomplishments of the individuals … admitted to the school. But these are individuals they have had nothing to do with. These are people who did whatever they did before they even got to the school. That is what enhances the reputation of the school.
That is one way in which mission and merit have been disconnected, because merit is not about the democratic mission, it is about the reputational index, based on the selectivity of students.
The second point is that the way in which merit is defined at the individual or private level, distracts from or somewhat camouflages the use of merit as a mechanism from laundering wealth and privilege. So what we are calling “merit” is not only disconnected from the democratic mission of the institution but it is also dependent on, or in some ways an enhancer, of those who are already privileged continuing to enjoy the benefits of that privilege. So we overemphasize test scores, the SAT tests, when the research shows those test scores are more highly correlated with your parents’ socioeconomic status than with your future performance.
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