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Q&A: Lani Guinier and the Pimple on Adonis’ Nose

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.

Q: Or your abilities?

What we are calling merit is actually the opportunities that students have enjoyed by virtue of their privilege. So we have converted wealth into the language of merit. That’s the other way in which merit is disconnected from mission.

Q: What are some of the ways that merit could be made real and democratic that could be tested and evaluated and be consistent in judging people and predicting?

I’m not sure that is the right question.

Q: How can we decide who gets in? Is that a better question?

The question presumes that higher education is a scarce resource and we are going to distribute it only to people who are the most deserving, whereas higher education is a national, democratic resource. It is the same thing as if we say, “We have a democracy” and we decide that we don’t want to spend too much time on the voting process, so we will just decide who is deserving of voting and we will let them vote on behalf of everyone else. That is how we are treating education, as if we are going to educate a few people on behalf of everyone else, and we have to decide who is most deserving and that is what we call merit.

That’s why I am fighting the hypothetical. Because I’m suggesting when we talk about democratic merit one of the claims is these institutions have to collaborate — not just compete for representational bragging rights … they have to collaborate to figure how we use our resources. We have a tremendous system of higher education, how do we use those resources. To educate more people, so we are not worried about educating the best, we are really worried about educating the most.

No. 2, I think we have to focus on the treatment effects, not just the selection effects. By treatment effects I am borrowing from the literature that Malcolm Gladwell references in a piece for the New Yorker he did a couple of years ago, where he compares a modeling agency to the Marine Corps. He says a modeling agency or a beauty school looks for people who are already beautiful, and it wants to associate itself with those people because that will enhance its reputation. That’s the selection effect. That’s where our institutions of higher education are located right now. They are functioning like modeling agencies or beauty schools by associating themselves with people who are already very smart. Or at least who are very good at taking tests that they have been coached for.

The Marine Corps sets a minimum standard, and it says anyone above this standard is invited to join us and we will make you a Marine. So we have value added. That is the treatment effect. What democratic merit — this focus on linking democratic merit to the institutional mission — and evaluating merit at the institutional level, not simply at the individual levels, is really about focusing on the treatment effect, not just the selection effects.

Q: How do you determine for higher education what the standard is?

You do look to see who they are admitting, but you look to see how much better off these people are than they have been at this institution, in terms of their capacity to contribute to our democracy. It’s not just whether they are smarter, although that may be relevant if you are taking people who have been mis-educated and you are taking our tremendous education level to provide them inspiration and critical thinking skills. What do they do after they graduate? So instead of focusing on the selection effects, focus on the treatment effects. Focus on what they do to contribute to the society in terms of representing citizens who are going to do public service, in terms of entrepreneurship and innovation, producing knowledge that’s useful and in terms of upward mobility. How many of these people started out poor and are now doing much better as a result of going to this institution? It’s really shifting our gaze away from the people we are admitting to focusing on the people we are graduating, comparing them in some ways to the people we are admitting, but in a way that shows the institution is adding value.

There is a really good piece called “The Pimple on Adonis’s Nose” by Tobias Wolff and his father. [The Pimple on Adonis’s Nose: A Dialogue on the Concept of Merit in the Affirmative Action Debate ,Tobias Barrington Wolff, University of Pennsylvania Law School, and Robert Paul Wolff , University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Hastings Law Journal, Vol. 56, 2004]

They have this hypothetical in the middle of the article about Inversia … this little made up place where everything is reversed. So you go into the emergency room and the first person they treat is Adonis, who comes in with a pimple on his nose, because he is almost perfect, and the role this emergency room in this hospital is to make him as perfect as he nearly is. They leave people dying of heart attacks and people suffering with cancer continue to suffer, because in Inversia, the mission of the hospital is to treat people who are already healthy and just have minor deficits.

Then you go to the university in Inversia and people come in with two Ph.D.s and want a third. They are rejected because they are overqualified, and they go and instead admit people who are illiterate, because the mission of the university in Inversia is to add value to people who could in fact produce, contribute, lead and who just haven’t had the opportunity.

That is really a way of highlighting the importance of having a mission that drives your decision-making. I am not advocating that the hospital treat Adonis or that the university reject people who are committed intellectuals. The point is simply that we have to focus on mission first and then strategize from our mission to the best practices that will help us realize that mission, and the mission has to be linked to democratic merit, so that we are … identifying merit in conjunction with the missions of these institutions in a democracy.

Q: At the admissions end, how do you decide either who gets in or how do you expand the spaces. What is a way to get more people in?

The way to get more people in is to start subsidizing these institutions even more than we already do. I grew up in Queens, N.Y. … During the ’60s and ’70s, City College, Brooklyn College and Queens College were free. You had to pay $16 for an activity fee. That’s how you get more people to go to college. It wasn’t that it didn’t cost anything. It didn’t cost the individual anything, because we as a society had made a commitment to subsidize higher education. The problem came in the late 1970s and 1980s when the Reagan administration made a decision that the individual benefits from higher education and the individual should pay for it. That’s where, in my opinion, we went in the wrong direction, focusing on the individual beneficiary … It is not just the individual who benefits from education, the entire society benefits when you have a more educated populace.

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