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The Pursuit of Meritocratic and Egalitarian Ideals on College Campuses

On almost every campus in the nation, two projects are clearly in
view. One is the maintenance of meritocracy; the other is the pursuit
of an egalitarian ideal.

Meritocracy has to do with excellence of mind, with being
intelligent, and demonstrating that intelligence. No university should
ever default on its duty to make distinctions of quality. In making
these distinctions, it declares its adherence to the only form of
inequality that warrants its respect. That is the inequality of
individuality, success, talent, and even genius. Universities tacitly
recognize an uncomfortable fact about human progress: it has been
accelerated by such inequality. Individual distinction — not
standardization and not mediocrity — has been the key to that

The egalitarian ideal, on the other hand, promotes the principle
that everyone should be treated fairly and openly within the university
community. It assumes that a campus is something more than a loose
assembly of competing individuals, that it can be a consort of people
with trust in each other who can make something honorable of themselves
together. It proposes that if a good community is established, it will
have a value to each member of it greater than the mere sum of what
solitary selves can generate on their own.

The facts all around us say that universities and colleges will
continue steadfastly to operate on these two principles into the
foreseeable future. And these two principles find their union in yet
another, and higher principle — that of opportunity.

Universities offer that precious asset to their students. It takes
the form of moving beyond one’s place in life, of securing, through
learning, a chance to improve one’s moral, intellectual, and social

Affirmative action, which has become one of the most powerful
institutional expressions of opportunity, enters this dual system as a
way of insuring that the egalitarian ethos is authentic. Students
cannot be left with the feeling that the claims of the meritocracy have
proved so witheringly intense that large parts of social reality have
been blocked at the campus gates. The university, as a beacon or force
for opportunity, needs both halves of its principled being to survive
as an organism.

This line of reasoning means that the meritocratic ethos of a
campus, no matter how determined and spirited, cannot afford to be
unreflective of the social realities defining the United States. That
way lies a form of university life that is abstract, rootless, and
“academic” in the worst sense. Intellectual rigor turns out to be no
rigor at all, if established in an atmosphere purged of social reality.

Hence the real debate — and not the fantastical one — about
affirmative action should focus on the ways in which full variety and
inclusiveness on a college campus can be created, given that the
meritocratic imperatives of the campus are as real as the egalitarian
ones. It is obvious that “representativeness” in the student body is
the way to preserve the twin missions of intellectual exploration at
its most vibrant and having campuses mirror the momentous realities of
the world to which the consequences of that exploration will be joined.

While it is true that not every student admitted is best seen as
“representative” of some aspect of social reality, it is true that the
more variegated the entire assembly of students, the more fully it will
collectively constitute a mirror of the social reality.

Universities and colleges should seek to create such a mirror as a
matter of good faith. The creation of that mirror rests in the detailed
care and attention of admission officers.

Who are the “losers” in such a system? Anyone who applied to a
college and is not admitted can be considered a “loser.” Every passing
admission year, both losers and winners fill the landscape. But no
“loser” can validly claim that he or she was wrongly kept from a place
in the admitted class that was “theirs.”

No one owns a place in the freshman class. Rather, every admitted
student can reflect on the fact that dual orders — meritocratic and
egalitarian — created the avenues leading to admission. Those two
orders have combined to create a system of opportunity — one that has
enhanced both university life and American civic life — by which the
complex and countervailing idea of affirmative action works.

Dr. William M. Chace is the president of Emory University in Atlanta.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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