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Standards of Meritocracy Don’t Add Up

JUDY B. ROSENER IS A PROFESSOR IN THE Graduate School of Management of UC Irvine. She is the author of "America's Competitive Secret: Utilizing Women as a Management Strategy."

The term “meritocracy” has emerged as a hook upon which those who oppose affirmative action hang their argument. It is their contention that meritocracy--using “merit” as the only criterion for decisions about college admissions, job opportunities and government contracts--should be the driving force in addressing discrimination problems.

They believe that using race and gender as criteria, even when coupled with other measures of merit, means lowering standards and stigmatizing those who benefit.

In this context, the word “meritocracy” is viewed by some as a code word for racism or sexism because only these two criteria are seen as troublesome. Rarely, for example, is the issue of meritocracy mentioned when CEOs of unprofitable firms receive large bonuses or if fired, are hired immediately by other firms. When this happens, it is assumed that accomplishment depends upon the situation.

It’s difficult to argue with someone who proposes meritocracy as an antidote to affirmative action because meritocracy is such a seductive word. Yet it refers to an imprecise concept.

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Those who use the term rarely define what they mean, and those hearing the term rarely ask what it means. The word suggests that merit can, and should, be based on accomplishment that can be measured in objective terms.

But can it, and should it?

In reality, determining merit solely on objective grounds is rare. However, to Ward Connerly, the UC regent who is spearheading a national movement based on replacing affirmative action with meritocracy in college admissions and government contracting, merit means only test scores, grade-point averages and low bids--accomplishments to which a number can be affixed and comparisons easily made.

There is no proof that students with the highest GPAs make the best doctors, those with the best test scores make the best lawyers or those who with Harvard degrees make the best CEOs. Yet there is lots of anecdotal evidence that measures of merit such as good interpersonal skills, innovative thinking, a sense of timing or being a good communicator may be better predictors of success than more quantifiable merit measures.

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The story of Paul Orfalea illustrates this point. Orfalea is the founder and chief executive of Kinko’s, the large office-support firm that has more than 800 stores throughout the world. He recently told a group of CEOs that he is dyslexic and had trouble reading in school. Consequently, he said, his grades were terrible and the only way he got through college was to take easy classes recommended to athletes.

If a headhunter viewed merit in only terms of grades and test scores, Orfalea would never be considered for a good entry-level job, much less an executive position. Yet it is precisely the difficult-to-quantify qualities that he and others like him possess--nontraditional thinking, an ability to develop and market an idea or to empowers others--that have made him a success.

In other words, looking at objective criteria alone is questionable as the only determinant of merit. Merit takes many forms, and it’s possible to establish standards that consider subjective as well as objective criteria.

However, the message being sent by Connerly and others is that if you can’t measure something, it’s not meritorious. Thus the obstacles overcome by women and people of color because of their life experiences are not worthy of consideration when determining merit because they are hard to quantify and compare.

One might ask why only sex and race are identified as criteria that compromise the concept of meritocracy? Why not past poor performance? Why not a lack of communication skills? Why not the inability to value differences? In reality, all corporate decisions about the use of human resources involve subjective judgments, and so should college admissions and some government contracting.

“Meritocracy” is an ambiguous term, and to say it guarantees objectivity is a myth. Like the words “colorblind” and “genderblind"--to which it is often linked--the word “meritocracy” is deceptive. It makes us feel it’s all right to ignore issues of sex and color. It reassures us that those who are the most deserving will succeed if only objective standards are used. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

There is nothing wrong with striving for the most equitable way to determine merit. However, doing so will mean the inclusion of a wide variety of achievement measures, not just those to which numbers can be attached.

It’s time to question those who peddle meritocracy as a substitute for affirmative action as though discrimination based on sex and race no longer exists. It’s time for them to come clean about how meritocracy really works.

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Judy B. Rosener can be reached by e-mail at jbrosene@uci.edu


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