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November 2, 2023+Musa al-Gharbi
+Campus Policy+Academic Careers

Diversity and Merit Are Not Contradictory Goals in Faculty Hiring

In many higher ed circles and culture war forums, concern for diversity and inclusion is often portrayed as being in tension with, or outright antithetical to, meritocracy. Implicit and sometimes explicit is a narrative that, “back in the day,” before institutions became obsessed with DEI, hiring and promotion decisions used to be made by merit – whereas today folks are hired and promoted primarily on the basis of their identity characteristics instead.

This narrative gets the historical dynamic almost exactly backwards. For instance, with respect to institutions of higher learning:

Peer review did not become a standard practice for evaluating research quality until the 1960s. The use of formal and ostensibly objective criteria in hiring and tenure decisions was not widespread until the late-60s. Colleges and universities weren’t even required to do advertise faculty positions or do open searches until after the AAUP imposed this norm in 1993.

Prior to these shifts, academia was an ‘old boys club.’ Unabashed nepotism was the norm. Deliberations about hiring and promotion were completely opaque and varied wildly in terms of the criteria relied on and (if or) how they were applied across individuals and institutions. Tenure-line jobs were discreetly given away to well-connected people before anyone else knew there had even been a job available, with little-to-no competition, meritocratic or otherwise.

And far from being more identitarian “these days,” selection based on identity characteristics was the default until relatively recently.

Women, homosexuals and ethnic minorities were overtly and unapologetically excluded from many institutional roles and professional organizations. We’re not talking ancient history: It wasn’t until the 1970s that co-educating men and women became the norm at colleges and universities and rules against sexual harassment and sex-base discrimination were put into place. Likewise, until Adams v. Richardson in 1973, 19 states continued to have racially segregated colleges and universities.

And of course, even after colleges and universities and universities began admitting non-whites and women in higher numbers, it’d be several more years until the matriculated through BA and PhD programs, and longer still until they started getting tenure track jobs in decent numbers.

"There is more contestation around the composition of the faculty today than in the past precisely because selection is less uniformly identity-based than it used to be."

Prior to this point, with the applicant pool ex ante restricted near-exclusively to straight white men, it was almost certainly the case that the ethnic, sexual or gender characteristics of applicants rarely had to be explicitly considered or discussed. But that hardly meant that hiring was not identity based! In fact, hiring was much more rigidly determined by race, gender and sexuality in the past than today. It was only when race and gender-based exclusion stopped being taken for granted that faculty representativeness could even become a conscious part of the hiring and promotion agenda.

Put another way: there is more contestation around the composition of the faculty today than in the past precisely because selection is less uniformly identity-based than it used to be. In a world where we don’t take for granted that professors are and should be straight white men, questions about who does get to become a professor (and on what basis) become more salient.

Likewise, there is still a lot of secrecy, arbitrariness and shady behavior in hiring and promotion decisions today. However, it’s also the case that hiring and promotion decisions are far more competitive, standardized, metrics-focused and transparent than they ever have been (for better and for worse).

Critically, the shift to more metrics-based and standardized evaluation processes happened around the same time that institutions of higher learning began to admit and hire women and minorities in larger numbers. That is, far from diversity and inclusion undermining meritocracy, institutions of higher learning only became recognizably ‘meritocratic’ in their hiring and promotion decisions as the pool of applicants grew increasingly diverse.

There are a few ways to understand this historical relationship.

Perhaps the most straightforward explanation is that, as a result of new laws banning discrimination against women and minorities (and myriad lawsuits accusing institutions of running afoul of those laws), employers had to come up with ways of making and justifying hiring and promotion decisions that were, in principal, open to all and procedurally fair – eventually settling on things that could be easily measured and compared across candidates like educational credentials, research productivity, publication prestige, citations, fundraising or teaching evaluations.

A more cynical take, popular among critical race theorists, is that meritocratic hiring and promotion standards were established precisely to help academia remain an “old boys club” in a way that would not run afoul of non-discrimination laws. Proponents of this view correctly point out that many of the ways higher ed institutions define “merit” rewards and reinforces antecedent social advantages. And to the extent that “meritocratic” standards are, in fact, structurally tilted in favor of the already-privileged, the use of these criteria can allow inequalities to persist and reproduce more-or-less indefinitely even in the absence of forms of bias or discrimination that run contrary to the stated “meritocratic” selection criteria. This, proponents argue, helps explains the persistence of significant and systemic representational disparities along the lines of gender, race, socioeconomic status, etc. within the professoriate a half-century after many of the formal restrictions keeping women and minorities off the faculty have been lifted.

On the other hand, it may be that institutions have a sincere positive interest in diversity and inclusion – one that transcends mere compliance with the law and dovetails nicely with meritocracy.

As UBS Wealth Management Chief Economist Paul Donovan has shown, identity-based bias, prejudice, and exclusion tend to be quite expensive for institutions. In the hyper-competitive global spaces that many knowledge economy organizations operate in, the pursuit of profit maximization often aligns cleanly with the pursuit of greater diversity and inclusion. It increases the efficiency of capitalist enterprises to avoid losing access to talent, partnerships, or customers due to “irrational” discrimination. Properly managed, diversity provides a range of competitive advantages with respect to innovation, problem-solving, forecasting, knowledge production, and quality control. Indeed, economists estimate that 20 percent to 40 percent of all economic growth in the United States since the 1960s was due simply to improved allocation of talent—particularly, the opening of more opportunities to highly talented women and minorities at the expense of less skilled, less “hungry,” and less innovative white men (who had largely taken their positions for granted prior but are now “hungry” as well, owing to heightened competition, which only enhances the bottom line further).

It thus shouldn’t be surprising that, as legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw put it, “every corporation worth its salt is saying something about structural racism and anti-blackness, and that stuff is even outdistancing what candidates in the Democratic Party were actually saying.” And it isn’t just words or high-profile donations to organizations like Black Lives Matter. Multinational corporations have also leveraged their political clout to defy and overturn laws perceived to disadvantage immigrants and racial and sexual minorities. Elite universities aggressively fought to preserve affirmative action. And so on and so forth.

This needn’t be reduced to genuine altruism or mere cynical gesturing—it is in the perceived material interests of many knowledge-economy institutions to become more diverse and inclusive and to resist external impediments to their ambitions in this regard. These bids are intimately bound up with institutional goals to recruit and retain the best talent in a highly competitive environment. From this perspective, meritocracy and DEI are not just complementary or interrelated priorities, they’re actually mutually reinforcing.

"No one has ever been hired purely on the basis of their demographic attributes – not even in ‘diversity searches.’ On the flip side, virtually no one is, or has been, hired or promoted purely on ‘merit’ either."

I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which of these explanations seems most compelling. In my personal view, the juxtaposition of “diversity” against “merit” has never made much sense.

No one has ever been hired purely on the basis of their demographic attributes – not even in ‘diversity searches.’ It’s not like committees are pulling random people off the street and giving them tenure-stream jobs because they check the right boxes. Instead, during these searches, the pool is restricted (in borderline illegal ways) to ‘diverse’ candidates, and then they choose between eligible applicants on the basis of factors like their credentials, publications, fundraising, letters of recommendation, etc. Departments aggressively try to recruit and hire the best ‘diverse’ candidate they can snag. And the search process, even in these positions, tends to be much more meritocratically competitive than when hiring was restricted instead to whites, men and cisgender heterosexuals who simply gave jobs to people in their networks, often without even listing them.

On the flip side, virtually no one is, or has been, hired or promoted purely on ‘merit’ either. In most cases, they couldn’t be. There are usually several candidates whose ‘merits’ are exceptional, and finalists for a position often have similar ‘meritocratic’ virtues. Selection between these comparably qualified finalists typically centers on para-meritocratic factors like perceived ‘personality’ or ‘fit’ -- vague criteria which, in practice, generally serve as proxies for cultural, ideological and demographic homophily between candidates and the people doing the hiring. To argue that decisionmakers should prioritize diversity instead of always defaulting towards similarity when selecting between otherwise roughly equivalent qualified candidates is in no way inconsistent with hiring on the basis of merit.

Recognizing these realities does not in any way preclude pointing out that, for instance, diversity training doesn’t work, the use of DEI statements as political litmus tests is bad, academic activism often backfires, or that affirmative action, as typically practiced, did little to help the genuinely marginalized and disadvantaged in society. There’s plenty to critique about the constellation of actors and policies that Pamela Newkirk has labeled “Diversity Inc.”

There’s also plenty to critique about how metrics are currently used in faculty hiring and promotion. While more ‘objective’ in some senses than the previous (nepotistic) model, they’re also easily gamified, distort our understanding of ‘merit’ in many respects, and pervert how universities operationalize and pursue diversity. There’s no problem with emphasizing any of this.

However, insofar as people implicitly or directly present the pursuits of meritocracy and greater inclusivity as either/or propositions, they are creating a false dichotomy. Increased institutional concern about representation has not corresponded with a weakening of meritocratic hiring. In fact, the opposite is true: institutional concern about the demographic composition of faculty and commitment to more objective and meritocratic hiring and promotion practices arose together within higher ed institutions. Hiring and promotion is far more meritocratic today than it was in the past – and this is both a product and a driver of increased diversity in institutions of higher learning.

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