Earning Our Keep

On Feb. 23, 2002, I was convinced that I had witnessed the triumph of meritocracy at Harvard. The scene was the 17th annual Cultural Rhythms show, where skillful student performers and suave former “L.A. Law” star Blair Underwood shared the Sanders Theatre stage with schlumpy Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 and schlumpier University President Lawrence H. Summers.

Lewis, wearing his trademark button-up vest under his blazer, delivered a high-spirited tribute to Underwood’s philanthropic efforts and his achievements in the entertainment industry, but ruined his speech in the end by referring to the honored host as “Brian Underwood.” Summers, looking horribly out of place without a tie and absent-mindedly yanking on his pants to keep them up around his waistline, looked bored during Lewis’ remarks as he gazed out into the crowd. When it was time for his speech, Summers delivered a robotic endorsement of diversity that was (appropriately) greeted by the most lukewarm possible audience response.

At first, I was simply embarrassed for my hopelessly uncool race, as the doughy administrative duo had actually succeeded in making the usually square Director of the Harvard Foundation S. Allen Counter look like John Shaft. But then I had another thought: the fact that these two men, hopelessly disheveled as they were, had ascended to the leadership of Harvard College and Harvard University was a wonderful testament to the genuine meritocracy of this place. These two men, the grandchildren of immigrants, had risen to the top of the greasy pole without the benefit of grace or style, but merely on the strength of their intellectual acumen.

Of course, Lewis’ firing this spring knocked me back to earth, as it proved that politics and power determine who gets (and keeps) a job, even at Harvard. Lewis reminded Summers too much of himself: impolitic, ambitious for control and impatient with those who didn’t see things his way. He was an inconvenient man to have around. Never mind that he knows the College like Summers knows a supply curve or a donut, or that it took him less than six minutes to respond to a trivial e-mail I sent him hours after Harvard announced his ouster.

Senior spring is a good season for rethinking our ideas about meritocracy. Those of us who won admission to the most selective graduate schools—did we deserve it? How about those who were accepted to Teach for America, or signed by the top investment banks and consulting firms? The fellowship game makes us scratch our heads as well. How does one Harvard graduate get paid to do little more than drink beer at a posh British university while another must work multiple part-time jobs to pay his living expenses so that he can spend his days doing non-profit volunteer work in Arab East Jerusalem?

Thesis writers have also had to come to grips this spring with the limits of meritocracy, namely the fact that many concentrations have absolutely no idea how to evaluate their honors candidates fairly and accurately. One senior told me that he received one grade of summa-minus on his thesis and one grade of no distinction. In other words, one reader said his work was one of the best theses of the year, and another reader said he deserved to graduate from the College with only a degree in general studies. (In situations like this, by the way, the thesis is submitted to a third reader, who in this case awarded the thesis a cum-plus, which is the average of the first two grades. Helpful, right?)

Finally, the University of Michigan affirmative action cases, argued before the Supreme Court this spring, have presented us with the most profound questions about meritocracy. At their heart, the cases ask us to reexamine our beliefs about what constitutes merit, and whether any sort of merit that can be measured numerically translates into moral desert. In other words, can we say that a given candidate, even one with a perfect GPA and LSAT score, deserves or is entitled to a spot at Michigan Law School? Or is merit more instrumental—a construct that can be manipulated to serve an institution’s goals? Can the definition of merit be expanded to include race, or must we say that when a university considers race in admissions decisions, it is setting aside merit to a certain extent (and if so, is there anything wrong with that)?

For the record: Harry Lewis’ firing was shameful, this resourceful University ought to be able to find grant money for every senior who wants to do something worthwhile for a year after graduation, it is a scandal that some concentrations entrust the grading of theses to graduate students rather than professors, and affirmative action is indispensable to higher education.

If that scorecard of mine seems arbitrary, it might be worth considering that it is no more arbitrary than the concept of merit itself. Even if we agree on the criteria with which to measure, with which to make these decisions, we are still only approximating. And we, as individuals, are the decimals that get rounded off in the process.

To this point it has chiefly been others who have been rounded off, as Harvard’s Committee on Undergraduate Admissions waded through thousands of applications four years ago and determined that each of us had merited a coveted place in the Class of 2003. But really what it did was make an educated guess that we would earn it in the future—that we would use the opportunities afforded to us wisely and make the most out of them. We’ve all jumped the most basic hurdle: We’re graduating. But the process of winning our admission to this place—not to mention all the offers of admission, fellowship, employment and promotion to come—is only now beginning in earnest.

The real measure of merit is not who gets the job or degree, but what they do with it. Tomorrow our merit hits mettle. Here’s hoping we make the cut.

David C. Newman ’03, a government concentrator in Quincy House, was an executive editor of The Crimson in 2002.