On Values and a Caring Meritocracy for MIT
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Despite my previous concerns, I remain enthusiastic about meritocracy, and even more so if it were a "caring meritocracy," and feel privileged to be part of an institution committed to meritocracy (the anti-nepotism, favoritism, and discrimination).
Still, that French signpost comes again to mind. And I see another potential problem with meritocracy. Let me tell you a story to illustrate my point. I recently learned that in my home country, sometime during the 1950s, a group of villagers came to their representative, a member of a rich and powerful family, and asked to him to intercede with the government in order to build schools for their communities. That person replied that that should not be necessary since "I am sending my son to school for you, so that he can later care for your interests." After my disgust subsided, I imagined that the son, in a meritocracy, would most likely have a leadership position in his community, simply because others less privileged did not have an opportunity to attend school and later compete with him. This is the other potential problem with meritocracy: it can promote the privileged and lock those who had less fortunate initial socio-economic conditions out of the system.
It seems one problem with meritocracy revolves around the timing of meritocracy: when should it start? And when should the promotion of inclusiveness and egalitarian ethics prevail? I have no ready answer for this, but I have a slight preference for inclusiveness and diversity before the race for performance begins (e.g., when recruiting new students or faculty). Only afterwards, can and should the same performance standards apply to all. I am sure different groups would want to be evaluated according to the same standards and figures of merit as everybody else.
I know the social structure in this country is very complex and I will not venture an opinion on this vast subject. I only hope that MIT has some thoughtful policies in place to overcome legacies of past discriminations before a meritocracy is committed to.
Despite my previous concerns, I remain enthusiastic about meritocracy, and even more so if it were a "caring meritocracy" that first includes and empowers a diverse group of individuals before it sets up to evaluate them based on some performance measure.
But whichever way I look at it, meritocracy remains ill-defined until one articulates what constitutes "merit" in an environment, and what are the figures of merit that are being evaluated. It is also only fair that these figures of merit be explicitly stated and made known to everyone on the starting blocks (not mentioned later during the race, or kept hidden with the evaluators).
Transparency of the figures of merit is a necessary condition for a meritocracy to actually be one. Without this transparency, favoritism and even discrimination can be cloaked in a meritocratic mantle. So what are the figures of merit in the meritocracy that MIT is committed to? I hope the administration will articulate to the MIT community what constitutes "merit" (and I hope fostering a caring environment will figure in the figures of merit for faculty). What goes without saying goes even better by saying it.
Consistency: In addition to transparency, when I think about meritocracy, I associate with it the word "one-ness." One meritocracy for all, at all times. A meritocracy becomes suspicious when it is temporarily or locally suspended (pockets of un-meritocracy). Let me tell you another story before I continue this line of thought. There is an interesting ritual in the space industry before a new satellite is launched: the operators get together before the launch date and think very hard about all the ways they can imagine to break the satellite. Once they have done that, they use what they have come up with as the list of what they should absolutely not to do when flying the satellite. I feel on a similar list for a meritocracy, there is inconsistency: different performance standards applying to different people, some of the time. One guaranteed way for breaking a meritocracy is to have different figures of merit for different individuals.
Consistency and transparency on what constitutes merit are necessary conditions for a meritocracy to actually be one.
My last point is not really a new one. I have already alluded to this concern in the last two sections: that performance measures will drive, to a certain extent, some corresponding behavior in individuals, and perhaps curtail other behaviors. For example, if in a galaxy far far away, a university president claims that rudeness is the measure of merit in his or her establishment, such a statement will most likely encourage rudeness at this university and curtail respectful interactions among its members. It is also likely to attract and retain rude people. More seriously, my point is that meritocracy requires that we first articulate what constitutes "merit," and what constitutes merit in turn should reflect 1) our values, 2) what kind of people we want to attract and retain, and 3) what kind of behaviors we want to promote and encourage. So while talking about meritocracy, perhaps even better while talking about a "caring meritocracy," we can also talk about our shared values at MIT.
I hope that my take on meritocracy is seen as my meager attempt to make MIT a better, more caring place; I recognize meritocracy is a delicate topic and any expression of opinion about it may be subject to misinterpretation. I am happy to further clarify points I raised in this write-up, to further discuss it, or to be convinced of different views on the subject. I hope this write-up is viewed as my attempt to start and enrich a dialogue on meritocracy.
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