Merit, Fairness, and Equality
by Dorian S. Abbot, Ivan Marinovic, Richard Lowery, and Carlos Carvalho
This is a draft of a chapter we have submitted to Book II: “How to Keep Free Inquiry Alive” of the “Free Inquiry Papers” project edited by Robert Maranto, Sally Satel, Catherine Salmon, and Lee Jussim. We welcome comments, feedback, and suggestions.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) bureaucracies are now ubiquitous at universities. However, DEI is in tension with the telos of a university: the pursuit of truth through the production and dissemination of knowledge. DEI programs also violate the moral principles of treating all human beings equally and not using them as mere instruments to achieve socio-political ends. In order to protect the integrity of universities it is necessary to offer an alternative to the DEI agenda.
The widespread adoption of DEI has been facilitated by faculty and administrators who were told that DEI would help reduce bias and lead to a fairer system. We have proposed an alternative to DEI, which we call Merit, Fairness, and Equality (MFE), that aims to deliver on the promise initially made by DEI, namely unbiased selection (Abbot and Marinovic, 2021). MFE acknowledges that biases may affect a selection process and seeks to eliminate them, but maintains a strict meritocratic framework where every candidate is treated equally and fairly. Critically, MFE is concerned primarily with establishing fair processes, and would never try to enforce quotas or race preferences, nor would it restrict speech as DEI often does. In sum, MFE delivers on the promise that DEI made but cannot accomplish: it would reduce bias and lead to a fairer system, while maintaining strict academic standards, promoting freedom of expression, and advancing the core mission of universities.
In this chapter we will lay out MFE in more detail, and contrast it with DEI. First we will discuss our criticisms of DEI. Then we will give an outline for MFE and a guide for practical implementation at a university. Finally we will respond to objections to MFE and conclude.
Criticism of DEI
DEI is a utopian ideology. It seeks to enforce equality of outcome across identity groups, notably race and sex, although the exact goal is poorly defined since the reference population for determining appropriate representation could be the city, state, country, or world. It employs a bureaucracy convinced that “systemic bias” is the main (and often only allowable) explanation for any under-representation of women and minorities in activities and scientific disciplines. DEI never considers the possibility of alternative explanations for under-representation in some disciplines (e.g., Theoretical Physics) other than a conspiracy carried out by the oppressor (i.e., white and Jewish men) against the “oppressed.”
Like many other utopian ideologies, DEI is illiberal. It is becoming increasingly apparent that DEI is fundamentally hostile to free expression and open inquiry (FIRE, 2022). Universities are making official commitments to the DEI doctrine, something unprecedented for institutions previously devoted to the unfettered search for truth. In many places, applicants are asked to make loyalty oaths to DEI to be considered for faculty or administration positions (Thompson, 2019). Others are sanctioned for their speech and in some cases even fired (Galbraith, 2022; Acevedo, 2022). Mandatory DEI training for students and faculty is spreading rapidly across universities, a flagrant violation of the freedom of conscience (Paul and Maranto, 2021).
The utopian nature of DEI reaches tragicomic levels in its attempt to create a more “inclusive” environment by codifying and sanctioning “microaggressions,” namely comments that may potentially upset someone, even unintentionally (UCSC, 2014). This very idea and the arbitrary nature of the microaggression list can only produce fear, segregation, and mistrust: exactly the opposite of inclusion. It is also a radical departure from the principle of charity, a fundamental principle for any liberal institution.
A critical factor in the adoption of DEI has been the bait and switch method. Stakeholders are promised that DEI will promote “fairness,” only to find out later that the DEI version of fairness involves explicit discrimination on the basis of race and sex as well as violations of free speech and academic freedom on campus. One source of this confusion is that the terms diversity, equity, and inclusion in DEI sound good, but are not being used with their traditional definitions. Most importantly, DEI’s equity does not mean fair and impartial treatment. Instead, it means enforced equal outcomes on the basis of identity group, or even preferential outcomes for so-called “traditionally oppressed,” “marginalized,” or “minoritized” identities. Moreover, when many people agree to increasing diversity they think they are endorsing diverse perspectives, opinions, and political orientations, which might improve educational outcomes, but this is neither the goal nor the outcome of DEI initiatives. Diversity in DEI is generally restricted to favored identity groups, usually those defined on the basis of innate characteristics such as race and sex. Finally, inclusion is the most counterintuitive of the trio because it often means just the opposite: exclusion of “undesirables” and “deplorables.” For example, under DEI a politically conservative Christian can be excluded because of the worry that his perspectives and arguments might upset progressives, homosexuals, feminists, etc. (O'Donnell, 2022). Ultimately, this is an attack on Martin Luther King’s “dream” and the civil rights movement.
Our primary argument against DEI is ethical: DEI contravenes the basic moral principle that all human beings should be treated equally. It mandates discrimination against applicants on the basis of group membership, which is an affront to their inherent dignity and human rights. Furthermore, DEI treats human beings merely as means to a political end. This shows a surprising disregard for the lessons of history: The catastrophic ideologies of the 20th century also sacrificed individual dignity for the sake of collective social utopias.
DEI encourages identity politics, thereby eroding social cohesion. It is oriented around quotas and set-asides for favored identity groups, which encourages tribalism and balkanization. It teaches that the best way to improve your situation in life is through identity warfare and identity politics activism, rather than through diligence and hard work. If we want to see the effects of this type of thinking on a society, we need look no further than Lebanon or Iraq, where identity politics rules the roost.
DEI makes heavy use of Marcuse’s concept of repressive tolerance, which asserts that society has not progressed enough to allow the free exchange of ideas, so non-progressive expression must be restricted (Marcuse, 1965). One aspect of this is overt political discrimination through the vilification of non-progressive perspectives, often via official emails and statements on university websites issued by university leaders and DEI officers. Moreover, it has become common to attempt to prevent the entry of moderates and conservatives into the professoriate through DEI statements during the application process that compel progressive political speech (Thompson, 2019). Additionally, widespread enforcement of DEI ideology through required training, as well as a hostile atmosphere created by the fear of cancellation by mobs of students encouraged by DEI administrators, are forcing moderate and conservative professors out of academia and into industry or retirement (Boghossian, 2021; Peterson, 2022; Manson, 2022). Finally, aggressive use of “Bias Response Teams” chills speech by imposing unconstitutional impediments to free expression even at public universities (Jones, 2020).
DEI’s antagonism toward free expression extends beyond political discrimination to academic freedom and open inquiry on campus. DEI encourages academics to think of themselves primarily as activists rather than as seekers of truth. The truth may not be consistent with the ideology or the social change that is sought, and DEI prioritizes ideology when such a conflict arises. If an academic pursues honest, data-based research that yields findings inconsistent with DEI dogma, he can be skewered on social media and in letters of denunciation presented to his chair and dean and eventually sanctioned (see, e.g., the case of Roland Fryer at Harvard (Montz, 2022)). He can be deplatformed, disciplined, or dismissed because his findings are not “inclusive” and hearing them might “harm” students (Flaherty, 2021). Since universities’ fundamental purpose is the production and dissemination of knowledge, “inclusion” defined in this way represents an existential threat to their core mission.
Finally, DEI is bad for the people it claims to help. It undermines their claim to be legitimate members of the academic community who earned their spot there, even though many clearly are. It infantilizes members of favored groups and discourages them from developing an independent identity based on intellectual perspective rather than innate characteristics. It insulates students and faculty from alternative perspectives and worldviews, so that when they encounter them they are unable to provide rational counterarguments and end up crying (Becker, 2016), screaming (Downey, 2022), sputtering nonsense, and demanding that their interlocutors be silenced instead (Beinart, 2017).
Outline of MFE
MFE stands for Merit, Fairness, and Equality. In MFE all academic decisions are based on academic merit, with no other considerations taken into account. In this way each applicant and idea is treated fairly, and not evaluated on the basis of any non-relevant criteria. This promotes the mission of universities: the production of knowledge. But it also produces a morally justified approach. In deference to their individual dignity, each person is treated equally and given an equal shot.
MFE is what many people thought DEI was when it was originally introduced. MFE acknowledges that biases exist and seeks to eliminate them, but maintains a focus on academic excellence, the pursuit of truth, and the meritocratic selection of students and faculty. MFE seeks to identify and use unbiased predictors of performance in evaluations, and is always open to better predictors if they can be identified. The key point, however, is that the metric for success is always academic excellence, and the resulting distribution of immutable characteristics among those selected is never taken into account.
An MFE-based hiring or admissions process must strive to treat each applicant equally and impartially. It must therefore avoid any attempt to artificially enforce quotas, targets, or set-asides based on group identity. Ideally, a search would be as blind to non-merit criteria as possible. For example, a hiring committee might not discover the identity characteristics of the candidates until the job interview and an undergraduate admissions committee might never discover them. Moreover, searches would favor objective criteria over subjective and easily manipulated criteria such as “fit” or “personality.” Leaders would encourage a culture where applicants are not discriminated against for their political beliefs through lectures, directions for hiring initiatives, and training. Critically, overt political discrimination such as compelled speech through “DEI statements” would be explicitly forbidden. In sum, all candidates would be equally welcome and have equal opportunity to compete and succeed. In other words, universities adopting an MFE approach would actively strive to implement hiring programs consistent with the Constitution and federal law (Ho, 2021), rather than trying to skirt them (Bonham, 2021).
Part of developing hiring and admissions processes that are as fair as possible is providing appropriate accommodations for people with disabilities and trying to reduce biases that can be clearly identified. A critical examination of biases, however, must be free to identify and attempt to eliminate biases against any group, including those against Asians (Mortara et al., 2018) and men (Perry, 2022). Similarly, the mere presence of different success rates among different groups, in and of itself, can never be used as evidence that the process is biased. Because no social institution is free from error, it will be necessary to continually refine an MFE hiring processes, monitoring for and addressing possible biases introduced by any metrics and algorithms, as well as fixing any weaknesses in the system as a whole.
To effectively pursue the truth, a university must seek out and encourage a diversity of viewpoints and opinions. Equality implies that each member of the academic community must have an equal opportunity for expression on campus. No idea should be considered off limits simply because it offends someone. Finally, the ideas generated need to be judged by the academic community based on their merits, not whether some authority deems them to be “disinformation” or even dangerous, and not based on the identity of the people promoting them. Ultimately, the university should identify those most likely to make contributions to human knowledge and give them a place that most facilitates creating such contributions, not hand out rewards to individuals based on their status as representatives of some particular identity group and then insulate those individuals from uncomfortable knowledge and ideas.
There are a variety of other issues surrounding university functioning that can be oriented around MFE. Grades in courses must be based on academic performance, with no other factors taken into consideration. Speaker invitations must be based on the merit of the speaker’s arguments, not their innate attributes. Students should not feel intimidated about expressing politically unpopular opinions in class and professors should strive to present multiple interpretations if there is legitimate disagreement on an issue. Professors should not force their own ideological commitments on their classes. Scholarly citations and reading lists must be based on the intellectual quality of the cited works, not the identity of the authors.
Practical Implementation of MFE
The first step for a university wishing to adopt an MFE framework is to officially enact policies to support it. A good starting point is the “Chicago Trifecta” of the Shils report (Shils et al., 1972), Kalven report (Kalven et al., 1967), and Chicago Principles (Stone et al., 2014). The Shils report mandates that faculty hiring and promotion decisions can only be made on the basis of research, teaching, contribution to intellectual community, and service, with a strong preference for research. Each university can tailor such a statement to its own needs, for example giving preference to teaching, while ensuring that only relevant skills are taken into account. Moreover, similar reports could be adopted guaranteeing that admission is based only on past and prospective academic achievement. The Kalven report mandates that the university, and any unit of it, cannot take an official stance on any social or political issue. This should rule out admissions and hiring on the basis of identity characteristics, since to do so is to take a social and political stand, so the Kalven report reinforces the Shils report. But it also protects dissenting scholars who advocate political positions that are unpopular on campus. This point is taken further by the Chicago Principles, which explicitly guarantee all community members the right to make intellectual arguments unmolested and unpunished, even if someone else claims to be deeply offended. The Chicago Trifecta provides a strong starting point that any university can adopt to immediately promote Merit, Fairness, and Equality on its campus.
After appropriate policies are in place, they must be rigorously enforced. Incoming students and faculty need to be made aware of them, and there needs to be real consequences for violations. For example, if a department can be shown to have made a hire for non-merit-based reasons, the department chair should be held accountable and in some cases even lose his position. If a dean or provost is found to have pressured a department chair to make a non-merit-based hire, he should be held accountable. If students disrupt a seminar because they disagree with the speaker, they should be penalized and in some cases expelled. This may seem harsh, but strict enforcement of policies with real teeth is necessary in the current situation, in which hundreds of adult law students at Yale recently disrupted an intellectual discussion on free expression and physically endangered the participants with no consequences (Sibarium, 2022). The responsibility for enforcing an MFE regime ultimately rests with the university president and the board of trustees who appoints him. Individuals who occupy these positions need to be selected carefully and take seriously the grave responsibility with which they have been entrusted. Additionally, a university could appoint an office to oversee and enforce MFE.
Debunking Myths About MFE
Myth 1. MFE does not advance the social good: The primary role of a university is the production and dissemination of knowledge. This pursuit has proven to be of immense social good. Universities do not need to apologize for doing their job and try to find some other social benefit to justify their existence. The pursuit of truth is sufficient and we need to be ready to confidently assert this. Moreover, since DEI impedes the production of knowledge, it actually interferes with the social good that universities do. If we appoint an engineering professor based on identity rather than competence and bridges start falling down, this is counterproductive from the perspective of social welfare. It is also important to remember that meritocracy itself serves the social good. We hire Lebron James to play basketball simply because we think he is the best and society as a whole benefits from watching him play, regardless of whether he deserves his gift or not. Similarly, society benefits when we are able to identify, train, and employ the most talented airplane designers, software engineers, surgeons, etc. It is true that some young people have advantages that others lack, and this can be ameliorated somewhat by making sure everyone has access to high-quality education, but all people benefit when resources are allocated to those best able to exploit and develop them.
Myth 2. Meritocracy is a myth: This objection is a rhetorical sleight of hand. The claim is essentially that because humans design meritocratic evaluations there will always be flaws in them, therefore we should end meritocratic evaluations altogether and select candidates based preferentially on other criteria. But this is a logical error: the latter does not follow from the former. We agree that meritocratic evaluations are not perfect, but the way to deal with this is to continually improve them through quantitative analyses, longitudinal studies of eventual success, and careful reflection on potential biases. To take a practical example, many departments have recently stopped requiring the GRE for graduate school admissions. Of course the GRE is not a perfect predictor of graduate school success, but it happens to be the best one we have (Kuncel et al., 2001; Kuncel and Hezlett, 2007; Kuncel et al., 2020). Moreover, it is the only metric rigorously evaluated for bias and proven to be unbiased (Kuncel and Hezlett, 2007). The real myth is that meritocracy is a myth, and it is being spread by people who are fundamentally not interested in producing the best scholars, science, and scholarship.
Myth 3. Diversity is an important aspect of merit: This objection originates from Justice Lewis Powell’s opinion in the 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke Supreme Court case, which found that immutable characteristics can be taken into account during admissions only if having a diverse student body can be shown to improve the educational experience of all students (Wood, 2022). Those advocating quotas and set-asides based on identity for “social justice” purposes then switched to arguing that increased diversity would improve the educational experience. This is a disingenuous argument, however, because it is never extended to diversity of opinion or perspective. In fact, diversity based on immutable characteristics would only be useful from an educational perspective if it could be shown to increase viewpoint diversity. From an educational perspective it is extremely counterproductive to select a student body who look different from each other but all think alike, which is exactly what DEI attempts to do. Although there are occasional claims to the contrary, a metaanalysis of all available data shows that ethnic/racial/sex diversity has a negative or neutral impact on team outcomes, whereas diversity in values and perspectives has a neutral or positive impact (Wang et al., 2019). There is therefore no outcome-based justification for selecting less qualified candidates simply because they would make a team more diverse based on ethnicity/race/sex.
Myth 4. Respect for diversity of opinions may allow heterodox thinkers or even extremists to become faculty members and spread offensive ideas: Strictly speaking this is not really a myth, since it is true that MFE allows community members to share views that someone might find offensive. But there is a well-known antidote to bad speech, should it occur: more speech, not the suppression of speech. Jefferson put it better than anybody: a university should not be “afraid to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it” (Jefferson, 1998). Moreover, the presence of heterodox opinions on campus is beneficial to all because sometimes they turn out to be right, and even when they don’t, having to contend with them improves everyone else’s arguments. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill reminds us that “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that” (Mill, 1998). Additionally, the most obvious effect that fostering a diversity of views will have is to create a less hostile environment for conservatives and moderates who are routinely subjected to discrimination on campus (Kauffman, 2021). Finally, it is important to point out that the extremist objection is usually not raised in reference to the 26% of sociology faculty and 18% of all social science faculty who self-identify as Marxists, which suggests that there is political bias built into this objection (Gross and Simmons, 2007).
We propose Merit, Fairness, and Equality (MFE) as a framework for student and faculty selection. Unlike DEI, MFE allows a university to address potential biases without violating the fair and equal treatment principle, and without sacrificing freedom of expression. The MFE concept does not belong to us, and we hope that others will adopt it as their own and build on it. MFE is inherently flexible, adaptable to different situations, and open to improvement through learning and experimentation. The more universities adopt MFE and share knowledge generated, the better it will become. Even if your university is unwilling to adopt MFE, you can strive to practice it in selecting your own graduate students and postdocs, as well as in your advocacy for hiring and promotion of faculty, and for freedom of expression on campus.
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Dorian Abbot (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago. In his research, he uses mathematical and computational models to understand and explain fundamental problems in Earth and Planetary Sciences. He has worked on problems related to climate, paleoclimate, planetary dynamics, planetary habitability, and exoplanets. Dorian is a member of the Council of the Faculty Senate at the University of Chicago, a co-founder of the faculty group UChicago Free, a founding member of the Academic Freedom Alliance, and a co-founder and moderator of The Heterodox Academy STEM Community (HxSTEM). He has written and spoken publicly extensively on issues related to academic freedom. Dorian was awarded the 2021 Hero of Intellectual Freedom Award by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and the 2022 Courage Award by the Heterodox Academy.
Iván Marinovic (email@example.com) is an associate professor of Accounting at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He is an applied game theorist who studies contract theory and information transmission in capital markets. Iván is a co-founder of the Stanford Classical Liberalism Initiative and the Stanford Academic Freedom Alliance. He is also a co-founder of the Accounting and Economics Society.
Richard Lowery is an Associate Professor of Finance and has been at at UT since 2009, when he completed his Ph.D. in Economics at Carnegie Mellon University. He is an applied game theorist, with research in banking, investment banking, real estate, and other topics. His academic work has appeared in the Journal of Finance, the Journal of Political Economy, and other outlets, and his public commentary has appeared in the Financial Times, Washington Times, The College Fix and other outlets. Much of his work focuses on understanding collusive behavior and other sources of potential inefficiencies in financial markets.
Carlos M. Carvalho is Professor of Statistics and the La Quinta Professor of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. He develops statistical models for causal inference and empirical finance. He is the director of the Salem Center for Policy. Carlos received his Ph.D. in Statistics from Duke University. His research focuses on Bayesian statistics in complex, high-dimensional problems with applications ranging from economics to genetics. Before moving to Texas, Carlos was on the faculty at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Two additional authors contributed to this work, but cannot reveal
their identity due to potential retaliation.
I like your proposal about improving outreach and education. We included that in the original MFE article. Maybe we should add a paragraph to this chapter. Thank you!
I definitely agree an alternative framework to DEI is overdue. Personally I’m not quite willing to throw out the idea that DEI might actually be workable if it committed to the fullest senses of the words Diversity (of backgrounds and perspectives), Equity (fairness), and Inclusion (of everyone). But I work as an engineer in industry, not academia, and we have been much more conservative about DEI efforts—if I were in academia I could imagine concluding the whole enterprise is unsalvageable.
My concern with your proposed MFE framework is that it fails to address or even acknowledge the root problem that DEI claims to care about resolving, namely: why are we seeing racial and gender disparities in high-status fields and to what extent is it due to bias, individual or systemic? A rigorous, STEM-informed approach to the problem would admit that we do see disparities and it is worth some amount of effort to address potential root causes BUT within the bounds of “fairness.” For example, outreach efforts to low-income schools to expose kids to STEM and encourage careers in STEM is Fair, and would increase Diversity of background in the field. To hyper-focus on Merit might lead one to throw up one’s hands and say “well it’s not my fault there aren’t enough qualified Black high school students to admit to our program.” Truly it’s not a university’s *fault,* but there is room to improve Fairness in becoming prepared and aware of opportunities that some students do not have Equal opportunity to access. “Equity” done right means proactively providing opportunities to students who don’t organically get them, BUT it doesn’t mean all the students who need extra access are Black and all the students with a jump start are White. The fatal flaw of DEI (ok, one of many) is presuming that access to opportunity is 1:1 correlated to skin color. A STEM-informed approach to DEI would be laser-focused on understanding true causality of disparities and addressing the true root causes that violate principles of fairness, while acknowledging a residual level of disparity will remain due to free will and cultural clustering of life choices, and that’s ok.
On that note, I do not think “treating all humans equally” is compatible with “meritocracy.” Some people are born with more innate STEM abilities than others, and it’s ok to treat people differently on that basis. But we know STEM abilities are also nurtured by high-quality education, which correlates strongly with family wealth. Do we want to admit students from, say, lower quality schools, or first-generation college applicants, who show high potential but maybe score slightly lower on standardized tests than kids from elite prep schools? I think we should, so long as we’re willing to invest in helping them succeed. But that’s not the same as using skin color as a selection factor! Of course, once a person has graduated from university and is applying for jobs in academia, it’s a different story, and one could argue that the playing field should probably be considered pretty-well leveled.
Long rambling, but again, I applaud the effort to not just poke holes at DEI but offer a substantive alternative!! Best of luck.