The Myth Of Meritocracy In Academia

Many sociologists, as well as scholars in other disciplines, talk about the “myth of meritocracy” in their classes.  They inform their students that many in the US believe good ol’ hard work is the primary determinant of one’s successes, opportunities, and wealth — BUT nothing could be further from the truth to explain pervasive inequality.  Not only is this an inaccurate explanation, hence referring to it as a myth, it is also dangerous because it masks all of the other factors beyond one’s control that produce and maintain disparities.  Hopefully, we push our students one more step to see inequality as the product of individual and structural factors, not merely a few bad apples who lie, cheat, and steal, or discriminate and hinder others’ success.

Ironically, academics — including many sociologists — fail to apply this perspective to assess how status, wealth, resources, and opportunities are distributed within academia.  I will admit my own naivete, that I was shocked to experience racist and homophobic microaggressions from the beginning of graduate school (I mean, classes had not even started yet!).  And, once again shocked at the start of my new job, I decided it was foolish to assume the absence of prejudice and discrimination anywhere (including academia).

Ah, the myth of meritocracy in academia.  But, I am not referring here to those who do not yet know the realities of inequality, discrimination, microaggressions, and harassment in academia.  I am referring to those who willfully do not see them.  Let me give a few examples, big and small:

  • Many graduate programs continue to give false hope to their students that there will be enough tenure-track jobs to go around.  Just work hard, publish, and don’t teach too much.  Remarking that, “oh, this is just a bad year,” erases that there haven’t been “good years” in some fields in a while — and there may never be another “good year.”
  • Related to the above point, assuming that professors at certain highly-ranked institutions must be strong, highly qualified, scholarly superstars is a fuzzy proxy at best; but, it also ignores that there are similarly qualified scholars who ended up at lower-ranked schools because of the competitive job market.  And, it seems professors at liberal arts institutions, regardless of their institution’s ranking and reputation, do not even factor into these calculations.  Further, this erases that there are biases that keep some (marginalized) scholars out of the most prestigious jobs.
  • Since starting my new job, I have two colleagues (not in my own department) give me puzzled looks when I expressed concern about bias in students’ evaluations.  “Students will give you worse ratings because of race?”  Both times, I had to look away and count to ten.  Fortunately, I had another colleague who is well aware of these issues quickly and politely explain that, yes, students are not immune to the prejudiced values that surround them on and off campus.
  • Being told, “don’t worry, you’ll get a job — you’re Black,” as I expressed concern about the job market suggested a warped sense of how Affirmative Action and, specifically in academia, “diversity hires” work.  In my short time in academia, I have not witnessed one’s racial/ethnic minority status work in their favor as a job candidate (but certainly the opposite effect!).  I have not seen offers for a “diversity hire” used in a way that was sincerely in an effort to diversify a department.  Interestingly, we can quickly find evidence of racial discrimination in the workforce, but we think of academia as an exception to the rule.
  • Creating a job ad that is open in terms of research specializations, methods, and teaching areas offers a false sense that the best candidate for the job has the best chances of getting it.  What is ignored is that candidates did not start on a level playing field at the beginning of their training and careers.  Also, regardless of the quantity of candidates’ work, this approach also ignores how scholarship is differentially valued.  I still experience some resentment today that I have figured it would have taken me another 2-3 years of grad school to achieve what my department considered “best candidate” status — a solo-authored article in the top journal in my discipline.  For the most part, white heterosexual cisgender men from middle-class families were the student rockstars who were able to achieve that feat; they likely did not lose two to three years on anger, disillusion, and constantly questioning whether to drop out of graduate school.  Further, their more mainstream research interests have better odds of being published in mainstream journals.  But, then again, “you’re Black — you’ll get a job!” did not specify that I would get a highly prized job.
  • Even who students select as their advisors has impact on their careers [download PDF of presentation].  Want the most career options?  Select a white man as your dissertation chair.  Want someone who you would feel comfortable confiding in about your experiences in academia?  Hmm, that probably is not a white man.  So, what do you value more — your success or your survival?  Sure, you have 3-4 other slots on your committee.  Hopefully your department actually has faculty of color, women faculty, LGBT faculty, disabled faculty — and, for many of us, women of color faculty, LGBT faculty of color, disabled women faculty, etc.  But, departments fail to see 1) that faculty mentors are not interchangeable and 2) that the absence of marginalized faculty is related to many of the problems above and 3) the extra mentoring and service (especially things related to diversity) that marginalized faculty do because they are one of few (or the only one).
  • In academia, as with the world outside, there is a tendency to overlook that discrimination, harassment, and violence occurs and, further, to minimize it when it is acknowledged.  At the first step, we pretend these acts of hostility and hatred never occur — not in the enlightened world of academia!  Second, we trivialize these acts when they do occur.  “I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way.”  “Are you sure you’re not overreacting?”  “How could she be racist?”  Third, when these acts cannot be erased, we dismiss them as isolated incidents — one bad apple, nothing more!  Fourth, when evidence suggests these practices are widespread, we go to undermining the data collection — reliability!  non-generalizable!  selection effect!  At what point do we finally admit academia, in general, is not an exemplar space for inclusion and understanding?

Begrudgingly, I buy ignorance as an excuse.  We cannot expect incoming graduate students to know that inequality exists in academia, especially when we are complicit in painting a picture of higher education as egalitarian spaces.  And, unfortunately, we cannot expect our privileged colleagues to know about discrimination, harassment, and other manifestations of oppression within academia — that ignorance is one blissful aspect of being privileged.  Some things, though — like the growing adjunctification of academia — are hard to miss even to those who do not personally experience discrimination and harassment.

This is why I advocate for telling one’s stories, even when teased about being a “Negative Ned” or “Dennis Downer”  Inequality within academia, and academia’s role in perpetuating social inequality, do not go away by ignoring it or keeping silent about it.  At a minimum, talking openly — ranging from correcting others’ belief in meritocracy in academia to blogging or publishing — about one’s experiences of discrimination and harassment raises awareness.  In some cases, it can also lead to change or improvement.  We must encourage our colleagues to turn their critical lenses back onto academia, for it is not immune to the problems of the world.

23 thoughts on “The Myth Of Meritocracy In Academia

  1. Amen to ALL of this.


  2. I find it interesting that even at liberal univeristies where there are faculty of color, they are still marginalized due to their gender, color, culture, as well as level of tenure and age. As a student of color, I have looked for strong role models of how to navigate through the weird world of acadamia. I am often frustrated at how the system has quieted faculty of color or persons who do not fit their “norms.” The voices that should be raising hell are not because speaking too often means “they are not a good fit” and the carrot that is tenure is always that much farther away. I too believe that we all, regardless of our industry, need to name the elephant in the room. I also recognize that doing so may be at a cost.


  3. As we challenge heteronormativity, we challenge a primary system on which our institutions are based. This impacts our relationships with department members– including those who assert allied positions, with administration, with students, with funding institutions where we seek support, access to top journals for the work, frequency of citation (unless you are Butler), etc. It impacts every area of our professional lives. And it impacts university willingness to invest in this work. (As QuERI is looking for a new university home, this– though not unexpected– has hit us hard.) And yet, many universities think of themselves as “post-gay” and (following the K-12 bullying discourse) see any “problems” in lack of “acceptance” as coming from individual students — not a systemic institutional problem. As universities move toward corporate models, this is only going to get worse.


  4. If you have a department of institutional research, and they haven’t already, suggest that they do analyses on teaching evaluation scores. Notre Dame did this a long time ago and I still use the results in an exercise in my class. The analyses that ND did control for all kinds of variables (e.g., level of class, course load, rank, etc.) and then look between particular groups (e.g., how women fare in the humanities versus the hard sciences, how faculty of color do in business versus social science, how students’ gendered, evaluations change across their four years of study). To break it down like this exposes trends that aren’t seen in comparisons of aggregate means and also helps point to potential mechanisms, giving a clearer sense of how race and gender matter in the classroom because it’s not the same across all colleges, departments, audiences, etc.


    • Excellent suggestion, Jessica! I have heard some talk of starting to do this at my own university. As I feel a little braver, I may push for the initiative; there is already anecdotal awareness that inequalities likely exist in these evaluations.


  5. I definitely plan to follow this blog!

    One microagression I’ve experienced was as someone autistic. On the first day of a class (Introduction to Engineering) the teacher said something like “Most engineers probably have Asperger’s, they stay in there office and slide their work under the door, but it can’t be like that anymore.” He said he wasn’t just going to teach about engineering he was going to teach soft skills, but I was there just to learn about engineering. It made me feel incredibly unwelcome.


  6. (1) A lot of my classmates complained that they did not like the accent of one of the faculty who speak perfect English but with a non-British-or-American accent;
    (2) Departments that I know of usually hire graduates from higher level of universities. I am curious where their own graduates end up? Lower level of universities?
    …there are many more examples…
    Thanks for being honest to share what’s going on! I have been wondering if “academia” is just another hierarchy which reproduces.


  7. When I left the business world for graduate school in the humanities, it was not long until I found that every prejudice, every structural fault, every blithe myth about merit and equality, was present with just as much force in academia. What surprised me most was that, probably due to litigation, the business world works hard to hide these from view, where in academia it seemed naively blatant.


  8. maybe we should start point fingers, like telling the public who are the professors who were hired because their parents, spouses, or chair placed them there, not because they really merit to be hired.


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