Meritocracy in the academy isn’t fit for purpose – but we can fix it

Submitted by dene.mullen on Fri, 04/03/2022 - 00:01
Institutions need to think about who they’re picking and foster both literacy and competence around minority issues as the first steps to a true meritocracy
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A few years ago, the hashtag #damonsplaining was trending on social media. Situated at the intersection of “whitesplaining” and “mansplaining”, damonsplaining was understood as “the paternalistic lecture given by whites towards a person of colour defining what should and shouldn’t be considered racist, while obliviously exhibiting their own racism”.

This neologism emerged as part of a controversy about race and merit centred on Hollywood star Matt Damon, who was a producer and judge on the US TV show Project Greenlight, which followed first-time filmmakers competing for a chance to direct a feature film. The controversy surrounded an exchange between Damon and Effie Brown, the black woman producer of the acclaimed 2014 film Dear White People and a judge on the fourth season of Project Greenlight, which aired in 2015.

During a discussion about the comparative merits of the competitors, Brown asked her fellow judges to consider how the person chosen to direct the film would treat “the only black person [in the movie] being a prostitute hit by her white pimp”. She added: “I want to make sure that you’re looking…at who you’re picking and the story that you’re doing.” In raising this concern, Brown wanted the other judges to consider the content of the film and ensure that the person responsible for making it had adequate literacy and competence around issues of race and gender to deal with the content in an educated and thoughtful manner.

Here, literacy around race and gender refers to the capacity to understand the ways in which difference, prejudice and exclusion work in society. Competence entails the skills, knowledge and confidence needed to implement that understanding in one’s everyday practice (adapted from Runnymede Trust’s definition of racial literacy). She thus wanted the judges to consider their measures of evaluation specific to the content of the film, whereby the “merit” of the contestants could be determined.

Yet, given that Brown, a black woman producer, was speaking about a black woman character, Damon immediately reduced her comment to a concern with diversity, asking: “Do you want the best director?” and thus disregarding Brown’s underlying concern about how standard evaluations of merit within Hollywood – an industry with a long history of racist and sexist prejudice – were in fact not fit for purpose.

The exchange between Brown and Damon typifies conversations about merit in the workplace. Calls for more inclusive organisations are too often perceived as a threat to meritocracy. Yet, as the above example illustrates, the rules for evaluating merit are often deficient, disregarding, as they do, questions of literacy and competence that are needed to build a safe and inclusive environment.   

With respect to UK higher education, the 2019 Equality and Human Rights Commission report on tackling racial harassment highlights how racially minoritised staff and students are routinely subject to verbal degradation and institutional exclusion by colleagues, instructors and peers. And the primary barrier to reporting such harassment is a “lack of confidence in incidents being addressed by their university”. Similarly, trans students and staff also report experiencing ignorance and hostility in university settings, and thus feeling a sense of uncertainty about the safety of the environment they study or work in. No doubt such experiences hold true for those minoritised by class, disability and sexuality as well.

The uncertainty and mistrust that minoritised people grapple with stems from the experiential knowledge that those around them lack the thoughtfulness and literacy needed to not cause harm, and that the competence needed to recognise and redress such harm is not always or readily available.

These concerns generally fall by the wayside because the numbers of staff and students minoritised by race, class, disability, sexuality, gender, etc are so small that addressing their experiences and creating a genuinely safe and inclusive culture seems less urgent than other organisational priorities such as, in the case of HE, evaluations of research, funding and impact profiles.

What, then, is to be done?

First, organisations need to acknowledge that our methods of evaluating merit may, in fact, contribute to creating a hostile environment for minoritised staff and students and, as such, are antithetical to inclusion. Consequently, to paraphrase Effie Brown, organisations need to look at who they’re picking and the space they’re trying to create. This requires organisations to interrogate their own social context of exclusion – that is, they need to ask who is falling through the cracks, who is left behind, who leaves, who self-selects out and why – and then prioritise redressing the factors that produce these exclusions.

Second, in order to achieve the latter, organisations need robust measures for the evaluation of literacy. To what extent are those being recruited able to understand and support minoritised staff and students experiencing exclusion and isolation? Do they have the capacity to intervene in situations where bias, discrimination and prejudice are playing out? Do they have the knowledge and skills required to work towards making structural changes in the organisation?

Too often, organisations try to appear as if making changes by “diversifying recruitment” – that is, they focus on improving the “body count” of minoritised people. While lived experience may provide minoritised people with the requisite literacy around issues of difference and inclusion, the presumed equivalence between being minoritised and having literacy is not always accurate. Improving “diversity” is therefore not an adequate solution for improving organisational competence.

Finally, organisations must recognise that their own decision-making bodies – for example, appointment panels – are unlikely to possess the capacity to make sound evaluations about candidates’ literacy and competence. Consequently, organisational leadership needs to cede decision-making power to those that have the requisite knowledge and understanding to make such necessary judgements.

To achieve the above, organisations cannot continue to rely on the goodwill of people already doing the work of supporting minoritised students. The literacy and competence required to create safe and inclusive environments needs to be recognised as expertise – based on knowledge, training and practice – and must be compensated as such through the allocation of adequate time and financial investment.

rashné limki is lecturer in work and organisation studies and director of EDI at the University of Edinburgh Business School. She has also worked as a facilitator and mediator for community and activist organisations.

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Institutions need to think about who they’re picking and foster both literacy and competence around minority issues as the first steps to a true meritocracy