Mises Wire

Ivy League Law Schools and the Slow Death of the Meritocracy

We currently find ourselves in a bizarre wasteland of mainstream political discourse. These days no US institution, and indeed no corner of American life, is safe from politicization or even from becoming a mouthpiece for extreme activism.

Since last November, Yale, Harvard, and other top US law schools have opted out of participation in the annual rankings by US News & World Report, a long-established go-to reference for how the nation’s laws schools stack up against each other. While it has many competitors, the US News’ rankings are among the most well-known and prestigious.

These schools have issues with how their rankings are formulated, which is interesting given that the disputed calculations routinely rank them at the top. Exploring this question leads to bigger questions, pointing to troubling modern cultural tendencies leading beyond law school rankings.

Representatives of these schools say that the current standards are both flawed and unjust, claiming that US News places too much emphasis on Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores and grade point averages of enrolled students. The US News graduate employment data focuses exclusively on the traditional pipeline of employment after graduation rather than alternative public service paths, neglecting to calculate student loan forgiveness and repayment programs of certain positions when totaling the debt of current and graduating classes.

These arguments suggest, in part, that US News isn’t accurately assessing the preparedness of the schools’ average graduate for the legal profession. If that were true they might have a point, but that is not the crux of the argument made by the elite schools.

Instead, these schools are pointing toward things one does not ordinarily associate with an elite law school education. Writes the dean of Harvard Law School in a blog post:

By heavily weighting students’ test scores and college grades, the U.S. News rankings have over the years created incentives for law schools to direct more financial aid toward applicants based on their LSAT scores and college GPAs without regard to their financial need. Though HLS and YLS have each resisted the pull toward so-called merit aid, it has become increasingly prevalent, absorbing scarce resources that could be allocated more directly on the basis of need.

And this is from a blog post by the dean of Yale Law School:

Millions of dollars of scholarship money now go to students with the highest scores, not the greatest need. At a moment when concerns about economic equity stand at the center of our national dialogue, only two law schools in the country continue to give aid based entirely on need—Harvard and Yale.

And so, the true agenda emerges.

While these universities are perfectly within their rights not to collaborate with US News or any outside organization they choose, their freedom doesn’t end there. How they select and admit students—whether by exam results, grade point average, or what have you—is strictly an internal affair. If they wish to bolster the enrollment of economically challenged students with lower grades and test scores, that’s their prerogative.

The data with which US News chooses to rank them in no way precludes them from offering such opportunities or conducting their admissions programs however they see fit. It’s also entirely up to them how much to prioritize their rankings and situate their standards accordingly.

So then, why does their tone sound suspiciously like they want to dictate not only the standards of US News but even the policies and practices of other law schools? Because there’s something broader at work here.

These schools are demanding a new set of values. High grades and exam scores, ample educational resources, and stellar references don’t reflect ability, initiative, or work ethic, but rather unearned privilege and unjust enrichment, according to leaders of the most elite law schools. These qualities are to be de-emphasized in favor of politically trendy criteria: ethnicity and financial need.

It’s hard to argue the nobility of providing aid to candidates from modest means who have fulfilled the academic requirements of these institutions, and there’s a lot to be said for such programs. Exactly how much is to be said? Well, apparently the Harvard and Yale administrations believe they should be the arbiters of that.

This is part of a larger movement that has migrated outside the confines of the most extreme university campuses into elite law schools and far beyond. It’s an affront to the notion that competence should decide who earns a position as a student, worker, craftsman, educator, and so on.

Griggs v. Duke Power Co., a Supreme Court decision, litigated the issue of employment competency tests for skills directly related to an applicant’s prospective job. The court struck down the tests as discriminatory, creating a legal precedent that, while not prohibiting them, created enough fear in the human resources landscape to render such tests de facto illegal. With proof of one’s aptitude off the table as a gauge of suitability, where could the employers turn to assess their applicants? Transcripts and test scores. And now those are being targeted for termination under similar guises.

This is a war on meritocracy. Not any particular method, application, or standards, but the very idea itself. These people don’t just seek to fill positions based on some new metrics of ability. They want to render ability completely irrelevant.

In the immortal words of Jerry Seinfeld, “Who are these people?” I don’t believe it’s some conspiratorial secret society. There’s no need for all of that as more and more they’re doing this right out in the open. It’s a loose, nebulous association of intellectual elites, academic elites as in this case, and even some among the scientific and business elites. Perhaps their high stations didn’t exactly come about through pure capability, so they have a certain disdain for such a notion and a plan for all of us that’s meant to stamp out and supplant the meritocracy.

But why would they want to do this? What could possibly be the endgame? Surely they don’t desire an infrastructure staffed by the incapable! It doesn’t seem so nihilistically destructive as that—more like a good old-fashioned power grab. They want the infrastructure to be meticulously, centrally planned by guess who? And what is the appropriate criteria for employment? Being handpicked by this enlightened party that operates on the mantra of every great tyranny in history: they know what’s best for you.

It doesn’t seem that any field or aspect of society is safe from the current spreading of this ideological virus, so resistance is a moral imperative. Whatever your sphere of influence—your family, your department, your company, your franchise, etc.—draw a line in the sand and don’t accept these crimes against value, logic, and morality. If we don’t stop making apologies, capitulations, and accommodations to such premises, they’ll come to define this country.

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