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Maybe There’s No Such Thing as Academic Merit – HotAir

There are lots of hot takes about the Claudine Gay resignation still appearing at various sites. I’ve read a few this morning and of those I think this one at the NY Times is the worst.

The argument being made here by author Tressie McMillam Cottom is that Gay’s resignation was a shameful moment in Harvard’s history, not because she got caught plagiarizing or because she did a terrible job handling questions during congressional testimony but because too many people bought into “age-old ideas” about merit.

Claudine Gay’s resignation this week as Harvard University’s president marks the end of a shameful chapter for the institution. The debacle’s architects promise to make America’s elite institutions great again. They say they pushed out Dr. Gay and, nearly a month ago, the University of Pennsylvania’s president as a warning to the nation’s cultural institutions. How they will continue to wield their influence and if they will succeed depends on how willing we all are to keep buying age-old ideas about merit from power-hungry peddlers…

…the attacks against Dr. Gay have been cut from whole cloth, from a historical narrative about merit and diversity that is a hallmark of America’s higher-education prestige hierarchy.

And here’s where we get to the core of her argument which is that “D.E.I. is synonymous” with “lacking merit.” The author says she’s getting this from a post-resignation interview Christopher Rufo gave to Politico.

Rufo says he smuggled a narrative into “the left-wing media.” That narrative rests on a critical discursive link — D.E.I. is synonymous with “lacking merit.” It is a neat trick. Harvard’s endowment has been valued at nearly $50 billion. Yet the Rufo messaging strategy successfully painted the institution’s president as an undeserving beneficiary, even if she is not.

I read that Politico interview yesterday and wrote about it here so I was already familiar with it. But looking back, there is nowhere in it where Rufo said DEI was synonymous with “lacking merit.” Notice in the excerpt above those two words are in quotation marks, suggesting this is a quote of something Rufo said. Maybe he did say that somewhere but it’s not in the Politico interview she linked two paragraphs earlier, the one she’s clearly talking about in this paragraph. Here’s the only use of merit in the Politico interview:

In her letter of resignation, Gay said that she was troubled by “threats fueled by racial animus.” How do you respond to that?

It was absolutely not fueled by racial animus. It was fueled by Claudine Gay’s minimization of antisemitism, her serial plagiarism, her intimidation of the free press and her botched attempts to cover it all up. It had nothing to do with her race or sex and everything to do with her merit, her competence and her failure to lead.

Notice there’s no mention of DEI in that answer. Instead Rufo points to four other things he is clearly characterizing as Gay’s failures: Minimization of antisemitism, serial plagiarism, intimidation of the press and a cover up. The idea that Rufo made DEI synonymous with lacking merit is not found in this interview. And yet, this is clearly the interview Cottom is talking about in that paragraph above. We know that because Rufo did talk about smuggling the narrative into the left-wing media in that interview. Here’s what he said.

Christopher Brunet and I broke the story of Claudine’s plagiarism on December 10. It drove more than 100 million impressions on Twitter, and then it was the top story for a number of weeks in conservative media and right-wing media. But I knew that in order to achieve my objective, we had to get the narrative into the left-wing media. But the left-wing uniformly ignored the story for 10 days and tried to bury it, so I engaged in a kind of a thoughtful and substantive campaign of shaming and bullying my colleagues on the left to take seriously the story of the most significant academic corruption scandal in Harvard’s history.

Finally, the narrative broke through within 24 hours of my announcement about smuggling the narrative into the left-wing media. You see this domino effect: CNN, BBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other publications started to do the actual work of exposing Gay’s plagiarism, and then you see this beautiful kind of flowering of op-eds from all of those publications calling on Gay to resign. Once my position — which began on the right — became the dominant position across the center-left, I knew that it was just a matter of time before we were going to be successful.

If you read it in context, Rufo is not arguing that he tricked people into reporting a lie. On the contrary, he’s saying he shamed the left-leaning media into belatedly covering plagiarism by the president of one of America’s top universities. Smuggling it in, in this case, meant getting the media to report the truth rather than sit on their hands.

In any case, a couple of paragraphs later, Cottom attacks the idea that DEI is a turning away from merit.

The underlying belief is noxious. It presumes diversity and merit are mutually exclusive. Beyond that, whether higher education is less meritorious now than it was in some unspecified past cannot be measured.

That is because merit, itself, cannot be defined…

If you like Rufo’s vision of a status hierarchy, in which merit is whatever the winner says it is, then he’s your man.

So her bottom line is that merit is just a buzzword with no meaning. This is a pretty silly take about a school whose entire brand is that it is home to the most outstanding students in the country, i.e. those judged to have the most academic merit. Here’s Harvard’s description of the class of 2017:

The average self-reported unweighted GPA on a 4.0 scale was 3.94. Fifty-four percent of students reported a perfect 4.0, and the lowest score reported was a 3.0.

Freshmen reported an average composite SAT score of 2237. The reported average subject score was consistent across the three sections, with an average of 748 in the math section, 746 on writing, and 744 on critical reading.

Merit must mean something if Harvard is only admitting students at the very top of the GPA and SAT scale. More to the point, students who cheat and plagiarize can face punishment up to expulsion from the university.

So the school seems to have a pretty good idea what merit looks like and also what lack of merit looks like. The fact that Claudine Gay got caught violating the latter standards and resigned seems to prove Harvard ultimately decided merit mattered.

Finally, the commenters aren’t buying the argument that merit has no meaning:

“That is because merit, itself, cannot be defined.”

This is simply not true. It’s a disingenuous column in general with this dishonesty at its core.

“Merit” for admissions was defined by standardized test scores. Progressives hate that because progressives hate seeing students judged equally. So they have worked to undermine the SAT and ACT. But you couldn’t ask for a more pure definition.

They also noted what was missing from this opinion piece:

No mention of Gay’s plagiarism. Interesting.

Indeed that word never appears in the piece.

I read this piece closely. There seems to be a word missing: Plagiarism.

I’m sure that was just an oversight on the writer’s part, and not an attempt to pretend there was not a good reason to remove the Harvard president for an act of academic dishonesty and, or laziness that would get a first-year student expelled.

Easier to blame the right and imply Rufo said things he did not say than confront the actual lack of merit being discussed I guess.

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