Draw lots for Harvard entry, says Michael Sandel

The increasing social status of the ‘highly credentialed’ risks breeding populist resentment, according to renowned political philosopher

September 7, 2020
Michael Sandel, professor at Harvard University
Source: Getty

Elite universities need to radically rethink their role as “sorting machines for the meritocratic order”, according to the political philosopher Michael Sandel.

In his new book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s become of the common good?, Professor Sandel considers how the past four decades have witnessed not only “growing inequality” but “changing attitudes towards success”, he told Times Higher Education. The result is that “those who have landed on top have come to believe that their success is their own doing and they therefore deserve the benefits the market bestows on the successful – and that by implication those who have lost out must deserve their fate as well”. A world of “winners and losers” is also a world of “hubris and humiliation”.

Higher education, continued Professor Sandel, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass professor of government at Harvard University, was deeply implicated in these developments because “elite universities have been cast in the role of arbiters of opportunity, so they stand at the apex of the system of meritocratic competition. They allocate the credentials that contribute to the attitudes I have described.”

Governing and policymaking elites are more diverse on many criteria than in the past, but they are far more dominated by the highly educated. At the very least, Professor Sandel explained, this unfairly excluded the insights of people without degrees who “have better practical judgement and sense of identity with their fellow citizens than many of the highly credentialed”. It was even possible that disciplinary trends such as “the growing emphasis on technocratic forms of social science, especially the value-neutral way economics is taught”, might be actively harmful, by “dulling the practical judgement and breadth of vision of those who have had that kind of education”.

There are also issues of attitude. Barack Obama, as The Tyranny of Merit points out, not only had a “fondness for the highly credentialed throughout his presidency” but also had a habit of falling back on the word “smart” (“smart regulations”, “smart growth”, “smart spending cuts” and so on) as the ultimate term of praise, and “smart policies” tended to require “smart people” – technocratic experts and elites – to carry them out.

Given this environment, Professor Sandel recognised something legitimate in “the resentment, widespread among many working people, of meritocratic elites...I do think that the mainstream parties and politicians who were surprised by the populist backlash did not see this coming in part because they were tone-deaf to the condescension of credentialed meritocratic elites towards those who don’t have a diploma from a four-year university.”

Observing that “admission to elite colleges and universities is the object of fevered striving”, Professor Sandel said that while this might seem to benefit such institutions, they and the wider society were paying a price for it.

He urged them, therefore, to do much more “to ensure that they are admitting talented first-generation students” – the proportion at Harvard today is no higher than it was in 1960 – and to “pay as much attention to that as to other aspects of diversity”. He was worried by how even “aspects of student life outside the classroom”, such as extracurricular clubs and societies, were now “excessively dominated by networking activities” and “highly pressurised rituals of selecting and rejecting”. Fraternities and sororities were a good example of what he was opposed to: “If I could wave a magic wand, I would make them disappear. I don’t think they exercise a healthy influence on university life.”

Yet by far his most radical proposal to address this situation is what Professor Sandel called “a lottery of the qualified”.

Harvard and Stanford University both receive about 40,000 applications for 2,000 places each year. Although Professor Sandel acknowledged that some of those candidates would need to be weeded out, he believed that “the majority could do the work and do it well”. Rather than devoting huge efforts to identifying the very best, a notoriously inexact science, top universities should simply draw lots to select entrants from among the pool of qualified candidates. Introducing an element of chance, as he puts it in his book, should help to “chasten merit’s hubris”.

It is a provocative idea, but how seriously did Professor Sandel want us to take it?

“I don’t mean it as a purely flippant suggestion,” he replied. “I think it should be taken seriously, but I don’t think it will be adopted any time soon…If people are more sceptical, I propose an interim solution: admit half the class in the usual way and half through a lottery – and see how they do. Stanford did seriously consider this in the late 1960s: the faculty committee endorsed the idea but the dean of admissions opposed it.”

We may have to wait a while for his “lottery of the qualified”. In the meantime, Professor Sandel would like to see an urgent “debate about how current university admissions policies reinforce broader social attitudes towards winning and losing”.



Print headline: Draw lots for Ivy League entry, philosopher suggests

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Reader's comments (4)

What is this, certainly not education as we know it in the British Isles. The tone of clubs and societies which are about keeping people out have the nasty aroma of bullying surrounding them and it starts very early on. I saw the American system of 'education' at first hand when living there. At primary school the fastest most aggressive children got to the computer first , teachers were barely interested in looking after the shyer child..
From a UK viewpoint I doubt this would tackle inequality. You have the whole Clarendon public schools - Oxbridge universities clique, along with daddy's connections in finance, politics, law etc, and a family wealthy enough to fund the student's unpaid intern time. That is what copperplates their career for the next generation of lucrative earnings, and excludes poor outsiders. Doing the 'right' degree at the 'right'university, e.g. Law at Cambrodge, as opposed to say Marketing at Bedford, is a necessary but not sufficient part of preparation for that gilded life. Paradixically in fact is is the children of the uber-wealthy who can 'afford' to do less remunerative degrees like History, still at Oxbridge, because daddy has assuredthemenough wealth not to have togrib around with job aopps,CVs interns etc. A lottery might just exclude some intellectually gifted but poor students, in favour of less able but lucky ones. For a true meritocracy, first abolish internships, then maybe have more blind assessment of CV,s with certain details like location of university/school omitted, just the qualification levels included. However this would still bias against poorer pupils who, in poorer neighbourhoods, stand less chance of getting those good grades. To remedy that we need much more funding of disadvantaged areas.
Well meaning but wrong headed strategy!! ... the least inexact ( science) of all the selection criteria to anything or anywhere ( even a papacy ) is merit. Pad merit is one thing, Cloud it quite another : the latter using a host of ‘ sentimental’ alloys will toss more problems than solve. admissions could be stratified into merit merit plus merit minus but merit always Basil jide fadipe.
The previous posters seem to think that the large majority of students applying to Harvard or MIT or Penn are not highly qualified, but the opposite is true. Admissions officers and high school counselors are almost unanimous in noting that the types of students who apply to the most elite schools almost all have perfect grades and perfect or near-perfect test scores. 25% of applicants to Harvard have a perfect 1600 on the SAT, something only a few thousand students in the country every year achieve--yet 95% of the students who apply to Harvard are rejected, despite the fact that 80% of them could credibly do the work and benefit from the experience. I think its a provocative and useful idea that should be tried, perhaps by a maverick school like the University of Chicago (6% acceptance rate) or Caltech (where the average Math SAT is 800--75% of applicants to MIT score perfectly on the Math test).