Social Justice vs. Meritocracy

Philip Kotler
6 min readJan 15, 2024

Philip Kotler

I am a fan of Social Justice and a fan of Meritocracy. Until now, I saw no inconsistency. Then the case occurred when Harvard decided to ask its new President, Claudine Gay, to resign.

Having attended Harvard, I was pleased to hear in 2023 of the appointment of Claudine Gay, a black scholar, to run Harvard. In appointing her, Harvard showed that it was color-blind. Her race made no difference to her merit. The appointment scored a home run for both social justice and merit.

Slowly we began to hear questions about her scholarly stature. Had she published any scholarly books? Did any of her articles show originality or unique impact? Had she shown unusual management skills? The answers to these questions was “no”.

Then we learned that Claudine plagiarized in some parts of her doctoral dissertation.

Claudine had also appeared before a Congressional Committee following the October 7 attack on Israel. The Committee wanted to assess how three presidents of major colleges felt about possible anti-semitism in their university. GOP Representative Elise Stefanik quizzed Gay on whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would violate Harvard’s rules against bullying and harassment. Gay responded: “It can be, depending on the context.” Stefanik immediately reproached Gay for that answer. How could Gay permit calls for the genocide of Jews be acceptable at Harvard, of all places.

All these findings raised the question: “Is Claudine Gay one of the strongest candidates that Harvard could have hired to run Harvard? Couldn’t Harvard have nominated many superior candidates, black and white, to be Harvard’s president? Did Harvard thoroughly review her background, writings and teachings or did Harvard make the choice to show that Harvard is liberal-minded?

When major corporations search for a new CEO, they hire a leading recruiting firm to find and propose several candidates who have considerable merit and experience. A major university should do the same. The university should define the mix of scholarship, skills, temperament, and experience its next president should have. Scholarly merit should at least be present in addition to other attributes.

But is it really fair to always decide in favor of meritocracy? Isn’t meritocracy an unfair standard given that people grow up with different parents, education, and income? Wouldn’t meritocracy perpetuate the same ruling class who grew up with the same special benefits? How can those who didn’t grow up with these benefits ever rise to positions of leadership in major institutions?

What can be done to help members of marginal groups rise to the top?

Is Affirmative Action the Answer?

Most companies in the past hired workers without any interference from government. They either hired workers on their ability or on their cost, or on both criteria. Companies avoided hiring black workers or women. Black segregation was in full operation after the end of the Civil War.

To help the freed slaves, General William Sherman proposed in 1865 to divide the land in the former slave states and give black families “Forty acres and a mule.” This humane proposal drew sharp opposition and was revoked by President Andrew Johnson. For the next century, little was done to help black Americans until the 1950s and 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement gathered strength under President Lyndon Johnson. Civil rights guarantees occurred with interpreting the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment affirming the civil rights of black Americans.

Companies pleaded that they would apply a nondiscrimination approach in hiring workers. Pressure groups dismissed this and insisted that companies put into practice affirmative action. Companies should establish a goal of hiring a certain number of minority workers. They should give preference to black Americans in filling their job requirements.

Many states adopted affirmative action as their policy. The argument was that a diversified workforce is better for a company than a homogenous workforce. This led later to explicit DEI policy, namely practicing diversity, equity, and inclusion.

But this fell hard on the white workers who were better qualified but not hired. These white workers complained that they were victims of reverse discrimination. A number of states dropped their policy of affirmative action.

Many things happened to affirmative action under the subsequent Presidencies of Ford, Reagen, Obama, and Biden. In 2022, the Supreme Court in a case related to admissions practices at the University of North Carolina, rejected affirmative action at U.S. colleges and universities on June 29, 2023. President Biden strongly disagreed with this decision on the grounds that “discrimination still exists in America. The hiring rights and responsibilities of colleges and companies are still to be settled.

Imposing affirmative action on organizations is not really the best answer to creating more jobs for black Americans. Affirmative action is a band-aid and often hurts black Americans. In one law school study, 23% of blacks failed the bar exam as opposed to only 3% of whites failing. The failing black students lacked the needed background to pass the bar exams. They were not up to law school standards. The problem is that they never received a good public education in growing up. I am convinced that if black Americas were given good public schools with good teachers, more black Americans would pass the bar exam. By law schools required to admit a certain percent of Black students, many of these students will not pass the bar exam. Imposed admission standards in law schools ends up screwing poorly prepared black students and depriving qualified white students of attending law school. ,,.

Are Organizations Likely to Drop DEI?

The accusation has been made, mainly by anti-woke Republicans, that universities have become too political. Instead of confining themselves to the pursuit of knowledge, they have moved politically toward embracing diversity, equity and inclusion. Colleges argued that if they didn’t practice DEI, the student body would be more homogenous and lose the benefit of wider knowledge and ideas. And companies too would lose out to more homogenous group-think and dogma. This debate about diversity is likely to go on a long time. Should diversity rule or should meritocracy rule?

Can Betting on Meritocracy be a Trap?

Americans have long believed that economic and social rewards should go to those with ability, talent and hard work. I believe that Claudine Gay met that test in managing to rise to high and responsible positions on Harvard’s faculty. She had merit. The complaint might be that Harvard should have found a person with more merit instead of settling slightly in favor of a dose of social justice.

Daniel Markovits raised excellent questions about meritocracy in his excellent book The Meritocracy Trap (2019). He postulated three harms to a nation that confines its rewards to meritocracy:

1. Those at the top of organizations usually have great ability and education. They are among the hardest workers with little time for idleness and often neglect their families in their pursuit of winning. They are paid very high incomes which deeply increases the nation’s level of income inequality. Ironically, these elite leaders are generally unhappy people, have problems with their children or spouse and have no time to enjoy a measure of idleness.

2. Members of the middle class are frustrated. They can’t rise to the top because they didn’t graduate from top schools. They end up not enjoying their work and work less hard than those at the top. The members of the middle class face stagnating incomes, increasing debt and rising despair, especially those in the lower end of the middle class.

3. Those in the working class work hard but with experience rising costs and debt. They have little chance to enter the middle class. They can’t afford to give their children a college education. They are always struggling to pay their weekly bills and often need to apply for expensive loans.

The picture in a nation that over-relies on meritocracy is one of a widely saddened nation. In such a nation, there is great need for therapy and for social justice.

So a nation suffers when there is too much focus on merit. Somehow a balance must be found in the weight given to merit and the weight given to social justice. Maybe Claudine Gay’s appointment to the Harvard Presidency was precisely the search for a needed balance.



Philip Kotler

Philip Kotler is the S.C. Johnson and Son Distinguished Professor of International Marketing, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University (emeritus)