Are Universities Still Universities When ‘Diversity’ Trumps Merit?

Queensland University of Technology has removed the word ’merit' from its hiring process.
Are Universities Still Universities When ‘Diversity’ Trumps Merit?
(iQoncept/Shutterstock)
Gabriël Moens
12/4/2023
Updated:
12/4/2023
0:00
Commentary
It has recently been reported that the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) has removed the word “merit” from its hiring process.
In a radio interview, the University’s Vice-Chancellor Margaret Sheil, communicated her concern that the university’s hiring strategy could be biased.
Hence, the university will seek to appoint diverse individuals, including those from Indigenous, multicultural, and LGBT backgrounds, implying that the goal of “diversity” trumps “merit.” 
Admittedly, the concept of merit itself is indeterminate—an empty vessel, the meaning of which has to be filled in by the university’s leadership team.
As such, it could be argued that the university, rather than ditching merit, has simply embraced a competing version of merit that is radically different, and hostile, to the traditional concept.
In its first conception, merit refers to the relevant individual characteristics needed by the university to fulfill its educational functions.
We know that, logically, two candidates cannot be equally qualified because there is always room for differentiation. There are thus always open-ended degrees of excellence.
In contrast, merit, in its second sense, is the possession of desirable group characteristics that can produce suitable social outcomes or results, for example, the representation of minority members in university teaching, research, and administrative positions in accordance with their numerical strength in society.
Proponents of this diversity-enhancing conception of merit argue that its content varies according to the needs of the community, thereby implying that membership in such a group may, in itself, be a sufficient meritorious qualification.
Demonstrators are seen during a protest against an event by British activist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull at the Tasmanian Parliament House lawns in Hobart, Australia on March 21, 2023. (AAP Image/Ethan James)
Demonstrators are seen during a protest against an event by British activist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull at the Tasmanian Parliament House lawns in Hobart, Australia on March 21, 2023. (AAP Image/Ethan James)
In contrast, others argue that such a view of merit would transform a university “into a political instrumentality” and destroy the principle of reward according to relevant individual characteristics.

Role of a University

Of course, there is no general agreement among educational authorities as to the proper function of a university.
While some writers emphasise its traditional functions, such as teaching, research, and professional training, proponents of diversity appointments maintain that universities are instruments of social engineering aimed at solving perceived ills in wider society.
The adoption of diversity, which involves appointments on the basis group characteristics, has gradually transformed universities—in some cases even without design—into institutions that are supposed to more accurately reflect society at large.
Such a process radically alters the function of a university, which the late John Passmore, who served as professor of Philosophy at the Australian National University, described as the “advancement and the diffusion of learning.”
In his article, Quality and Equality Reconsidered, the professor explored the use of affirmative action as a means to provide equality of opportunity.
Similarly, for Alfred North Whitehead, a former professor of Education at Harvard University, the function of the university is to impart information, and to impart it “imaginatively.”

Rejecting Excellence

QUT’s hiring strategy does not involve the ditching of merit, but instead entails the adoption of this competing version.
In this context, it is appropriate to refer to a statement by Barry R. Gross, a philosophy professor, who has been critical of such approaches: “This new ‘equality’ substitutes for the rule of law or principle which took many centuries to establish, a rule of men which is no more than a rule of privilege and influence so rightly despised by the founders of liberal democracy.”
Students study legal texts in the law faculty library at Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany, on Oct. 11, 2011. (Adam Berry/Getty Images)
Students study legal texts in the law faculty library at Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany, on Oct. 11, 2011. (Adam Berry/Getty Images)
One thing is certain. The ditching of the traditional concept of merit promotes QUT’s slogan “A university for the real world.”
Indeed, regardless of the deceptive appeal of the slogan, the diversity conception of merit is supportive of this slogan.
The removal by QUT of the traditional notion of merit from its appointment process is problematic because universities have been established to pursue excellence. The achievement of this goal necessitates and condones discrimination against those who do not have the capacity, will, or intellect to contribute and profit from their involvement with the university.
The traditional function of the university is to pursue intellectual and professional excellence for its own sake, thereby ensuring that sufficiently qualified people are trained to serve society in distinct roles. 
Nevertheless, waging war against excellence continues to be the rallying cry of those who control the mainstream academia and politics.
While the diversity conception of merit seeks to institute policies of societal equality and fairness, it treats candidates for appointment to university positions as members of a group, and subjects them to stereotypical practices and, hence, harms their long-term interests.
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Queensland, and served as pro vice-chancellor and dean at Murdoch University. In 2003, Moens was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal by the prime minister for services to education. He has taught extensively across Australia, Asia, Europe, and the United States.