Merit system is unjust because it rewards productive individuals, professors argue

Professors at top American universities are criticizing the merit system in academia, arguing the concept is a 'barrier' to realizing DEI outcomes.

'Campus Reform' spoke with one professor who criticized merit pay for its effect on the 'gender gap in bonus pay.'

Professors from the University of Arizona and the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs are arguing that “success and merit” are “barriers” to the equity agenda. 

“Admitting that the normative definitions of success and merit are in and of themselves barriers to achieving the goals of justice, diversity, equity and inclusion is necessary but not sufficient to create change,” professors Beth Mitchneck and Jessi L. Smith recently wrote for Inside Higher Education.

[RELATED: ‘Transformative justice’? USC campus safety proposals tout ‘equity,’ ‘intersectionality.’]

Mitchneck and Smith attributed those definitions to a “narrow definition of merit limited to a neoliberal view of the university.” Specifically, they express concern that universities receive funding and recognition based on the individual performances of professors’ own work such as peer reviewed journals and studies. 

Campus Reform reached out to Smith, asking what should be done to alter the merit system. Smith did not provide any alternatives.

The professors are not the only scholars in academia to critique the merit system. Last month, University of Illinois professor Eunmi Mun said that merit-based pay does not take “nonperformance-related factors” into account. 

[RELATED: Uncertainty remains over USF’s lowered performance benchmarks]

Speaking with Campus Reform, Mun said, “[M]erit-based pay systems may increase the gender gap in bonus pay, which is more sensitive to individual performance than base pay.”

Both Mitchneck and Smith do recognize examples of universities attempting to add a ‘mission of DEI’ to their programs and recognition system. However, they argue that those efforts are insufficient. 

“While these examples stand out for the good, that is, in many ways, the problem,” the professors write. “While we can point to the few institutions that are trying to change merit structures, many others seem resistant to change.”

Campus Reform reached out to Beth Mitchneck for comment; this article will be updated accordingly.