My Meritocratic Rise

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My Meritocratic Rise

S. M. Miller is the director of the Poverty and Inequality Project at the Commonwealth Institute and a research professor of sociology at Boston College.

The attacks on affirmative action, the stress on testing students, the emphasis on education as the guarantor of good jobs, and the attention paid to careful, presumably unbiased selection of employees all suggest that we have--or almost have--a perfect meritocracy imperiled by "preferential hiring." Surveying this phenomenon has led me to review my own rise in the academic meritocracy, with surprising results.

I started college as the beneficiary of a bias favoring males. My high school grades were, to assess them kindly, somewhat less than distinguished. I would not have been admitted to Brooklyn College if the admission minimum grade average for "boys" was not several points lower than for "girls" (the college catalogue openly stated this discriminating practice). If the admission requirement differences had been eliminated, girls would have outnumbered boys in the college.

Well, skip over my continuing performance as a marginally mediocre college student. I won a graduate fellowship to Princeton because Oskar Morgenstern, a professor there, was associated with the National Bureau of Economic Research where I was a research assistant to Arthur F. Burns, a leading economist. Burns wrote a letter of recommendation for me that any casual reader might regard as faint praise indeed. Morgenstern knew, however, that Burns was chary of handing out accolades and regarded the letter as an argument for my potential. He persuaded his colleagues to offer me a fellowship. If I had not known Morgenstern and had Morgenstern not known the praise-reluctant Burns--no fellowship.

The prestige of the Princeton connection played a major role in my winning the position of assistant regional economist at the Federal Public Housing Administration. From there, I went to teach in the Economics Department at Rutgers University. While I would like to think that I was selected because of my outstanding merit, this was in the post-World War II GI Bill days. Teaching supply shortages more than individual accomplishment propelled me into securing my first full-time academic employment. Even so, with a sudden decline in the fortunes of the state of New Jersey (Rutgers had just become a state university) and a struggle over academic freedom (I had refused to heed the request of the university's public relations office that I modify my attack on the Taft-Hartley Law for a radio program sponsored by the university), I was terminated after two years, along with a number of colleagues.

No jobs were available. As the new term opened in September, a friend was offered a part-time position in the sociology department at Brooklyn College. He turned it down and recommended me to teach courses in industrial sociology and introductory sociology. What qualified me? Propinquity. When I was a graduate student in economics at Columbia (this was before I went to Princeton), I hung out with sociology grad students, who were much more interesting than the economics students. I sat in on a course of the well-known sociologist Robert Merton and, on the basis of some questions that I asked in class, he wrote a brief letter of recommendation saying he had only good things to say about me. I got the Brooklyn College job.

I was saved from unemployment but teaching only two-fifths time and receiving only two-fifths pay (five courses a term was the standard teaching load). About six weeks into the semester, a young economics professor suddenly quit. A member of the economics faculty with whom I had been friendly since my undergraduate days (indeed, she acquainted me with academic and social mores) recommended me to replace the departed hotshot. I was offered his full five-course load but convinced the chair of the department to offer two of the courses to a friend of mine who had no teaching experience. …