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Scott DeRue
Leadership professor

Scott DeRue

Scott DeRue is Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at the University of Michigan Stephen M. Ross School of Business. With Maxim Sytch, he created the student-driven Leadership Seminar discussion group.

Ivy League influence

Q: Elena Kagan's nomination has raised the prospect of an "all-Ivy" Supreme Court. Is it a good idea for any institution, or any sector of society, to rely so heavily on a handful of elite universities to educate and train its leaders?

I am the product of a state-school education, and am very proud to now be employed at a state-school. Yet, I have no problem with an all-Ivy court. To me, the issue is not where Ms. Kagan went to school. The important issue is whether she has the competence to serve, and whether her interpretation of the legal code will effectively complement the interpretations of others on the court. Based on what we know at this point (which is not much), it seems Ms. Kagan is well-suited and capable of effectively serving us.

All that said, there are several reasons why we even have the possibility of an all-Ivy court, and I think understanding the reasoning is important to answering the question: should our society rely so heavily on a handful of universities to educate and train its leaders?

First, Ivy-league institutions (and their non-Ivy peers) attract the "best of the best" students. Most parents would love to replace their "My kid is an honor-roll student" bumper sticker with one that says: "My kid is an Ivy-leaguer." So, if the "best" coming out of the Ivy League go on to serve our country as presidents, legislators, and justices, we are probably better for it. But there are also reasons beyond competence that explain why a nomination process such as the one used in selecting Supreme Court justices results in an all-Ivy lineup.

There is clear evidence that our place in elite social networks explains our social status and mobility. In fact, research even shows that business executives enter into strategic partnerships and alliances with other companies, in part, based on whether the partnering executives attended the same undergraduate institution. Scary, right? Thus, Ivy-leaguers (and their peers) are not just paying for an education, they are paying for entry into a social network that is powerful and global.

It is no accident that Obama and Kagan have worked and socialized together in the past, and now she is being nominated for a life-long position as Supreme Court justice.

But again, the issue is not where did she go to school or who does she know. Is she competent? Does she complement the existing justices? Does she have the principles and perspective necessary to make decisions that will affect a nation? Only time will tell. I can assure you there are many people educated as elites that do not have the necessary principles and perspective. I sure hope she does.

By Scott DeRue

 |  May 18, 2010; 11:04 AM ET
Category:  Leadership development Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: The test of a meritocracy | Next: No Ivy monopoly on leadership

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DeRue is correct in that elite social networks explain much social status and mobility. He does not, however, answer his own question: Should we rely on a handful of universities to train our leaders?

DeRue comments that selecting leaders from a handful of Ivy League schools (note, we are speaking of two schools in considering the Supreme Court) is not in itself, wrong. Rather, "only time will tell" if Elena Kagan has the priniciples and character to make good decisions. Presumably, from this comment, we are to infer that if she does have the requisite character and principles, there is nothing amiss in a Supreme Court made soley of Harvard and Yale graduates.

There is much wrong with this. Notwithstanding some of the justices are "conservative" and some are "liberal" does not alleviate the problem. It defys logic to expect diverse thought and opinion will prosper in this atmosphere. If nothing else, the members become skilled only at refuting the opinions and beliefs they have long known. It is as if those those that train at other institutions are incapable of producing a different thought or approach worthy of consideration. There are reasons why good public and private universities (other than Harvard and Yale) look to recruit faculty from other insitutions, rather than relying only or in the main on its own graduates. Growing in different cultures produces differing thoughts and approaches. Those who believe diversity exists on the Court as Harvard and Yale recruit diverse students fool themselves. Those students all matured in the same culture. To believe this will produce diverse thought and opinion is to believe Harvard and Yale students know all there is to know.

Another problem is we have made elitism a way of life, Its practice existed in the past,but in my 62 years, I do not believe it was ever at the level it is now. Its continued unabated practice assures disqualification of others just as capable. It smacks of that which drives the Tea Party and Palin supporters. People believe, and with good reason, that not only will their voice not be heard, the voices of well educated, competent and and capable people with backgrounds similar to their own will never be heard.

Part of that which endeared George W. Bush to his supporters was notwithstanding his own background, he was not tied to the Ivy League establishment the way Obama is. Harriet Meiers was an atrocious nominee for the Court. Yet, Bush appealed to many that do not live and were educated far from the Northeast, because he recognized one need not be tied to Harvard or Yale Law School, to be a Supreme Court Justice.

Enough said. I voted for Obama, but I am troubled by the intellectual snobbery evident in his nominees.

Posted by: kermit5 | May 18, 2010 1:08 PM
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