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Martin Davidson

Martin Davidson

Dr. Martin Davidson is Associate Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business where he also serves as Associate Dean and Chief Diversity Officer. He blogs at Leveraging Difference.

Ivy is good but we need more

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?

If you look at the possible "all-Ivy" complexion of an emerging Supreme Court, it's easy to find comfort in the fact that this could be a "dream team" aggregation of legal smarts that can only benefit the country. After all, having the brightest and the best at the helm is the ultimate goal in any meritocracy, so it's hard to argue that we should have less qualified people on the bench.

The problem with this picture is that in an increasingly complex world, we don't question the definition of "best." We look for single indicators of excellence--IQ, or years of experience, or law school education--and we act as though if we just pick enough people with high marks on a given one, we will have satisfied the objective of getting the best.

If only it were that easy.

In jobs as important and complex as the post of Supreme Court Justice, there can be no single indicator that captures "best." We must consider a variety of factors in assembling the best team of justices, and one of those factors has to be the diversity of perspectives that the team collectively produces. The problem with an all-Ivy lineup is that in a domain in which diverse perspectives are critically important in creating just results, we foment all sorts of biases by not being more intentional in using diversity to create checks and balances in how the Court operates.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a bunch of Ivy League minds coming together. High intelligence and excellent legal training are an essential part of a great Supreme Court. But we have to ask what else matters in rendering justice? And what great minds from other educational perspectives and training grounds can collaborate to make sure the Court does not stroll along an Ivy-biased trail of legal thinking? As the Court ruled in 2003 in two cases dealing with admissions practices in higher education, diversity can be and is often a valid criterion upon which people can be selected for a position if that diversity is essential to creating the best results. Shouldn't we apply this logic to the Court itself?

I don't have anything against folks from the Ivy League. Some of my best friends went to school there. And I don't know if the addition of Elena Kagan will complete an Ivy dream team or not. But I know from my research and professional experience that we are not good at seeing complexity in selection decisions like this. We want to believe that if we have one clear and transparent indicator of performance, like Ivy League education, then we can achieve great results. But justice won't come from a homogeneous set of legal minds on the Supreme Court. It will only come from the skillful mixing of diverse ideas and perspectives.

By Martin Davidson

 |  May 18, 2010; 12:21 PM ET
Category:  Leadership development Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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An Ivy League "education" (that means you got accepted to and matriculated at one of the socially accepted institutions) is a kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval popular among the wealthy and well-connected in business and industry. Dubya comes from a wealthy political family. Naturally, he went to Yale, his father's alma mater, and was made a member of Skull and Bones, or whatever they call it, the mysterious fraternity to which only the "best" men are admitted. You could do worse than the Ivy League. You can also do better. But the smell is different.

Posted by: BlueTwo1 | May 18, 2010 11:24 PM
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The fact that perennial 'C' student George Bush got into Yale for his undergrad is irrelevant

Or the perpetual dunce, John Kerry.

Do we have to keep reminding you that Bush's GOA was higher than Kerry?

It would seem that if one wants to trot out some drooler of a pol to make a point - arrange your spit cups in a logical order of vacuity.

Posted by: VirginiaConservative | May 18, 2010 9:53 PM
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On this I agree with you. I would prefer someone who has actually worked for their living at one time in their life. Yes they should know the law. But it can and should be from some other school.

Next I don't know why politicians are so strongly against a Protestant on the court.

Posted by: txengr | May 18, 2010 9:48 PM
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Who is obsessed with ivy leaguers? Just because an empty suit with zero qualifications chooses another empty suit with zero creds translates into America being obsessed?

What a joke.

Look at the Kentucky race, folks.

The tea party has come to play.

We will see how obsessed with the ivy league America is in November.

Posted by: VirginiaConservative | May 18, 2010 9:46 PM
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Regardless of your undergrad, to get into Harvard/Yale Law you have to do exceptionally well on the LSAT, a meritocratic exam. The fact that perennial 'C' student George Bush got into Yale for his undergrad is irrelevant when assessing the abilities of a Yale LAW grad. Apples and Oranges people.

Posted by: CrownRoyalForever | May 18, 2010 9:14 PM
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After reading this article, and also the one by Christopher Edley Jr. defending elitism (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/14/AR2010051403641.html), I am caught in two minds. While of course, the role of a Supreme Court Justice does require a lot of intelligence and academic rigour, what is to say that the top students from other schools are not as good as the H/Y grads or even better?

My main problem with 'elitism' is that it's self-satisfying: one big name school on your resume leads to another. And if you got that first one, you most likely came from a fortunate family.

Posted by: socallocal | May 18, 2010 8:16 PM
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The above article is long overdue! Obsession with ivy legue credentials has brought us where we are. Brilliant ivy league minds did not found this country nor did it see it through the difficult eras of the independence or the civil war or woman's suffrage,etc. Instead,it was the simple good sense of the Washingtons,Lincolns,Trumans and so many others who built this country and now for the past 50 years has been turned over to the ivy league in the courts and in our businesses and our political arena--and look where we are now.

Posted by: royroy1 | May 18, 2010 7:17 PM
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This situation requires a little thinking outside the box. Federal Circuit cases are commonly decided by a panel of 3 judges determined by lottery out of the total complement of a larger number of avaiable judges.

Perhaps we need to rething the design of the SCOTUS. Maybe we ought to consider a complement of 20+ justices, of which a number would be called up by lottery to hear cases. My understanding is that places such as Australia and Germany use a system similar to this. Their highest courts hear cases wherein a portion of the total complement of judges hear cases.

Posted by: ak1123 | May 18, 2010 7:03 PM
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Many of the people that go to Ivy League schools go there with the intentiion of seeking powerful positions and stucture there life accordingly. Changes to this status quo would most likely occur under very trying circumstances. A change may come but I'm not looking forward it.

Posted by: ccbuck | May 18, 2010 5:57 PM
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I don't know if Ivy League automatically equates with high intelligence. There are plenty of legacy ivy league idiots floating around out there (like our former president, for example, who could barely tie his shoe but squeaked through a legacy Ivy League education). And there are plenty of very intelligent people who went to junior college and/or night school at a local university because they couldn't afford to get an education any other way. Frankly, I'd rather see someone who worked full-time and went to law school at night, even if it wasn't an Ivy League law school, in the SC. That person would be much more in touch with the vast majority of this country -- those whom they would supposedly be serving on the Court. These Ivy League justices are not living on the same planet as the rest of us.

Posted by: CAC2 | May 18, 2010 4:26 PM
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For better or for worse, people use heuristics (otherwise known as mental short-cuts) so as to make having an opinion easier -- it lowers the costs of acquiring the information processed to arrive at any given opinion.

The opportunity cost of proposing a supreme court nominee is among the highest there might be (in this country's context) for any institution period. This is precisely why "Ivy League" is so seductive and (actually) useful a thought bucket for this process.

Is Prof. Davidson arguing that appreciating diversity should open up the SCOTUS to UVA law grads? or to Louisiana's Southern University Law School? One suspects the former but not the latter.

His argument also presupposes that Ivy League schools are rather uniform ; I would argue the opposite, that they are places that are actually remarkably heterogeneous precisely because they self-consciously tackle the thornier issues: not what do I know but what would the foundations be for anyone to presume that they know something about anything -- at all. America's top universities -- truly global magnet schools, ivy league and otherwise -- prepare their graduates (on the whole) for learning how to defend one's ideas and implicit ideological blinders against often strikingly powerful arguments from the other side. In doing so, one learns respect for worthy arguments and adversaries, itself a very valuable lesson in the perils of extrapolating from the narrow confines of one's self to the wider world at large -- a trait seemingly quite in evidence by those who would pronounce the ivy league and similarly rigorous educations as somehow producing undifferentiated, intellectually branded "product".

Posted by: dkowitt | May 18, 2010 3:46 PM
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I agree with some of what is discussed here. However, I am skeptical about the sudden de-valuing of the Ivy League Education. I believe that some of this is driven by Right-wing True Believers who find their drive for political/social dominance being slowed up by an acedemic "establishment" whose fact-based finding run counter-to their True Beliefs. Bluntly, if Harvard scientists were not proving the existence of say, global warming and undercutting the politically-motivated distortions that global warming skeptics revel in, we would hear a lot less about how "out of touch" the Ivy Leagers are. It is hard to press a political POV if respected researchers are countering your every outlandish claim. In academia, that would be enough to sink those outlandish claims. Fortunately (?), in the real world, you get a cable talk show, an Internet presence and some political activists, then proceed to shout out the inconvenient truth tellers and it's business as usual.

Posted by: chuck2 | May 18, 2010 3:45 PM
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I believe graduates of non-"Ivy" schools such as William and Mary; Washington and Lee and Duke to be just as well-qualified as Hahhhvahhhd and Yale graduates -- for that matter, UVA, George Mason and the University of Tennessee meet that criteria also.

They just hit "fail" with the Yankee establishment.

Posted by: rmlwj1 | May 18, 2010 3:36 PM
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It is unsettling that so many of our Supreme Court picks come from a handful of very similar and elite schools. Is it any wonder that so many of their opinions are out of touch with the mainstream and reality?


I rarely agree with Liberal viewpoints, but I think that this argument has some merit.

I see people running around waving "he went to Yale" or "she went to Harvard" banners like they expect the rest of us to genuflect just based on that.

I think that's crap. I don't care where you went to school 30 years ago. I really don't. I only care about what you've done with your life since then.


Posted by: ZZim | May 18, 2010 3:18 PM
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It seems to me that if the president and the citizenry decide to appoint and/or elect exclusively Ivy League graduates to high office, America will be able to right itself in short order. ;)

Posted by: zephyr99 | May 18, 2010 3:01 PM
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Elitism lives. Wow...stop the presses.

Posted by: uplandermom78 | May 18, 2010 2:52 PM
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The Ivy League is where the best prospective law students go. They remain at the top after graduating. End of story.

Posted by: troisieme | May 18, 2010 2:39 PM
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It is unsettling that so many of our Supreme Court picks come from a handful of very similar and elite schools. Is it any wonder that so many of their opinions are out of touch with the mainstream and reality? Clarence Thomas and George W. Bush are the most glaring examples of the absurdity of ascribing intelligence and common sense to a person solely based upn their academic pedigree (both Yalies, by the way). It's not as if other very good law schools cannot afford copies of the Constitution and access to Westlaw and a good law library. I'd like to see someone who worked his or her way through a good state law school and actually practiced law in private practice on the Supreme Court. Most of the people on the bench now wouldn't even know how to file a bankruptcy petition.

Posted by: PepperDr | May 18, 2010 2:30 PM
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Scalia is bright enough for the ivy league, smart enough to persuade the senate to approve him for the court, and dumb enough to side with Roberts, Alito and Thomas on almost every issue. Clearly, there is a very large gulf between bright and intelligent. It is time for an intelligent court.

Posted by: vinceporter | May 18, 2010 2:10 PM
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I was about to say, "Amen." I agree that having an Ivy League education shouldn't be at the top of the checklist before we move on to other criteria like, oh, experience. But I don't see this as a matter of pursuing diversity, even though one could make the argument that these schools indoctrinate their paduans in the same fashion. My concern is that this a statement that ALL smart people come from Ivy League schools; everyone else is not smart (or smart enough). I don't think this could be further from the truth. Yet, this is increasingly becoming the common thinking. This is elitism at it absolute worst. College degrees have become a way to separate humans into Ralph Laurens versus WalMart brand personnel. It's sickening.

Posted by: forgetthis | May 18, 2010 2:08 PM
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Worse yet, a plurality of New Yorkers! An entire American generation will now find its fate in the hands of one of the least intellectually diverse Supreme Courts in its history - not to mention its complete lack of geographical representation and declining religious diversity. The fears of the Founding Fathers of an elite minority forcing its will on the majority is now firmly established in the governmental branch having lifetime tenure. When are we going to pass a constitutional amendment limiting the terms of service of our Federal judiciary?

Posted by: virtualchemist | May 18, 2010 1:59 PM
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Wonderful article, but will anything change?

Posted by: richardkoehler | May 18, 2010 1:40 PM
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Very good article! Judging from the type of alumni that have come out of the Ivy League schools, I would not place my bets that they are all great picks! Better to have diversity and not have what we see coming out of Harvard and Yale!

Posted by: SeniorVet | May 18, 2010 1:27 PM
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