Achieving Meritocracy a Struggle, Race Report Says

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Percent of minority faculty who responded affirmatively to the question “In your daily encounters on the MIT campus, has anyone ever assumed that you were a student, support staff or trespasser?” Hispanic women are not included because of their small numbers.
Source: Report on the Initiative for Faculty Race and Diversity
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Underrepresented minorities hired from 1991–2009, by department. (Dual hires are counted at 50 percent in each department.)
Source: Report on the Initiative for Faculty Race and Diversity

Two colleagues admonished him once for drinking beer at his first faculty meeting, mistaking an energy drink for alcohol, he tells the interviewers. Another participant confesses that he deliberately places books in his office as evidence to visitors of his academic qualifications. Others complain that they are misidentified as custodians.

“That’s what it’s like being black, day-to-day,” at MIT, said an anonymous minority faculty member, as part of a series of interviews conduced by the Initiative for Faculty Race and Diversity to examine the experience of minority faculty.

These episodes serve as shocking reminders of the potential for misunderstanding and the ignorance surrounding race, as documented in the Diversity Initiative’s recently-released report.

At an institution where only six percent of faculty members are minorities, such incidents shed light on the minority faculty experience, one where subtle racial judgments sometimes marginalize and isolate minority faculty members.

Inequities do exist in the experiences of minority versus non-minority faculty members, which contribute to a sometimes negative climate, the report concluded. Even with recent efforts to increase levels of diversity among faculty, the overall environment at MIT is one where minority faculty do not always feel appreciated or included.

The report focused specifically on the recruitment, mentoring, and promotion to tenure of minority faculty, examining the academic environment and culture that exists at MIT. Drawing upon the research and successes in departments at MIT and other universities, the report also includes several recommendations to improve diversity.

Some findings are encouraging and attest to MIT’s commitment to diversity. For example, no salary disparities exist among similarly-qualified faculty members; non-tenured minority faculty express more satisfaction with their lives than non-tenured non-minority faculty; and the numbers of diverse faculty are increasing after a 2004 faculty resolution to double the percentage of minority faculty within a decade.

Still, surveyed tenured minority faculty expressed more dissatisfaction than their white or Asian tenured peers, the report said. Some minorities expressed concern that they experienced exclusion in terms of resources and mentoring which the tenure process did not adequately credit them for, and others were concerned about being labeled the “token minority.”

Regardless of whatever subtle level of racial bias exists on campus however, ultimately open discourse on race and active inclusion by all will improve and avail the community.

Meritocracy at core

What role diversity has, and should have, at an institution which values merit and ability above all else overshadowed the findings of the report. Given MIT’s scientific base and relentless push for objectivity, some faculty, minority and non-minority alike, regard race as irrelevant to achievements, according to the report.

“Ideally, in a meritocracy, people should be blind to race and gender. Why does that matter? All that matters is how good you are by some measure,” said one minority faculty in one of the report’s interviews.

But resting comfortably on the idea that MIT is a meritocracy ignores the immediate fact that disparity still exists. “Although the meritocracy concept presents an appropriate ideal, tension is created by the presumption that true meritocracy is already achieved at MIT,” the report said.

Hidden biases, subjectivity, and assumptions can still plague how minority faculty members are evaluated. “It is not possible to proclaim a fully meritocratic process when our society presents innate biases to which all can be susceptible on some level,” said the report.

“The idea of meritocracy is something that everyone at MIT embraces. There’s not a problem with the concept, the issue is that when we execute it we can’t guarantee that we have actually included everyone in the pool,” said Paula T. Hammond ’84, chair of the Diversity Initiative.

Excellence and diversity

Whether including race as a factor for jobs causes less-qualified applicants to be chosen is an issue that has long-plagued the nation, and it is also a concern at MIT. While most non-minority faculty supported statements that diversity is good for the community, the report also found that “the anticipation from some members of the community that the intentional inclusion or recruitment of a minority faculty member might, in some cases, represent a lowering of standards is one that can yield negative experiences for [minority] faculty even before their career has begun.”

Race and excellence do not reside as an either-or situation, the report said, but instead exist independently of each other. The obstacle at hand is that many faculty members focus on only one measure of excellence, and, according to the report, demanding one type of eminence undermines the efforts of those succeeding in other areas.

“To insist on orthodoxy stifles one of the pillars of MIT which is to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship of ideas,” said a minority faculty member interviewed in the report.

The report, in turn, echoed the sentiment: “In particular, the tendency to use two or three highly defined metrics as a means of evaluating quality can lead to a more myopic view of excellence.” An underlying idea in the report is that diversity not only includes race, but also background, talents, and accomplishments, and maintaining a restricted view of excellence is limiting and causes qualified applicants to be missed.

The notion that diversity and excellence are inversely linked still exists on campus, and there are indications that some non-minority faculty believe it is the case.

“The MIT faculty also pose a real problem. Some faculty have strong opposition to anything that they view or label as ‘affirmative action’ and have no commitment to diversity,” read notes from a discussion at a minority faculty forum quoted in the report.

“The persistence of this notion among MIT faculty is quite irritating, but is part of the pushback from majority faculty on attempts to increase the diversity,” read notes from another such forum.

‘Climate of silence’

Many faculty members are uncomfortable discussing race at MIT, which limits open discourse on these issues and stifles productive changes, the report found.

The report found that presumptions that science and academics are not affected by race can have negative effects. “Science is often presented as though individual and group characteristics — including but not limited to race — are irrelevant. What is important is one’s scientific acumen and talent. But the best intentions of neutrality can backfire,” the report stated.

“I think many of our faculty that are not minorities often don’t fully appreciate the nuances of what it is to be a minority … racism is more subtle now. I’ve never experienced a place as good as MIT but there can still be a problem …. The perception that ‘it’s a lot better now so we can throttle back our attention and effort’ is uninformed, inappropriate,” said one minority faculty member in an interview.

To break down the awkwardness that faculty members feel about discussing race openly, settings of active discussion must be established, the report recommends. Inviting respected scholars to speak on the issue can also help ease these tensions.

“By engaging a number of our faculty in more direct conversation and including a number of our lead faculty in these kinds of conversations, we can begin to break down some of this awkwardness,” said Hammond.