After 150 years, MIT is heading in the wrong direction with affirmative action
The policy for hiring women and underrepresented minorities hurts MIT’s mission of being merit-based institution
A key question brought up at the recent MIT Diversity Summit, and the MLK Jr. annual breakfast, was how can MIT balance excellence with diversity? It has been commonly noted that students and faculty alike perceive tension within the Institute between the frequent appeals for increased diversity, and the culture of hard work and meritocracy that make MIT what it is. This question received heavy emphasis in the 2010 Report on the Initiative for Faculty Race and Diversity. One of the final statements of that report was that, “While almost everyone at MIT would like the Institute to be an institution of merit and inclusion, it will be difficult to reach this ideal if race and ethnicity are ignored and presumed irrelevant.”
For the good of the Institute, I feel compelled to rephrase this — while almost everyone at MIT would like the Institute to be an institution of merit and inclusion, it will be difficult to reach this ideal if race, ethnicity, and gender continue to play such a big role in the social engineering agenda of the administration of MIT.
This agenda actively pursued across the Institute — the goals of which are to dramatically increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities in the student and faculty body at MIT, and thereby to attempt to increase nationwide participation by the same in STEM fields — is well-intentioned, but eroding not only the meritocracy at MIT, but the quality of experience that these same females, minority students, and faculty experience here.
To anyone who claims that MIT’s affirmative action policies only focus on outreach recruiting but do not provide preference in admissions, faculty hiring, or positions, and therefore do not discriminate, then please explain the following: last spring, a gloating announcement was made by the interim dean of the School of Engineering stating that, for the first time ever, more women than men were hired for faculty positions that year. Compare this with the fact that in 2011 women comprised only 26 percent of the graduate student body in the MIT School of Engineering, and only 11 percent of career engineers nationally. Unless we conclude that the female student and postdoc engineering population is vastly more qualified then their male peers, which we have no reason to believe, then clearly there is more going on at MIT than just “attracting” more female faculty. The same can be said for racial and ethnic considerations.
There is more concrete evidence of the way in which affirmative action at MIT really works. At the MLK Jr. breakfast this year, President Hockfield stated, “We need to engineer a set of underlying institutional mechanisms, expectations, habits, and rhythms that make diversity and inclusion simply part of what we work on here, every day.” She then went further to point out that, as reported by MIT News, the School of Science is identifying new funds to expand its pool of URM faculty. Wait a second — last time I checked, reserving job positions for certain racial groups is blatantly against federal law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits not only intentional discrimination, but also practices that have the effect of discriminating against individuals because of their race in any aspect of employment including: hiring and firing, recruitment, and training and apprenticeship programs. Can you imagine the outrage if President Hockfield stated that the School of Science was raising funding specifically for hiring more white faculty?
MIT claims to be a fair, equitable, inclusive, and merit-based institution. Yet, when the powers that be at this institute essentially declare that, “We are doing everything we can to admit, hire, and promote more women and underrepresented minorities, necessarily at the expense of white and Asian men” — and we compare this to the definition of discrimination: “Treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of, a person based on the group, class, or category to which that person belongs rather than on individual merit,” then how is MIT not being discriminatory and hypocritical?
The affirmative action plan at MIT is instituted in different ways. Officially, MIT uses policies such as “7.1.3 Affirmative Action Serious Search,” which mandates special recruiting and hiring consideration processes for women and underrepresented minorities. Unofficially, affirmative action is achieved by giving preference in admissions and hiring. To anyone who wants to argue about the latter claim, I think hiring statistics like those I presented earlier and the statements of the administration speak for themselves. Either way, both of these practices are illegal under the law.
Don’t get me wrong, every student and faculty member that I have ever met at MIT have the intelligence and ambition to “deserve” to be here — but when admissions boards and faculty hiring committees start placing racial and gender goals high on their list, then the culture of fairness and merit go by the wayside. Additionally, the salience of the constant push for more women and underrepresented minorities at MIT has actually in some ways hurt the same people these policies were meant to assist. Many women and minorities at MIT report feeling that they don’t know whether or not they “deserve to be here” and feel like they are perceived with such suspicions by their white and Asian male colleagues. The unfortunate reality is that as long as race, ethnicity, and gender play a large role in admissions and hiring, then such thoughts and assumptions will never go away, nor can they.
Reverse discrimination at MIT goes beyond admissions and hiring, it also affects preference for committee positions, promotions, awards, and invitations for speaking engagements. As an example of this, in the most recent Institute report on the Status of Women Faculty in the Schools of Science and Engineering at MIT in 2011, many women faculty complained that overrepresentation of women on committees has become burdensome. “All of the committees are supposed to have a woman, but there are not enough women to go around. It is crazy,” was one of the quotes in the report. The irony here is that the reason women are overrepresented on committees in 2011 is that this was a recommendation from the 1999 MIT report “A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT,” which stated that women faculty should be on more committees as a means to achieving power equity.
I concur with the woman who observed the “crazy” in these policies; the artificial push for more women and minorities in anything and everything at MIT, regardless of whether or not there is any discrimination to be overcome, is crazy. Not only that, but it has become in some ways counterproductive to the very goals these policies are meant to achieve. The fact is that both recent Institute reports regarding diversity at MIT found zero evidence of any systematic discrimination against women or minorities, and not only that, but the reports inadvertently highlight evidence that MIT diversity policies might be giving preferential treatment. The 2011 report on women stated that, “Indeed, a subset of faculty suggested that it can be helpful to be a woman in a field: ‘I have definitely found it to be advantageous to be a woman and get speaking slots.’” This theme of preference seems pervasive across the Institute.
As a white male, how am I supposed to feel anything but discriminated against and offended by MIT’s policies of preference and “inclusiveness” for everyone but me? Furthermore, how does such reverse discrimination further the core mission of MIT?
For the good of everyone, MIT needs to stop obsessing over gender and race, and start refocusing on merit and true equity, fairness, and inclusiveness. Some contend that affirmative action measures are necessary to overcome past discrimination, but does fighting past discrimination with reverse discrimination ever achieve the stated goal of ending discrimination altogether? I call for fairness, equality, and meritocracy. If MIT accepts that, then it will certainly be a great institution for another 150 years, if not, then I have my doubts.
Brandon Briscoe is a senior in Courses 15 and 17.