Opinion guest column

On excellence and diversity

Through diversity, MIT will be made stronger

As a Mexican-American alumna of MIT, I feel comforted by Brandon Briscoe’s admission that “don’t get me wrong, every student and faculty member I have ever met at MIT …deserve[s] to be here.” I’m relieved that the Institute policies which “erode the meritocracy at MIT” somehow allowed me and other appropriately qualified minorities into the school.

I am also touched that Briscoe is concerned about the “quality of experience that these same females, minority students, and faculty experience here.” Did Briscoe actually read the Report on the Initiative for Faculty and Race Diversity? If he had, he might have thought a little bit harder about the attitudes and ideas he expressed in his column, which to me seem to confirm — rather than disprove — the need for affirmative action policies at the Institute. He also might have avoided coming across as someone who understands very little about the minority experience at MIT.

First, regarding his defensive claim that recent Institute reports regarding diversity at MIT “found zero evidence of any systematic discrimination against women or minorities.” To be more accurate, he should have replaced the word “systematic” with “official.” Of course there is no official discrimination against a group that comprises a mere six percent of the total faculty. Why waste time officially discriminating against a group that already experiences the subtle and often overlooked effects of racism at MIT and their respective communities?

Does it bother Briscoe that, according to the Report, “a shocking 42 percent” of black male faculty report being mistaken as trespassers? Or that the URM faculty respondents reported feeling marginalized? I suppose these facts are of little importance to him. Or maybe they are acceptable to him because in his eyes women and minorities are the beneficiaries of “reverse discrimination.”

Which brings me to my next point: Assigning moral equivalence to our country’s legacy of racism and discrimination against minorities and women (and the resulting disenfranchisement of and exclusion of these groups from higher education) with policies to address underrepresentation of minorities and women in higher education is, at best, thoughtless; at worst, deceitful. Briscoe points to the so-called advantage of being a woman to obtain speaking slots as if this is some kind of pivotal evidence for “pervasive preference” for women and minorities. Is this a joke?

Furthermore, as the Report pointed out, there is already the acknowledged tension between “excellence and diversity.” It should go without saying that the range of human talent and intelligence (as well as all other human traits, positive and negative) spans across all races, nationalities, and ethnicities. MIT’s job is to find the most excellent people, whatever group they belong to, and to make efforts to include groups that have traditionally been marginalized in society.

The challenge of doing this, of course, lies in the fact that people do not exist in a vacuum. Opportunity is not handed out equally — due to socioeconomic forces that are beyond the scope of this piece: discrimination in housing, jobs, varying education opportunities, and access to health care, etc. The myth of pure meritocracy, the concept of which is a thinly veiled, too frequently used, counterargument to efforts to include minorities and women in various organizations, only distracts from the issue and betrays Briscoe’s unconscious assumption that minorities admitted to MIT are less qualified than their non-minority peers — which might be why he took time to reassure us that he believes everyone “deserves to be here.” (It’s unclear to me how everyone is qualified now but will not be in 150 years.)

He writes that “such thoughts and assumptions [about whether minorities and women are qualified enough to be at MIT] will never go away, nor can they.” While the self-doubt that minorities and women experience is a well-documented phenomenon, to point this out as if it is somehow proof of the wrongness of affirmative action policies is mean-spirited. Briscoe seems all too willing to hold on to this assumption to the point of subtle threat: You are never going to be good enough in my eyes as long as the Institute makes you a priority. What he fails to recognize is that this self-doubt is also an outgrowth of the cultural and racial experiences of minorities. As if the psyches of entire groups of people can be attributed solely to MIT’s affirmative action policy!

In the end, I’m not surprised that as a white male Briscoe is “offended” by the focus on minorities and women. After all, when you belong to a racial group that has traditionally maintained a comfortable majority in society, business, higher education, and politics, and that majority is losing ground as evidence by the growing numbers of minorities in the population, of course you’re going to feel threatened by other groups wanting (and deserving) their fair share of involvement.

Also, if there are X number of faculty slots available, and more of them go to minorities, of course fewer are going to go to whites and Asians. This is the simple math that is reality, not injustice.

Why shouldn’t the face of MIT look more like the population at large? Briscoe condescendingly claims that “for the good of everyone, MIT needs to stop obsessing over gender and race.”

Rather, for the good of everyone, we need to acknowledge our individual biases and difficulty with issues of race, the tensions between racial groups, that MIT is a microcosm of our larger society, and that true fairness means including everyone, seeking out talent in all places, and making our campus more welcoming for people of all backgrounds — not maintaining the antiquated system of privilege and power for some groups and turning a blind eye to the factors and injustices that exclude others.

Christine Casas graduated in 2004 with a Bachelor’s in Biology.

1 Comment
Laura over 11 years ago

You are awesome.