Let’s not derail MIT from its path of excellence
MIT can do better by improving on diversity during admissions
MIT is the finest research institution in the world, in no small part because of its unwavering commitment to recruiting, admitting, and hiring the best talent in the world, even if that talent comes from less-advantaged or atypical backgrounds. Periodically examining the mechanisms by which the Institute pursues its mission is essential, but those examinations must be grounded in both data and an understanding of the MIT ethos. Brandon Briscoe’s execrable and intellectually dishonest rant against diversity and inclusion at the Institute is neither, serving as a disheartening call to take MIT in precisely the wrong direction. By mischaracterizing MIT’s admission and hiring processes as a de facto quota system, Briscoe effects a brilliant takedown of a straw man of his own creation and manages to cast aspersions on the intellect of every MIT-affiliated woman and underrepresented minority, … all based on little more than a few sloppy citations and the courage of his own biased convictions.
Fundamentally, Briscoe draws a false dilemma between diversity and merit. Unlike wannabe peer institutions, the Institute neither kowtows to pedigree nor slavishly adheres to test scores and GPAs. Briscoe would have MIT break this tradition and emulate the admission process of second-rate institutions, namely by picking the best test scores, GPAs, and AP scores out of a hat. But what do these variables actually measure? An SAT score is a better measure of the wealth of one’s parents than eventual success in college or the labor market. And how can we honestly claim that GPA and AP classes are a fair measure of merit given the gross disparities across schools, which are more racially segregated today than they were before the Civil Rights legislation Briscoe applauds? In our broken and disparate system, the hardest-working, highest-achieving student in a terrible school wouldn’t stand a chance against a middle-of-the-road student in an exceptional school without the incorporation of context into admissions decisions. Similarly, what do we do about the application of the utterly-capable female student who is steered away from AP science classes by her counselors, teachers, and parents? Given these realities, it is clear that Briscoe’s idea of a blind meritocracy is antithetical to his simultaneous calls for fairness and equality. How would it be fair to discount the star student because he went to a bad school? How would it be equitable to ignore the potential of the young woman because societal forces told her she couldn’t be something?
Briscoe refers to discrimination as “past,” which is another egregious oversight. Silly claims of “post-racial” America notwithstanding, racial discrimination is still widespread, as is gender discrimination. We don’t have to look too hard to see evidence of bias. We know that blacks and Latinos were targeted for expensive, dangerous subprime loans during the housing boom and we know that black and Latino homeowners were targeted for foreclosure action during the bust. We know that because of the sad reality of racial segregation, black and Latino children are served by unsatisfactory schools. We know that women are penalized in the workplace for having children when men are not. We know that young girls are discouraged from pursuing careers in science and engineering. The idea that America solved all of these issues with the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights Movement is a fantasy largely perpetuated by those who have something to gain by race and gender discrimination.
Even at MIT, discrimination persists: Briscoe’s article proves that ipso facto. We need not rely on his words, however. The 2011 Report on the Status of Women Faculty in the Schools of Science and Engineering at MIT, for example, is both a story of amazing strides in gender equality at MIT and a sobering report of the prejudice that female faculty face even in 2011. Yet, Briscoe uses the fact that in one year the engineering school hired more women than men as evidence of systematic discrimination against men. He supports this point by noting that women are a minority of MIT graduate students and engineers nationally. The questionable nature of this argument could not be more obvious. Comparing one year of data to the summed result of decades of systematic discrimination against women would be laughable if it were not such a perfect example of the cognitive dissonance driving much of sexism.
Unfortunately, this fallacious argument is just the tip of the iceberg in Briscoe’s article, which takes an intellectually ugly turn when Briscoe reimagines President Hockfield’s decidedly uncontroversial remarks at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration as a claim that MIT is “reserving job positions for certain racial groups” and acting “necessarily at the expense of white and Asian men.” These interpretations are, of course, both false and contrary to Hockfield’s meaning, yet Briscoe practically presents the latter as a direct quotation. Briscoe follows this up with a poor man’s legal analysis of affirmative action based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, declaring that MIT is flouting Federal law. Somehow Briscoe manages to leave out all of the modern case law (cf. Grutter v. Bollinger) that directly contradicts his claims.
At one point, the article brings up the aforementioned Report on the Status of Women Faculty, cherry-picks the one quotation within reasonable Hamming distance of supporting his argument, and distorts it until it does. He makes unfounded claims about women being overrepresented on committees and brazenly quotes a woman out of context, implying that she claimed that her gender is an advantage in certain fields at MIT. This is false. Upon actually reading the report, it’s clear that the person was not speaking about her experience within MIT. As a matter of fact, the very same paragraph contains a quote from another woman who says: “[My] field is brutal and sexist. You talk to senior colleagues and they want to talk about anything but science — life, how you look.”
After perfunctory “don’t shoot the messenger” hedging, Briscoe reaches the climax of his “fairness and equality” concern trolling when he not-so-subtly implies that women and people of color admitted to or hired by MIT are less than qualified. Clearly, he has not done more than superficial research into the MIT admissions process, which only chooses admits from a pool of applicants preselected to be qualified and capable. Race and gender are taken into consideration around the same time the admissions committee is just about at coin-flipping time, comparing Putnam Fellows to Intel Science Talent Search winners. Relatedly, Briscoe claims that affirmative action makes women and minorities question whether they deserve to be at MIT. The irony of his claim becomes even too much for him to take as he later admits that the real reason women and minorities have these concerns is the bias and suspicion fomented and harbored by people like him.
In a world where discrimination is a constant social fact and measuring merit is ambiguous, MIT is positioned to do a great deal of good by acknowledging the limitations of relying solely on quantitative measures such as SAT and GPA and incorporating more nuanced data into admissions and hiring decisions. Not only will this make MIT a richer, more diverse learning environment, which is a good in itself, but by refusing to ignore excellent but otherwise marginalized applicants, MIT will be doing a service to society by breaking the cycle of disadvantage inheritance. Briscoe’s stance is not only ignorant of the realities of race and gender, it is implicitly content with the status quo of the inheritance and sequestration of privilege.
The naïve, Briscoe approach to admissions and hiring would entail an abrogation of MIT’s core values making it all but certain that MIT would miss out on the best and brightest unless they happen to look like him. That’s neither fairness, equality, nor meritocracy, but mere intellectual sloth, unworthy of the Institute.
Jacob Faber graduated in 2004 with a Bachelor’s in Management in Science. Pius Uzamere graduated in 2004 with a Bachelor’s in Computer Science. Uzamere was UA president, and Faber his VP.