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Gender Affirmation: MIT Still Uninformed on Affirmative Action

Anders Hove

Many MIT students would be surprised to learn that the Institute's affirmative action policy has been wildly successful at attracting the best women in the country. It has done so without lowering admissions standards or changing the curriculum. And yet, MIT students know little about MIT's affirmative action policy, successful or not.

Gary Bass, investigating for The New Republic, confirms this assertion. "Nearly every [MIT woman] I interviewed said she thought she'd been held to lower admission standards." This is surprising, because in reality women are held to the same high standards as other applicants. And when it comes to academics, MIT women slightly outperform MIT men, not to mention that they are much more likely to complete the undergraduate program than male entrants.

What is MIT affirmative action, and why is it successful? Affirmative action here has nothing to do with quotas or different standards. Affirmative action only comes into play during the recruitment process. MIT aggressively recruits women, underrepresented minorities, and "academic superstars" starting in grade school. Because of this recruitment, many qualified women apply to MIT, whereas they often do not apply to other universities that ignore recruiting. Therein lies our success.

The distinction between aggressive recruiting and different admissions standards seems simple enough to me. Why is there so much misinformation and misunderstanding about MIT affirmative action if the policy is so straightforward? Why do undergraduates persist in the belief that admissions standards are different when the facts are repeatedly and blatantly brought before them? I believe there are two explanations.

First, MIT students are recruited from mainstream American society; they hold the same stereotypes about women and minorities that other Americans do. Many schools have used quotas in the past, and anecdotal horror stories about reverse discrimination are commonly known. People come to MIT believing that all affirmative action involves quotas or, barring that, skewed admissions standards. Information to the contrary fails to persuade because it simply does not jibe with the stereotypes that are out there.

Although societal perceptions certainly exist, they cannot explain all of the misinformation about affirmative action. More fundamentally, the Institute's recruitment process fails to inform students about what type of education they should expect from MIT. Many people at MIT would agree that the Institute admits the smartest people and tries to give them a technical education. There is an element of truth to this: students are smart, and the curriculum does concentrate on science and technology. Yet the MIT faculty consider that the Institute's mission is to give the student a general life education, one that is not constrained to a student's narrow technical interests. Passion for academics is part of an MIT education, but not the central part, in spite of what many students believe.

Because of this misconception, students are likely to conclude that their peers were selected based only on their academic records or college board scores. MIT tries to admit people who have the ability to succeed socially as well as academically. Achievement at MIT means participation in the community, membership in activities, and the ability to interact positively with one's peers.

The misunderstanding of affirmative action at MIT is a widespread phenomenon. To a large extent, this misunderstanding is an indictment of the education we receive here. The faculty's goal is to provide a broad, overall education, yet students cannot take full advantage of the curriculum outside of academics if they remain unaware of its purpose. As long as students hold such wild misconceptions about race, gender, and the purpose of an MIT education, we cannot call our affirmative action policy a success.