A Well-Rounded Experience for All
Guest Column Jim Berry
Stacey E. Blau's recent attack on affirmative action ["Taking In the Scenery," Sept. 23] focuses on the fact that affirmative action promotes the "less than qualified." She argues that affirmative action subverts the traditional system of merit and replaces it with one where rewards are gender- or race-oriented. Blau also suggests that it's very difficult for a minority to determine to what extent his or her race played in achieving success.
Let's get the facts straight. While MIT does have an affirmative action policy, women and minorities admitted here are just as qualified as anyone else. Affirmative action at MIT has two main parts: recruiting and admissions. MIT recruits prospective women and minority students more heavily than it does other students. Doing so has nothing to do with discrimination or "less than qualified" admissions practices. It simply means that MIT wants a diverse campus, so it tries to attract qualified students who will add something to the institution but who might not otherwise apply.
The admissions process only has a an affirmative action system for minorities, not women. According to Marilee Jones, Interim Director of Admissions, "we are committed to accepting every qualified minority applicant." Out of the fraction of applicants who are qualified, MIT accepts all minorities. But MIT rejects everyone who isn't qualified to do the work.
MIT needs diversity to survive as a top-notch institution. It is important that students from a variety of backgrounds can come to MIT and learn not only from professors, but from each other. Having diversity in backgrounds, thoughts, experiences, and cultures helps to provide everyone here with a well-rounded experience.
This is not to say, however, that all affirmative action-related programs at MIT are perfect. There are programs that definitely could use reform. Take Interphase, for instance. Interphase is a pre-freshman year summer program for enrolled minority students. It exposes them to MIT's general science program, as well as writing and physical education classes.
According to Associate Dean and Director of the Office of Minority Education Leo Osgood, Jr., Interphase is necessary because, from a minority perspective, there are "still forces here that inhibit success." Minority students face low expectations from their professors and peers. They must also face the fact that, because of the way the term "affirmative action" is used in pop culture, their academic prowess is always in question. Interphase is necessary to give minority students a "head start" at MIT.
Unfortunately, a program Interphase perpetuates the exact problems it attempts to redress. By providing an opportunity only to minority students, it promotes the image that minority students aren't as prepared or qualified for MIT than other students. Some people feel that Interphase is just used as a cover-up for under-qualified minority students. In fact, it isn't. As stated earlier, minority students are just as qualified to do the work here as anyone else.
In addition, Interphase contributes to the problem of self-segregation at MIT. Students often establish their personal relationships along cultural lines. When people first arrive as freshmen, their first experience with the Institute heavily influences the rest of their time here. By exposing minorities to a minority-exclusive event upon arrival, Interphase sets in motion an a system of separation, not integration. According to Osgood, personal relationships at MIT are formed partly by system, partly by choice. While self-segregation can reflect a student's right to choose his or her own associations, MIT is not right to feed such tendencies through its programs.
Opening Interphase to students of all races would help ease these problems. Students could be selected for Interphase not because of their association with a particular group, but because of their relative preparation for MIT. MIT admits people who have potential, but some are better prepared than others. This way Interphase would become a "head start" for all those who need it, not just minorities. Program XL, a freshman tutoring program run through the OME, admits students of all cultures, and achieves its goals successfully without the negative effects that Interphase has.
We have a good affirmative action system at MIT, but that doesn't mean that there aren't racially-oriented problems that we must address. Racism, self-segregation, and a failure to diversify the faculty still loom over our heads. Programs like Interphase which only worsen these problems should be reformed. Finally, students must accept the fact that we all belong here and we were all admitted primarily because somebody in the admissions office thinks we can do the work.
Jim Berry is a member of the Class of 1999.