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Campus Delude Weekend: Diversity at MIT Can Only Improve Through Inclusion, Not Separation

Zareena Hussain

In 1996, after public and acrimonious debate, California voters approved Proposition 209. This new law required the state to bar the consideration of race, sex or ethnicity in the public sector.

The fallout of that decision is now most clearly demonstrated at California's public universities. Most notably, the percentage of under-represented minority students admitted to the University of California at Berkeley dropped by more than ten percent from a year ago, when Proposition 209 had yet to be approved.

To some, this result is vindication; to others, it is disturbing. It should make us all pause and reflect upon the impact of affirmative action in our own lives.

Despite the controversy in California, the question about whether affirmative action should exist at MIT has been answered, at least for now, by the long-standing commitment of the administration to affirmative action. The statement that there are inequalities within society that must be rectified has been accepted, and affirmative action has become an accepted way to rectify them.

The most noticeable manifestation of affirmative action at MIT is upon us now: Campus Preview Weekend. This event is a testament to the progress that has been made in the politics of inclusion. However, it is also indicative of how affirmative action is failing to achieve the combined goals of diversity while lifting the subset of traditionally under-represented and marginalized groups.

When I came to campus preview weekend two years ago, I didn't mind the esteem-boosting rhetoric. The repeated cries of "you didn't get in her by mistake," and "you are all excellent" were expected; I would have been surprised to not hear them.

But there is a disturbing side to the existence of Campus Preview Weekend. The fact that half of the admitted class was not invited to Campus Preview Weekend should in itself be enough evidence. Instead of achieving goals of diversity and integration, the weekend sends a message to admitted women and minority students that they must be sheltered from those not who are not within certain groups. It allows students to close themselves off from a significant portion of their future society, if only for a weekend.

What is worse, it says that division is acceptable and almost desired if one is a woman or under-represented minority. Especially problematical are events listed as "for minorities only." How can such policies of exclusion result in a society that is all-inclusive?

It would be simplistic to say that MIT is playing a numbers game when it comes to the admission of women and minorities and their viewed role at the Institute. The Institute is not simply paying lip service to affirmative action; it is trying to make improvements. But it is apparent that in addressing issues of inequality it is making a superficial attempt. There are simply not enough concrete steps being taken.

Beyond the self-esteem boost women and minorities receive, there is little substance. The separation between men and women, minority and non-minority continues. Division defines the Orientation experience and extends into one's freshman year and even, if one so chooses, the rest of one's years at MIT.

In addition, women and minorities are assured that there will be strong academic and other support during their years at MIT. These assurances often don't pan out. This is partially because of the general under-staffing and underfunding of support resources such as Counseling and Support Services and academic advising. But it is also because of a lack of understanding that admitting a woman or under-represented minority is simply not enough to battle inequality. More must be done to create programs and networks of support, not just free-standing offices scattered in places where those who need them can never find them.

Instead of making the hard sell, filled with its superficial rhetoric, MIT must try hard to give students an optimistic but more realistic view of the Institute. Armed with that picture, the groups of students that traditionally haven't come here will be able to succeed.