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(Not) Making a Case of It

Guest Column
Sarah Ferguson

I have been following with interest and amusement the controversy regarding MIT’s admission of discrimination against its female tenured faculty in the Department of Science, discussed in Richard Stone’s March 14 Tech column, “The Fiction of Social Justice.”

Stone speaks as if it were a criminal trial we were discussing -- and, from what I can gather, Judith Kleinfeld’s critique focuses on the validity of the “study” as a work of science, in the field of sociology. I’m sure it is much more fun to play dress-up, and imagine ourselves embroiled in some grand courtroom drama --but have you ever seen people stand up in small-claims court, expecting the judge to apply the same strict legal criteria in their altogether minor complaint, as would be applied in a murder trial?

We are talking neither of a major criminal case nor of a major sociological study. We are talking of a policy decision that has much of the flavor of a union negotiation. The rules applied in a murder case are not the same as those applied in small-claims court. The rules applied in a major study of heart disease are not the same as those applied in the case of a public policy report. The situations are different, and the standards which are appropriate and useful in one are not necessarily appropriate -- or even workable -- in another.

Science can afford to wait until the necessary information is available -- law cannot. So the rules in a court of law are, in a certain sense, less strict than those applied in science. Still, in major legal cases, a person’s life or freedom may be on the line, and so the rules are by no means lax -- but in more minor cases, less is at stake. Law therefore has a continuum of rules, each considered appropriate to the particular stakes involved. When it comes to public policy, however, decision-makers simply do the best they can. We give public policy-makers the same leeway and individual choice as we give to the judge in a small claims court. We expect that they will strive to do right, but we ask no more of them than that they make a sincere attempt to examine the issue from all sides, to obtain whatever information is available, and to listen closely to the voice of their conscience.

The Kleinfeld report, challenged on the grounds of inadequate proof in the legal and scientific senses, was never intended as a “study” in the sense that applies to reports published in scientific journals. It was a policy report. Such reports often contain factual information and data obtained in the process of conducting due diligence. The purpose of presenting the data is not as “proof” of anything, but rather is intended to illustrate how, and on what basis, the policy makers came to make the decision that they made.

One thing that distinguishes the process of policy decision-making from the scientific process is that policy decisions often are made -- of necessity -- in the absence of the kind of information that would be necessary to “prove” a situation to be one thing or another. Nor would it make sense for public policy be subject to the same innocent-until-proven-guilty constraint that applies in a court of law. Thus, public policy decisions, as a rule, are made in a predictive sense, and almost always on the basis of information that is not at all sufficient to guarantee that the decision will necessarily turn out, in the end, to have been the wisest.

In an earlier article, the issue was raised, as it is again here, that those who brought the complaint, and who testified, stood to gain personally from the decision that was made. In addition, Stone implied that the motivation of the administrators involved was also questionable -- MIT might be pandering to the female faculty. This is a very serious accusation -- far more serious than the accusation of mere discrimination. It accuses the MIT administration of abuses of the sort that constitute outright corruption. And yet, this accusation was made without any attempt whatsoever, other than innuendo, to back it up.

When the MIT women faculty felt they were being discriminated against, they did not merely insinuate that there was a problem -- and trust that the winds now generally in favor of feminism would carry the day. They took the time and effort to diligently gather evidence in support of their position.

Maybe some people think a better job of this could have been done -- or that the results should have been made public, even if it meant printing every faculty member’s salary and space allotment for all to see and publicly critique. Though, if anyone has motivation to keep these personal matters private, it is those who stand to lose the if the matter were discussed openly -- and such a person would not likely raise the issue as the women faculty did. Thus, it may well be a kindness of the women faculty that they have not insisted on a full disclosure of just who it was who was hogging the space that they felt should rightly be shared more equally.

Nevertheless, the attempt was made to actually explore what was the case -- rather than simply flinging mud. Furthermore, why are we so upset when a group that MIT has in fact explicitly stated it wishes to recruit makes a request for improvement in working conditions? If one has issue with the notion that it should be necessary or desirable to recruit women faculty in the first place, then that is the argument that one should address. To target the present issue instead is to beat around the bush.

MIT’s women faculty were unhappy, and they, collectively, “asked for a raise” -- and MIT decided to grant it to them. This is hardly behavior of questionable ethics. Such negotiations happen all the time, both on an individual and collective (i.e., union) level. Indeed, one may well surmise that if there is a salary inequity (as many suppose), and if men really are more “pushy” and demanding, when it comes to salary raises and other perqs -- then “discrimination” might well come about merely because women don’t ask for all of these “special” treatments.

That MIT would decide, in addition, to make public apology for having permitted such a situation to arise in the first place -- a situation in which its women faculty were unhappy enough to protest, en masse, their treatment -- shows, I feel, a great deal of dignity. It is MIT’s bravery in the face, not only of nay-sayers like Judith Kleinfeld and Richard Stone, but also in the face of those within the feminist movement, who could well make hay out of such an admission on MIT’s part, that makes me proud to be an alumna. And MIT has a long history of such actions, on behalf of a many issues of importance, of which this presently under discussion is only one.

MIT has a reputation for being unafraid to speak its truth -- even when such truth is an apology for wrongs it feels it has done. There are not many large institutions of which that could be said. If those who disapprove of the MIT administration’s choice are willing to work diligently, and to attempt to grouse out something -- anything -- in support of the contention that the decision really was unfair, or that the process leading up to it really did involve corruption, I’m all for it.

But if you don’t have evidence, (Judith Kleinfeld included), and you’re not willing to do the groundwork to back your insinuations then just shut up, lest others begin to question your motivations in pressing the matter. Making lots of noise and prancing about as if you were talking about a serious criminal case, or a major scientific study -- when in fact all you are talking about is that MIT has decided that it is sad that its women faculty are unhappy and wants to provide redress for this unfortunate situation -- only makes you look foolish.

Sarah Ferguson is a member of the Class of 1985.