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Campus Profile -- President Charles M. Vest

Vest discusses MIT’s commitment to keeping race as a factor in college admissions

By Eun J. Lee

features Editor

President Charles M. Vest has been a voice for MIT in national discussions on race and openness in institutions of higher education, particularly in science and engineering. Vest is also active in race relations on campus; he formed the Committee on Campus Race Relations in 1994. Next Friday, Vest will represent private universities across the country at a Washington press conference defending the University of Michigan’s use of race in admissions.

TT: Why does MIT feel that affirmative action is still necessary, and what will have to happen for it to be phased out?

Vest: This is a topic where it’s hard to be succinct, but let me at least try. The very term “affirmative action” is sort of a flash point because everybody carries their own definition and their own mental model. Some are very technical, legal, mechanical -- counting numbers, checking boxes. Other people, closer to the perspective I have, simply believe that institutions need to think overtly about the nature of their student bodies and the state of our society and to try to improve it. So let me start from that perspective, and I’m going to talk about the Michigan case for a minute because MIT is going to play a role in this.

As you know, in 1978, the Supreme Court decided a case called [Regents of the] University of California v. Bakke. ... By a very narrow decision, they chose not to [strike down any consideration of race in the admission of students] and they promulgated a decision, written by Justice Powell, that said universities and colleges may consider race as one of many factors, and that’s the absolute key phrase -- one of many factors -- in structuring a class and admitting students. This is often called ... “race sensitive” admission policy, and that is a philosophy and a policy base that we do follow at MIT. To us, that is the important thing -- that the government not take away from us the right to consider race as one of many factors when we admit students.

Now, because of our belief in this and because our policies are consistent, we are filing an amicus brief on behalf of the university, and I will represent the private universities of the country at the press conference next Friday in Washington when a huge number of friend of the court briefs will be announced.

We want to make the following points in our brief. Number one, that we concur with the University of Michigan that the diversity of a student body is a positive factor in the quality of education and experience of all students on the campus. That is a very fundamental point that will be made by virtually everybody associated with that side of the case. In addition, we want to make clear that we believe that this is also true in education that emphasizes science and engineering and that we have a responsibility to build the diversity of the United States work force in science and engineering and the future leadership of these fields. Consequently, we will be joined, that is, we will have other institutions signing our brief. ...

So if you look at MIT, we get this huge number of almost equally qualified young men and women applying, if by qualification you are referring to their SAT scores and grades and class ranks. Imagine the task of having to accept 15 percent or so of that group. We don’t want to rob people of their identities, and race and culture and economic status and whether you’re from a big city or a little town -- all these things are important components of who these students are and what they have to offer and what advantages they’ve had or obstacles they’ve overcome ... Risk-taking and demonstrable passion for particular intellectual pursuits, all of these things we try to take into account as we read the cases and decide who we’ll actually offer admissions to.

One of the other points that we will make in our brief is that one of the most fundamental academic decisions a faculty makes is who should study in their university, and we don’t believe that it’s appropriate for the federal government to take all of these important factors that define people and remove one of them and say “you can consider everything, but you can’t consider this.” So that’s why we do these things. And if one wants to use the term affirmative action for that, so be it, but we think race consciousness along with consciousness of many other factors is what we attempt to do and what we, I think, do pretty darn well.

Race continues to matter in America. We all wish that weren’t the case, but it is. I don’t know how to answer the question “when will the need go away.” I think we’ll know when we’ve finally arrived at that point, but what I cannot accept is people just pretending that we have arrived at that point and that we can now neglect it, because I don’t believe we can.

TT: Some opponents of affirmative action argue that it’s wrong because it causes “reverse racism” and that people who are not minorities are put at a disadvantage. Do you feel that is the case with MIT and the students that it offers admissions to?

Vest: ... The fact is that when you array this whole pool of thousands of young men and women who apply to [colleges], you are really trying to judge them as individuals and consider all of these characteristics. Now if you want to build a class that has reasonable [geographic] representation ... and you want to have some reasonable distribution of race in the pool, then by definition, the probability that an individual who meets one of those criteria will be admitted is going to be higher than the probability of an individual who does not meet that criteria -- just because you have a large pool defining some of those sets and smaller pools defining the other sets.... The real point is that [admissions are] subjective. We don’t have a quota, we don’t have a formula, we don’t assign points, but these are factors that we think about and I think if you were to look at the whole structure of a class, you would see that they are very diverse in this broad set of things.

The Tech: What is MIT doing in response to tighter restrictions post-Sept. 11 in support of its international scholars?

President Charles M. Vest: I’d like to divide that into two parts. We’ll think of it as local and global. Locally, we have tried to do several things. One is to be sure that our international students are aware that we as an institution care about them and are concerned. On a practical level, we’ve tried to make as much accurate information be available to them through our foreign students and foreign scholars office. ... Many people have been just working simply to get facts out and make sure that people understand their rights. ... If anybody in the process of these interviews is treated in a way that they believe is not appropriate, they should let us know. So we’re trying to be helpful. We also try to raise awareness. We’ve had a number of meetings of graduate students. Not only the international students, but all of graduate students, because we want people to be aware, be concerned, and understand that we are there to support them.

More globally, we have tried to state as clearly and as frequently and as effectively as we can on what we believe the underlying issues to be, both in terms of the openness of our campuses to foreign students and scholars but also to the important issues of the openness of scientific information. There have been two particular mechanisms for simply stating this. One is my annual president’s report that was on the topic of openness this year. Secondly, we had a very important committee report from the committee chaired by professor Sheila Widnall looking more at the issue of openness and security of the campus in terms of scientific information and in particular, that group reiterated the belief that we should not do classified research on our campus. Interestingly, that group was conceived well before Sept. 11, but it turned out to be even more relevant and more timely than we had anticipated.

Both of these documents have been well circulated in Washington. I have written two op-ed pieces, one in The Washington Times and one in The Wall Street Journal, that address both pieces of this issue, both the scientific information and also openness to international scholars. Our basic belief is that it is the legitimate role of the United States government and particularly the State Department to decide who is granted a visa to enter the country, but once students are in the country and on our campus, we want the campus experience to be the same for them as it is for any other student.

That’s the separation that we are trying very hard to maintain. ... We’ve all spent a lot of time in Washington talking to people in the administration, talking to people in Congress, talking to Congressional staffers, trying to keep our perspective out there, trying to do all that we can to get people to see both sides of these issues. The problem is that the scientific community has one view of the world and the community and the Department of Justice and so forth that is responsible for security has another. It’s really trying to maintain a respectful dialogue between these two that is very, very important. I believe that we and the whole higher education community have a lot of positive impact in terms of the continued openness toward foreign students.

I think things might have been much worse had it not been for very concerted efforts across colleges and universities. The issue now is going to revolve around an even more complicated issue still, which is the definition of so called “sensitive but unclassified information” -- the parts of the [USA] PATRIOT Act [of 2001] and the Presidential Decision Directive back in October 2001 that talk about limiting access to certain international students to what they call “sensitive areas of study.”

To me, the most complicated and dangerous issue in all of this is going to be how the government defines and deals with that term. So far, I think they are taking a lot of time. They are consulting pretty broadly. I think they’re trying to think these things through, but now that the new Department of Homeland Security is coming into place, there will be a new cast of players and we’re not sure where it will go.

TT: Regarding international students, do you think that selectively fingerprinting students from Middle Eastern countries is a subtle form of racism?

Vest: I will leave it to the social scientists to determine the answer to that question, but it, I think, is of deep concern that we find ourselves in a position of having the federal government single out particular groups solely on the basis of national origin ... and have them looked at and passed through different filters than everyone else. I do want to point out that to the best of my knowledge, this is not being done only to students, but to anyone getting a visa to enter the U.S. who is a male under the age of 45 and born in this set of countries, which began as only seven countries and now is up to 23 -- that shows the slippery slope that many of us are concerned about. I do not believe that this is intended by our government as a racist action. I think it is people sincerely attempting to take some actions to protect the country against terrorism, but the great danger is that at the very time at which you try to protect a nation like America, the tendency is to be a little bit too loose and fast with the fundamental values that make us who we are. So yes, I am very concerned about this, and I think particularly speaking from the perspective of higher education in our research universities, our openness to foreign students, scholars and faculty is absolutely one of the most essential elements we have in maintaining such a great system of research universities, so we have to be very careful.

TT: Do you think that self segregation is a problem at MIT, and if so, what is MIT doing to address it?

Vest: ... I think to some extent, self segregation goes on in every group -- at MIT and in the country. We just hope that in general people do a lot of mixing and get to know each other and learn from each other and value each other, but I don’t think it’s up to me to say that one group can’t spend most of its time socializing with the other or what have you. ... [Self-segregation] is not something you enforce -- you create opportunity ... I was just literally over the weekend looking at the results of our freshmen surveys and their senior surveys over the last several years, and the fact is that the vast majority of our students and also our alumni cite the experience of living and learning with people who are different from themselves as one of the primary benefits of attending a place like MIT, so I believe that diversity is valued. I believe that when I say that, that’s what I call “diversity with a capital D” that sort of means everything and it is an important part of what we are and who we are.