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Subjective Decisions in Admissions

By Brian Loux

Associate features editor

One of the more prominent features in Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones’s office is a large rectangular grid on a blackboard. The chalk-etched grid appears have been created before our time and then left untouched for others to muse upon. On the bottom and the left sides of the grid run two separate one-to-five scales labeled A.I. and P.R., respectively.

“The bottom one is for academic index,” Jones says. “Our pool is so strong that the majority of selected students fall on 3.5 or higher, including minority students.” The vertical index, on the other hand, stands for personal rating. Jones explains, “The dimensions are co-curricular, such as math team; extra-curricular; and social skills.”

MIT committed to affirmative action

To many, it hardly sounds like a program associated with affirmative action at all. MIT’s affirmative action plan policy from 2001-2002 states that “It will be our goal to increase the numbers of women and members of minority groups within our undergraduate and graduate student bodies. ... Our immediate efforts must concentrate on enlarging the pool of qualified women and minority applicants from which we admit students.”

“Affirmative action means going out and bending over backwards and finding the best students of a population and get them to apply when they normally wouldn’t,” Jones said. Some students “don’t come from a population that says, ‘You’re going to MIT.’ It’s not expected of them.” Most Admissions Office activities center around searching through communities that seldom apply to elite schools to find and encourage stand-outs to apply to MIT.

But is there anything in MIT’s admissions process that might upset a critic? Possibly. Within the realm of the subjective personal rating, one’s socio-economic background undoubtedly comes into play. Jones relates the story of a student whose parents were migrant workers out west, a star student at a poor high school. Recruiters took interest in the student’s invention of a portable solar-powered chili cooker for migrant workers to use in the field for lunch. The student was offered admission to MIT. “If we were to find a student from New York who developed a similar chili cooker in his basement, that probably wouldn’t qualify him. [The first student] did something that was much more important in and for his community.”

To Jones, the context of one’s accomplishments is vitally important. “You cannot separate race or gender from who a person is, just like you cannot [separate] their high school or parents,” she said. “If the student is not expecting to rise as much, you can’t separate that from him or her being spectacular.”

Students differ on affirmative action

Some students feel indifferent about affirmative action policies and procedures while others feel very passionately about the issue. “Personal accomplishments are personal accomplishments. Who cares what race you are?” said Christopher B. Buenrostro ’04. “If you have the drive and heart to perform over another applicant, you move on. Overcoming obstacles proves intelligence and resource. The more you have to overcome, the more resourceful you are, but that doesn’t mean because you are underprivileged it is worth more. It just means you have to work harder because you want to be here that much more. If you don’t, you shouldn’t be here.”

“It is pretty rare for someone in difficult situations to do something amazing,” said Freddy R. Funes ’04. “For many people where I came from, college wasn’t an option. They have to focus on caring for their brother and sisters or not getting evicted. Those accomplishments should be worth more than a person with nothing else to worry about.”

MIT vs. other schools

Regardless, the MIT system is in stark contrast with other schools’ policies towards minorities. The University of Michigan, recently in the media spotlight for President George W. Bush’s criticism of the school’s hiring practices and two upcoming Supreme Court cases that will review them, undertakes a detailed “point system,” in which one may earn a numerical value for personal factors such as income, race, or gender to accumulate towards a sum needed for admission. At Michigan, 40 of 150 points can be attained through non-academic qualities.

“The concept of a plus factor is for public schools,” says Jones. “State schools have a duty to educate their own population, including the destitute, which is why some of them employ that tactic.”

Additionally, MIT does not have any program to aid in the recruitment of students of MIT alumni or students from underrepresented states, which may be viewed as unfairly discriminatory. Ivy League schools, however, often use such practices. “Regional programs assure schools that they will get kids from everywhere,” Jones says. “We don’t have to do that because we attract from everywhere already.”

While outright quotas for minorities were ruled unconstitutional in University of California v. Bakke in 1978, critics argue that some institutions have instated “de-facto” quotas, trying to create a similar percentage of minority students for each class. Before 1998, the minority percentage of each freshmen class tended to hold steady at around 14 percent. For the class of 2002, when Jones was appointed Dean of Admissions, the number rose to 18 percent.

Jones attributes this increase to better outreaching to communities they have been able to do since she has been in charge. “There is no conscious effort to hold the numbers at any certain level,” Jones said. “The numbers you see are the numbers you see.”

Reactions mixed on de facto quotas

Buenrostro took issue with Jones’s explanation. “I am not qualified as an admissions officer, but considering the level of subjectivity involved, a change in administrative officers followed by a huge percentage increase in any area would appear to have come from a bias or tendency of some kind,” he said. “A gradual increase would be a different story because you could argue that the quality of minority applicants has improved over time, but not a huge increase such as four percent.”

Funes disagreed. “I doubt [there is a quota]. Underrepresented minorities are still underrepresented,” he said. “Hispanics make up 13 percent of the U.S. and only 11 percent of MIT. For blacks, it’s 12 percent and six percent. If they do have a quota, it’s not a very good one.”

MIT will stand with U. Michigan

Though MIT’s practices have drawn little national attention, it will stand with the University of Michigan in the upcoming Supreme Court cases. MIT is planning to submit an Amicus Curiae -- “friend of the court” -- brief focusing on the importance of diversity in science, engineering, and industry. “Amicus Curiae briefs raise both legal and policy issues that parties think the court should be aware of,” said Senior Counsel member Jaime Lewis Keith. “MIT is presenting an argument in the context of the law that applies today ... Many examples currently have to do with law or medicine. None are making the argument about science and technology.”

The two cases both came down from the 6th U.S. Court of Appeals against the President of the University Lee Bollinger. Grutter v. Bollinger contests the policies of Michigan’s graduate law program while Gratz and Hamacher v. Bollinger contests the admissions practices for undergraduates. “Our statement will be in support of the value of diversity,” Keith said. “In a world where it is increasingly diverse, it is important they receive their education in an environment that is diverse.” MIT is working with the office of Jones Day and the Dean for Undergraduate Education to help draft the brief, Keith said.

Sources say President Charles M. Vest will make an official announcement about the brief this Friday.

Jones hopes that affirmative action as we know it will be preserved. “I have strong feelings about it,” she said. “Engineers need to come from everywhere to solve the problems of people everywhere. Without [diversity] ... I would question whether or not you would have a worse experience. That is its power.”