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MIT never lowers its standards

I am writing in response to the letter authored by Brandon Briscoe, published last Friday in The Tech, that addresses questions around diversity at MIT. The letter is welcome, as it highlights misunderstandings surrounding efforts to achieve diversity at MIT, and so indicates the need for continued discussion around this topic, amongst our community.

In fact, the author of the letter states the key point: “Don’t get me wrong, every student and faculty member that I have ever met at MIT have the intelligence and ambition to ‘deserve’ to be here.” Yes! That is correct. MIT never lowers the standard. We thoughtfully and intentionally look for outstanding people, but this does not change the standards that those hired or promoted have to meet. I could really end this note here, as we are all in agreement on this most important point. But, for clarification, let me explore a few other points raised.

Although the terms “excellence” and “diversity” are sometimes put into the same phrase, there is no discussion at MIT of a “balance” between excellence and diversity, as the author suggests, that would imply an inverse relationship. The only point at MIT is to identify outstanding, “excellent” members for its ranks, from the student to the professor. Thus, MIT is a “meritocracy,” as the author would like. But there is confusion surrounding the meaning of this term, because, whilst “meritocracy” is a single word, it really describes a multifaceted concept. Thus, people of merit have to be identified, and identify themselves. In the School of Science, we actively encourage excellent people to apply for positions at MIT, where they may otherwise feel intimidated by the Institute, or that they are not good enough. Women and racial minorities are sometimes among those who need encouragement.

We do need to pay attention to the important concept of “unconscious bias.” This term means that opinions, of which we are unaware, shape how we think about someone. Unconscious bias, including the view that people in one population group are less talented than those in another, really happens, and can be hard to root out. Such biases can cover up the talent of a student or prospective faculty member, partly because biased letters of recommendation can suggest that a candidate is less talented than is true. In the School of Science, to ensure that top candidates are not unfairly set aside, we are making sure that application folders, including letters of recommendation, are read carefully, to fully understand the talent of each individual applicant. But we have no numerical goals, or quotas, for hiring from specific population groups, as the author worries. Rather, we feel that if we use fair procedures to enlarge the pool of outstanding candidates and to review applications, the demographics will sort themselves out, just as the author hopes.

There can be a consequence to addressing these equity challenges transparently, that is, a feeling by a candidate in an under-represented group, that s/he does not belong and got here by some special treatment, or mistake. But, I’ll tell you a not-so secret … many, maybe most, students and faculty at MIT, from all demographic groups, worry that they do not really deserve a place here. We need to counter this worry by frequently reminding ourselves that our standards of excellence at MIT are never lowered. The “Report on the Status of Women Faculty in the MIT Schools of Science and Engineering”, published last year, highlighted this problem, and others, that women still have to face. For example, in response to a specific example cited by the letter-writer, we need to make sure that key MIT committees represent the population of the Institute, without overburdening women faculty members with excess work.

Finally, are white men, as the author suggests, being discriminated against? Of course not! It is true that the field in which prospective students and faculty play, has changed over the last couple of decades, but it is a much fairer playing field than one that was populated almost exclusively by white men. As we move toward an Institute in which the excellence that naturally occurs across the population is equitably represented, we will become stronger and stronger in our ability to address challenges in our country and the world. We are well on our way to this equity.

Hazel Sive
Professor of Biology
Associate Dean of the School of Science

Excellence with diversity

The false idea that the inclusion of people from different groups (race, gender, nationality, etc.) leads to a lowering of standards is one that MIT counters with its diverse faculty and student body. One of the key findings of the Initiative Report regarding inclusion and excellence states: “The promotion of excellence at the highest levels (national and worldwide recognition, significant and high-impact advances) is a key feature of MIT’s strength. One of the greatest tensions associated with achieving a diverse faculty is the idea that by being more inclusive, one sacrifices excellence or dilutes quality.”

There is an incorrect assumption, typified by the letter-writer’s statements, that high levels of achievement and excellence are somehow compromised when we seek to ensure that the MIT environment presents a diverse set of scholars — one that better reflects who we are as a nation and world. The goal at MIT — and elsewhere — is not to achieve diversity at the cost of excellence, it is to realize excellence through diversity and achievement in every form.

The writer’s letter never defines either excellence or diversity. It sets up implicitly a one-dimensional scale on which the excellence of each individual can be measured exactly and unambiguously, and if an institution seeks to maximize its excellence; it must therefore make personnel selections on the basis of how much excellence, so measured, each applicant demonstrates. Often that scale is provided by scores achieved in a supposedly objective set of tests. Factors that make applicants diverse are irrelevant to the decision. This model of excellence is obviously a straw-man. Excellence is a multi-dimensional quality which may include demonstrated acquired knowledge, originality and creativeness, suitability for the sought activity (e.g. knowledge of the community to be served), motivation and character, and many others; it is a vector in multi-dimensional space.

Many of the qualities and characteristics that define ultimate excellence are not known, or even knowable at decision time. Therefore it is prudent to provide some diversity in the set of selected applicants to optimize the probability of excellence. Nor is an institution such as MIT acting in a vacuum. For its institutional excellence, it relies heavily on the interaction of its members in their work toward common goals, and it therefore requires diversity among them to maximize the range of inputs available for consideration. At MIT and in most institutions that depend on teamwork, diversity is an essential component of excellence. In short, the pursuit of excellence is not a zero-sum game in which one loses in one area while gaining in another, but a positive-sum game in the long run. This argument is not about impersonal applicants in a sterilized context. It deals with real people in historical context, and the valuation of the qualities which, taken together, define excellence in that context is a matter of deliberate institutional choice which defines the long-term excellence of the institution.

It is ironic that the author of the letter is disturbed by the fact that the School of Engineering had one year out of the past 150 in which there were one or two more women hired than men. He does not seem to consider the possibility that the women who were hired were indeed the most qualified candidates. Instead, he addresses this singular occurrence as a “data point” for some kind of disproportionate hiring of women; yet this year was notable solely because, despite the high number of excellent women in our graduate schools, we have much lower numbers among our faculty. The contrast in numbers for underrepresented minorities is much more marked — we have departments that have not hired a single underrepresented minority faculty member in 20 or 30 years. A number of additional and more detailed facts about the relative representation in our faculty over the years, as well as significant amounts of data, are provided in the Initiative Report. The observations about the increases in numbers for our student body simply reflect progress gained over several years at MIT and in our nation in general in the introduction of minority students to science and engineering. There is no conspiracy or hidden “unofficial policy” that promotes the admittance or hiring of under-qualified students or faculty, and it is unfortunate that the letter-writer states a very few simple qualitative observations as “facts” in this matter.

The letter-writer states that he does not feel that there are people at MIT who do not belong here. We agree. Our undergraduate and graduate admissions remain among the most highly competitive processes in the nation and indeed, in the world. With regard to faculty searches, departments and schools appreciate the importance of recruiting the top minds from amongst the entire nation rather than from a few narrow niches, and are realizing that there may be gaps in our traditional approaches to recruiting that miss some of these top people. Additional efforts in recruiting do not mean that we seek people who do not represent the levels of excellence that make MIT strong; on the contrary, we often find and can take advantage of missed opportunities for outstanding candidates when we are more rigorous in our faculty searches. The goal is to make sure that we have given ourselves every opportunity to find these top people across race and gender.

History tells us that we must make additional efforts to find the researchers, teachers and scientists that we seek among underrepresented groups and women; however, once we are able to do so, we further contribute to the high levels of achievement that MIT is known for. For this reason, it is indeed appropriate and in fact, mandatory that MIT seek to maintain its top position as an institution of learning and knowledge, science and technology, by pursuing scholars of excellence from every group including those whose race or gender have traditionally been less represented. The writer calls for true fairness, inclusiveness and equity ­— which is exactly the reason we must maintain efforts to become a more truly diverse institution that leverages the strength of all of our human capital toward the goals of mens et manus for the next 150 years.

Paula T. Hammond ’84
Professor of Chemical Engineering
Former Chair of the MIT Initiative on Faculty Race and Diversity

Strength in diversity

I recently read The Tech’s guest column about the “wrong direction with affirmative action.” While I do respect the fact that an opinion piece is just that, an opinion, I believe that some opinions are better off not expressed in a newspaper, especially ones that edge into that grey area of sexism and “white-male” complex.

The author of the piece is, I’m sure, factually accurate with his research. His problem lies in his conclusions. One of the reasons MIT is such an amazing place is because of the diversity that it brings. Just yesterday my TA asked us how many languages we spoke, and in a class of 12, there were 13 languages present. These kind of cultural, socioeconomic, and real life experiences are what allows us to learn from one another, develop more worldly views, and grow as people. And yes, as a woman, my real life experiences differ from that of a man, even if we’re both white and grew up in suburbia.

What the author has really overlooked, though, is the fact that the people who apply to MIT are, on the whole, equal in terms of their ability to excel in this environment. So many of the applicants who get denied could have easily succeeded as students here. When this happens, the only discernible difference between candidates, then, becomes their life experiences. And unfortunately, white men who grow up in suburbia are not typically the brightest candidates when it comes to having real life experiences that build character and make them able to offer something extra to the Institute. And this really has nothing to do with race or gender, but rather where you live and how you’ve lived. Honestly, even as a female, when compared to friends I have from around the country, my life has been quite boring and uninspiring. But by getting to know these people, who come from every kind of background possible, my life has been changed for the better. I really can’t imagine the author hasn’t made friends here at MIT who have challenged his views and helped him grow as a person because of their different background. And that is the beauty of MIT. He’s not being discriminated against — if he wants to be competitive with minorities, he should take steps in his own life to have those life experiences that will set him apart from everyone else.

Finally, there is some irony in the publication of this article when Lobby 10 has had, for the past week, a huge amount of information on the reality of racism, sexism and the struggles of women and minorities in everyday life. MIT is one of the few places where the disadvantage of being a women or having differently colored skin is as minimal as it will probably ever be in this world, and the author wants to destroy that relative equality. I’d ask him to take a look around and see how many white guys there are on campus. I assure you, the number is not small. So stop complaining.

Kelley V. Determan ’13