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Diversity in the academic landscape

In an effort to quell the malicious tone that clung to any discussion of Brandon Briscoe’s piece, I’ve offered these organized thoughts. I hope the MIT community finds it prudent to use these thoughts to stimulate a civil discourse, rather than to employ this piece as ammunition in an argument that cannot be won by shouting, but only by an conscientious effort to understand and empathize with our peers.

I am certain that I am not the first student to take issue with Briscoe’s opinion piece in Friday’s Tech. Nor will mine be the last words read in this debate. And while many of us may feel angered — or vindicated, depending on your view of it all — I am asking for an aspect of levelheadedness in the responses to Briscoe’s claim. Yes, we can call Brandon a bigot, and brand whatever he writes as racist or sexist trash. But we would be wrong to so quickly dismiss his remarks as the rantings of an unfortunate misanthrope. If we take issue with Briscoe’s article, it should lie squarely with the opinion he has chosen to voice, not the well-intentioned sentiment behind it or with his choice to voice an opinion at all. Any response should be used as an opportunity to reiterate the case for diversity in science and engineering, to show that it has become a necessity given the new age of research, and to explain, more concretely, why it is essential for MIT’s success in the next 150 years.

Now that Brandon has given his view, let me rebut. Faculty and students should be admitted based on merit, and merit is testable and measurable. The following is a fact: there has been no demonstrated inherent gap between the abilities of minority students (or scientists, or engineers, etc.) and white students or between men and women students. Because there is no intelligence divide along the lines of race or sex, these groups should, all things equal, appear in the student body in the same proportion that they appear in society. However, if the student body does not mirror society, then we can assume all things are not equal and that something nefarious is preventing equal representation. (We give these things names like racism or misogyny or barriers to achievement. Especially with the latter, these things need not be people — they can be cultural and environmental factors, too.) The only way to rectify this is to counter it with what has been incorrectly derided as is “reverse discrimination.” Whereas real discrimination is blanket, the purported “reverse discrimination” is nuanced and sensitive to society’s concerns. It does not involve quotas as much as adding more dimensions to one’s understanding of a good candidate. So we give it other names like “affirmative action” or “intentional diversification.”

The main disagreement between myself and Brandon centers around the notion that when the student body does not mirror society, we have the responsibility to take active measures to make sure that it does.

In a broad sense, MIT is building a community, one that it hopes can interact with the larger worldwide community toward advances in research and the human condition. It happens to be that the model MIT has chosen mixes, in certain proportions, education, research, and service to follow human beings. So it looks for candidates that are strong in these areas. In evaluating whether this is a sound model, we can look at MIT’s historical and contemporary successes. Pressed for space, I mention a very objective one: over the past decade, MIT has climbed steadily closer to the top among the world’s scientific frontrunners: from sixth place in the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) to 2003 to third this past year. Over the past few years, both MIT’s undergraduate and graduate engineering programs have been ranked first among world universities. Myriad other facts indicate that the model adopted has had the best results in all three categories — at the minimum, it has had the best results academically, where Briscoe says he is concerned.

This has gone on while the landscape of research continues to change. Science as a solitary endeavor does not exist today, and where it does it has become irrelevant. The history of 20th-century science — the formulation of quantum mechanics, the building of the atom bomb, the discovery of the Ebola virus — has proven to us the value of working as not only a team, but as a team with members of diverse backgrounds. William P. Thurston — a Fields medalist — remarked in the early 90s of the importance of community in math, a field traditionally understood to prize the individual. Most recently, great discoveries and research projects in particle physics serve as a testimony to an unprecedented international quality of scientific research moving forward.

The future of science itself hinges on the proliferation of a global exchange of knowledge. It no longer simply matters to have found a cure to a disease, but to have found away of helping that cure reach the most in need. Over the past century, research has been coupled with an indispensable humanistic element so that the ability to reach across cultures and continents and backgrounds becomes a prized piece of one’s knowledge. Increasingly, the countries becoming most relevant in world economy (China, India, and Brazil) are predominantly nonwhite. We gain from having diversity in our research groups so we can get all perspectives on one issue. And we gain if we can communicate with budding (or existing) scientists of all backgrounds.

Some may suggest that waiting until a student reaches college age is too late to start combating any inequality. MIT, however, does not wait that long and has numerous programs with this issue in mind. Among them stand ESP, the Public Service Center, MITES, and STEM that target thinkers through middle school and high school. But this does not mean that MIT should stop finding ways of achieving diversity as soon as somebody becomes college-age. The process should be applied broadly and consistently across one’s career.

The often-made argument that diversity will put white males at a disadvantage requires the most sensitivity from all sides. Of course, in reaching for a more just system, we want to take care that we do not strip others of their own rights or dignity. But opportunity is not a zero-sum game, in which the achievement of your dreams comes at the expense of mine. Over time, small misunderstandings of this principle have bred resentment that has festered quietly, and finally, when it cannot be contained, it spills over in passionate language much like Briscoe’s.

Every year, MIT turns away many qualified candidates in its many application processes. Included in this pool of remarkable talent are men and women who are black, white, Hispanic, Asian, American, and international alike. Such is the nature of an institution that wishes to remain sustainably small. MIT has begun a campaign of reaching these people, even if it cannot admit them to its schools, with MITx and liaisons with other leading research and learning institutions. So we have not taken a step backward, or a step that does not conform to MIT’s broader goals in the advancement of scientific research and learning and of helping our fellow human beings. And, contrary to Briscoe’s belief, we have not diminished the meritocratic purity of MIT by adopting an aggressive diversification policy. MIT stands not only to gain if it proceeds, but to lose if we fail to continue acting as we have.

Fernando Cerullo ’13

No one wants racial biases

From the perspective of a woman in physics here at MIT, a minority, I agree with the author of Brian Briscoe’s affirmative action column. First off, the author is not saying that minorities should not be at MIT, or that no minority people deserve to be at MIT, which is how some people have seem to taken it. It is obvious that there are successful minority people who have graduated from MIT or are current students that are exceptionally bright. It is clear that minorities do not want to be judged by the color of their skin or their gender, which is what the author is supporting.

The overall theme is “do not judge,” and I believe both sides are basically arguing for this same point. The author’s side is saying that hopefully MIT will not judge based on the color of your skin, and only on your merit. The woman and minority groups are saying we don’t want to be judged by the color of our skin or our gender. The author is worried that if MIT is forcing diversity, they will take a specific amount of people from each racial group, which WILL be deciding admissions using the color of people’s skin. In my opinion, if there were 50 white men more qualified than I am to go to MIT, I think they deserve to be here, not me. I think we can all agree that we want the best at MIT, and that the people who deserve to get in should get in, with no thoughts on race.

I think if people try to take a step back and look at the overall picture, we can all agree that having a racial bias is not something MIT wants to be affiliated with. MIT will naturally be rich and diverse on its own and we do not need to admit more people of certain races or genders to make up for that.

Chandler R. Schlupf ’14.