Many people hold a naïve conception of affirmative action and don’t understand what it actually involves, yet they deem it a dangerous program that threatens our Institute. We believe that affirmative action is actually incredibly fair and integral to the success of any merit-based institution in the world we live in.
Affirmative action absolutely does not involve admitting unqualified students or faculty members to MIT.
Affirmative action is recognizing that there are still people who are prejudiced. It is understanding that discrimination still exists and has a real impact on people and their lives. It is taking a holistic view of admissions and faculty searches and considering individuals in their respective contexts.
Let’s be clear: MIT is not suffering from a shortage of qualified applicants. Most of the students who apply are academically prepared to study here. Once applicants’ preparedness has been determined, they are judged based on how they took advantage of the opportunities they were given. MIT seeks people who can create opportunities for themselves and who consistently exceed expectations.
Just as MIT does not accept students deemed to be academically unprepared, unqualified faculty members are not given positions at MIT. Successful faculty search processes entail inviting qualified applicants to seek positions at MIT. Sometimes those invited are women and minorities; sometimes they are not. Faculty members are hired based on an overall positive fit with MIT and the research group they would join.
That’s not to say that these processes — especially undergraduate admissions — are perfect. Paper applications can struggle to tease out the human element. But we do think that the holistic approach is a large step in the right direction. Pursuits outside of schoolwork are often much more indicative of students’ ability to chase down opportunities and dedicate themselves to a passion.
Affirmative action is crucial to maintaining the integrity of our meritocracy. The holistic admissions process at MIT takes into account the whole student, including upbringing and obstacles to success. If we do not recognize that different people have been given different opportunities, we will be tempted to judge people based on absolute measures of success — SAT scores, grades, and number of extracurriculars. Instead, we should be normalizing people’s achievements based on the resources they had.
The 2010 Report on the Initiative for Faculty Race and Diversity articulates this well, saying, “While almost everyone at MIT would like the Institute to be an institution of merit and inclusion, it will be difficult to reach this ideal if race and ethnicity are ignored and presumed irrelevant.” The report is repeating the teachings of social scientists: “color-blindness” is not the answer, and we cannot pretend that race doesn’t impact how people are treated. Color-blindness only serves to further benefit those at the apex of our society while abandoning those who have worked diligently to overcome their circumstances but are still marginalized due to their race, gender, or socioeconomic class. MIT doesn’t accept the average rich student, the average poor student, the average male, female, white, or black student. This community is built from the stand-out students and researchers from different segments of society that bring with them myriad experiences and knowledge.
When we take the time to think about what affirmative action really is — considering applicants’ backgrounds and opportunities when judging their merits — we quickly realize how crucial it is to the success of any meritocracy. We hope that MIT will continue to take a holistic approach to admissions and faculty searches so that we can continue to change the world by giving opportunities to bright, hard-working minds regardless of their circumstances.