Must MIT Look Like America?

There they go again. Inside Higher Ed has a long article today about a much longer report from MIT urging even greater efforts to promote “diversity.” “The report,” Inside Higher Ed reports, “— more than two years in the making, from a faculty panel — makes strong statements about the need to increase the representation of minority groups on the faculty.”

Indeed it does. All such reports calling for more and greater efforts to produce more and more “diversity” make strong statements. What they lack — and the MIT report is no exception — is compelling argument and evidence about why “diversity” is important. As is usual with these reports, a prominent reason among the “strong statements” given for the need to increase minority representation is cosmetic:

While the MIT faculty’s proportion of black, Latino and Native American professors has increased to 6 percent from 4.5 percent over the last decade, the study notes that those groups make up 30 percent of the population of the United States, a share that is growing every year.

“The contrast in these numbers with the population values is significant; it is clear that there is talent within the United States that has not been tapped at the highest levels of our educational system — our faculty,” the report says. “It is intrinsic to the mission of excellence in science and engineering that we engage a truly diverse faculty; otherwise, we stand to lose in both our competitive advantage and our overall mission.”

If it is so “clear” that there are large untapped pools of talent, pools that exist primarily in — may in fact be identical with — the racial and ethnic groups “underrepresented” at MIT, you’d think the report would present some evidence of it. So far as I could tell, however, the report presents no such evidence, other than the statistical disparity itself, a disparity which I suppose is thought to speak for itself.

Similarly, there are many “strong statements” to the effect that “a truly diverse faculty” is “intrinsic to the mission of excellence in science and engineering,” but no evidence or even argument supporting the assertions. Thus in announcing the report with great fanfare the MIT News Office reported that

the report concludes that while MIT’s efforts to hire and retain URM faculty have produced some gains in recent years, the results are uneven across the Institute, and that more effective policies and practices are necessary.

Yes, but why?

“As an institution that prides itself on the ability to address some of the world’s most difficult problems, MIT can and should lead the nation in the important challenge of increasing the numbers of minority faculty via a strong Institute-wide policy that facilitates advancement in the area of faculty diversity,” the report says

Again, why? Provost L. Rafael Reif, who launched the initiative leading to the report in 2007, issued a statement asserting that

MIT wants, and our students deserve, the strongest possible faculty, and a more diverse faculty is a stronger faculty in all academic dimensions, from research to teaching to mentoring. Our differences enrich our lives and our thinking.

Yes, that sounds nice, but what and where is the evidence that having more blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans (the only “URMs,” or underrepresented minorities MIT seems to care about) makes MIT’s science and engineering faculty stronger in any “academic dimension,” much less “all” of them?

The report itself is rife with the same soaring rhetoric about tapping all the talent pools to attract the best faculty supported only by … more soaring rhetoric about the centrality of “diversity” to its academic mission. Here, for example, is how the report begins, under the heading “The Goal of Diversity at MIT”:

To accomplish its stated mission — “to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century” — MIT must benefit from the ability to tap both the nation’s and the world’s brightest minds. The Institute has taken pride in its ability to unite people from a multitude of backgrounds to address the world’s most complex problems and significant scholarly endeavors.

Fine, but why does the search for “the world’s brightest minds” require adding more black and Hispanic and Native American minds? Are they necessarily brighter than additional bright minds that could be found among Asians or, heaven forbid, even whites?

Here’s the report’s answer (still from “The Goal of Diversity at MIT” beginning):

Diversity is core to the excellence that MIT seeks for several reasons:

  • It is intrinsic in the mission of excellence in science and engineering education that we engage a truly diverse faculty; we must diversify our faculty or we lose in competitive advantage and in mission.
  • A part of MIT’s mission is to be of service to humanity — to hope to accomplish such a bold endeavor, one must also be inclusive of humanity.
  • A diverse faculty is key to communal scholarship and intellectual scope.
  • If we do not succeed in the diversification of faculty across the nation, we constrain ourselves and limit our success in all fields of endeavor.

In other words, “diversity” is “core” to MIT’s excellence because it is “intrinsic,” because “one must … be inclusive,” because it is “key,” and because insufficient diversification limits success. In other words, well, just because.

In short, this report, like nearly all such reports, presents no evidence and even little argument for the centrality of “diversity” to the academic mission. Instead, it intones a mantra, affirms articles of faith, and sings a hymn from a Book of Common Prayer shared by preachers of racial preference and acolytes of the “diversity” faith in academic congregations from coast to coast. That’s why, in their view, rejecting “diversity” is not so much mistaken or wrong as blasphemous.

This now familiar mantra also suffuses a letter from MIT president Susan Hockfield that introduces the report:

Creating a culture of inclusion is not an optional exercise; it is the indispensable precondition that enables us to capitalize on our diverse skills, perspectives and experiences, so that we can better advance the fundamental research and education mission of MIT…. A productively diverse community at MIT will make us better at what we do….

Etc., etc. But one of her paragraphs reveals an unrecognized contradiction linking the imperative to tap all our talent with “diversity’s” requirement that that tapping be done only in black, Hispanic, and Native American communities.

A richly diverse America does not await us, it is upon us; it is our present and our future. We draw most of our faculty, students and staff from America, and we must make full use of the talent this country has to offer if we hope to continue to invent the future. We share this challenge with our peer institutions; only by working together with them can we effectively increase the pipeline of academic talent, the central resource in meeting our diversity and inclusion goals.

For the “underrepresentation” argument to be anything more than purely cosmetic, i.e., MIT doesn’t look like America, it must assume the existence of large talent pools that are not being tapped, perhaps because of “hidden bias” or “unconscious bias,” terms that occur frequently in the report. There is also, of course, the predictable argument that the concept of “merit” itself is culturally biased. Thus, the report argues, “it is not possible to proclaim a fully meritocratic process when our society presents innate biases to which all can be susceptible on some level.” No surprise here. Well, I guess it is surprising that the president and provost of MIT, and the faculty and staff that produced this report, believe that American society is suffused with “innate biases.” Innate? Inherent? Immutable to change? Oh well, what would a report calling for a more “diverse” faculty be without this obligatory attempt to portray merit as merely bias gone to college.

But note that President Hockfield argues something more. In the paragraph just quoted she asserts that only by working with peer institutions “can we effectively increase the pipeline of academic talent….” In other words, those pools of untapped “diverse” talent don’t exist yet; they must be created before they can be tapped.

But, again, why? If the need were really to find and attract the “brightest minds,” would it be necessary to create them? Are there not enough bright minds already out there? Has anyone done a cost benefit analysis to determine the number of “brightest minds” that can be created and put in the pipeline in minority communities as opposed to a search for them with no racial or ethnic qualifications?

The argument that “diversity” is, for whatever reason, imperative and that it requires the creation of minority talent that can then be recruited always reminds me of a tongue-in-cheek answer one of my uncles gave me when, as a 4 or 5 year old, I asked why the local radio station, WTBF (“We Tried But Failed,” as locals described it), had such a tall tower next to it. “So they could put a blinking red light on top of it, so airplanes wouldn’t crash into it,” my uncle explained. At least he, I subsequently realized, was joking.

Not joking is Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity. Several days ago, here, I urged you to read his excellent piece, Another Bad Idea: ”Diversifying” Science Faculties, and the publication of this all too typical MIT report leads me to renew that suggestion. Discussing a report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science on “diversity” that is, not surprisingly, similar to the MIT report, Clegg writes:

Taking steps to ensure that the best possible individuals apply and are hired is fine—indeed, that’s precisely what the whole process should be about. Casting your recruiting net far and wide is a good idea, as is reassessing your recruiting policies to make sure that you are not overlooking good sources of candidates. Reevaluating selection criteria from time to time is, likewise, unobjectionable; if some criteria are weighed too heavily or not heavily enough, with the result that the best individuals are not selected, then that needs to be fixed. And, of course, everyone involved in the selection process, from beginning to end, needs to be told that the best individuals, regardless of skin color or national origin, are to be picked.

But it’s clear that nondiscrimination is exactly what AAAS does not have in mind….

And in a comment to the Inside Higher Ed article I quote above, reprinted on phi beta cons today, Clegg notes that

[t]he problem is that the authors of the MIT report do not want the best individuals, regardless of skin color or national origin, to be picked. They want a predetermined racial and ethnic mix (“diversity”), and are happy for there to be subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination in order to achieve it.

I first became acquainted with Roger Clegg because my daughter, Jessie, was (and is) a gifted science student. When she was young (or younger) I met many bright young science students, and when one of them applied to a summer program at MIT limited to URMs, and her parents failed to persuade MIT that women, then about 20% of students there, should count as “underrepresented,” I sent a letter to this fellow Clegg. He wrote letters to MIT and, when those were initially unsuccessful, to the Office of Civil Rights in the Dept. of Education. MIT eventually saw the wisdom of opening its formerly restricted program to all students.

It would be nice if it could be persuaded now that programs to promote “diversity,” however nice and whatever its rationale, must stop at the point discrimination begins.


Roger Clegg reminds me that his letter to the Office of Civil Rights wasn’t just a letter; it was accompanied by a complaint. As I’ve told Roger on several occasions, my memory is not what it used to be. (At least I don’t think it is, but I’m not sure….)

UPDATE [19 January]

Thanks to Geoge Leef on phi beta cons for his generous remarks, and welcome to visitors who followed his link.

Say What? (3)

  1. David January 17, 2010 at 11:20 am | | Reply

    If I have my history correct, schools like MIT Univ. Chicago, and Berkeley could formerly achieve excellence by exploiting the talent pool that the Ivy League ignored for invidious reasons. Glad to see that MIT is willing to own up to its inferiority complex and jump on the diversity bandwagon so vigorously 30 yrs. after Bakke.

  2. JVW January 18, 2010 at 6:08 pm | | Reply

    There used to be a saying that while Harvard was about grace, MIT was about merit. It was a way for Tech students to point out that they weren’t admitted because they were fifth generation Harvard legacies, or because they attended the right private schools, or because they fit into some guilt-ridden liberals’ identity group du jour. Sadly, that appears to be going by the wayside as MIT becomes just another bean-counting bastion of trendy academic sociology.

    P.S. — I worked for the same summer program to which your friend’s daughter tried to apply. It was a great program, but you are right that by limiting it to “underrepresented” minorities (which is campus speak for minorities minus Asians) MIT missed out on a great opportunity to help women, Asians, and whites who came from weak public school backgrounds.

  3. […] astute question reminds me of a tale from my past that I’ve told here before, a tongue-in-cheek answer one of my uncles gave me when, as a 4 or 5 year old, I asked why […]

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