Opinion editorial

Understanding diversity

Seeking community members from diverse backgrounds is core to MIT’s mission

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.

Roger Clegg about 12 years ago

Just a quick note: As bad as racial preferences in student admissions are, to some degree they are at least legal (for now); for faculty hiring, however, they are not. See http://www.nas.org/articles/A_Half-Dozen_Push-Backs_for_Faculty_Hiring_Committee_Meetings

Anonymous about 12 years ago

Please take a look at the link below. It's an article about boosting diversity at the faculty level by relaxing the "competitive test" (i.e. is the applicant the best in the cohort).


If that is indeed the case, would this indicate that there is some discrimination going on in faculty hiring?

Anonymous about 12 years ago

There is quite a bit of evidence that affirmative action as practice isn't about "normalizing peoples achievements based on the resources they had." That's what I'd like to see but I'm not convinced it's happening.

At Harvard they found that a large share of the black students were children of immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. Those groups are much less likely to be poor and much more likely to be college educated. Seems like they were just admitting the best black candidates by SAT, GPA, etc. and not normalizing back on background. From what I've observed at MIT we have a similar problem.

When some scholars at Princeton did regressions on acceptance rates conditional on factors like race, income, SAT, etc. they didn't find that white students from poor backgrounds or bad schools had any better chances than privileged whites at elite high schools.

You can see from MIT's published statistics on financial aid that people from rich backgrounds are still overrepresented by probably an order of magnitude. "Normalization" probably not the right word as we're left to conclude from it that rich people and Asians are just born a lot smarter than the rest of us when, in reality, that they are just being given a much lower bar to hop over.

Anonymous about 12 years ago

i posted this on the other article but i'll repost it here as a response to mit and the tech's stance on affirmative action:

im asian american and while what's said about past discrimination rings true, in this society im faced with a hard choice on affirmative action - since its goal is to fix problems from the past (ie chinese exclusion act), but it ends up discriminating against us anyway. as a group asians are tend to to work hard while still facing much prejudice in america (and getting that nerd label stuck onto us at the same time), affirmative action doesnt seem to care and requires that we need to work harder than even caucasians to get into college.

i just dont see how this is fair to asians. maybe its the price we pay for a diverse campus, or for giving spots to other minority groups, but to say that everyone who defends race blind admissions and not having affirmative action is a white male, is wrong. i remember reading an article in the news about the increasing number of asian applicants who check the 'decline to state' box for race in college admisissions. of course, you can usually tell by the last name what ethnicity we are, but the fact that the admissions committee needs to do this to separate us from caucasian or urm students says something.

one quote that really shocked me was the old mit admissions officer who said something in an affirmative action related case to the effect of "this kid was probably rejected since he was another boring korean math star."

Anonymous about 12 years ago

found the quote by marilee jones: "It's possible that Henry Park

looked like a thousand other Korean kids with the exact same profile of

grades and activities and temperament - yet another textureless math grind."

take this how you will, but this pissed me off when i first heard it.

adding 'korean' in there wasnt a coincidence. its a stereotype. if affirmative action is to right past discrimination in america, i dont understand how this is acceptable.

Anonymous about 12 years ago

Frankly, this idea of "fair" is quite troublesome. Life isn't meant to be fair and equal, it is about hard work, effort and achievement. I realize all students aren't raised in equal environments, but that just goes back to the whole "fair" argument. A student should take his/her circumstances and realize the value of hard work and do the best in the present situation. Life is all about the merits of your work/life. By keeping affirmative action policies in place, you ultimately discriminate against someone.