February 1, 1996
Task Force: Ms. Sarah E. Gallop; Professor Stephen C. Graves, Task Force Chair; Professor Kenneth R. Manning; Mr. Alan E. Pierson; Professor Lisa A. Steiner; Mr. Frank P. Tipton; Professor J. Kim Vandiver; Professor William B. Watson
Over the decades, MIT has at various times addressed the issue of discrimination and its impact on higher education and the university community. During the mid-1950s, immediately following the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education in which the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the "separate but equal" law, MIT confronted racial discrimination in fraternities, for example, many of which had racially restrictive clauses in their by-laws. A National Intercollegiate Conference on Selectivity and Discrimination in American Universities, organized by Undergraduate Association president Eldon H. Reiley, was convened at MIT in March 1955. It provided a forum for educators and policy makers to explore a range of issues relating to discrimination in academia, including the racially restrictive covenants of some affiliated fraternities. The conference served as a basis for MIT and its affiliated fraternities to develop acceptable practices and policies on race.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the gay liberation movement gained prominence on college campuses and raised issues of discrimination based on sexual orientation. Gays seeking equal opportunities began to argue for rights that other minority groups had obtained by law or statute. In an effort to affirm equal opportunity to minority groups, the law had required that statements of nondiscrimination be made public by many organizations and institutions, including MIT. Meanwhile, gays at MIT and other campuses, which were previously a non-visible group, emerged as a visible minority. Student support groups were formed; subjects were developed, focusing on the role and experience of gays. As the gay experience became an academic focus, and as extra-curricular activities relating to the gay lifestyle increased, MIT added "sexual orientation" to its nondiscrimination clause in order to insure inclusion and equal access for gays to educational and other opportunities at the Institute.
A policy statement about "sexual orientation" appeared in Tech Talk on November 1, 1978: "MIT's practice has been consistent with respect to students, faculty and employees. Sexual orientation is not taken into account in admissions, employment, promotion, compensation or termination. Anyone who feels discriminated against for this reason should feel free to use the grievance procedure as described in Policies and Procedures, You and MIT, and other Institute publications." This statement was published following requests from several members of the gay community at MIT for adoption of such a policy. At the time, senior officers felt that the nondiscrimination policy itself should refer only to those groups or categories covered by relevant state or federal legislation. There was some concern that to start including other groups might lead to an avalanche of requests to include additional categories in the formal policy.
Since the early 1970s, the Statement of Nondiscrimination had primarily served the purpose of satisfying federal and state laws relating to affirmative action. Sexual orientation was not a protected category under these affirmative action laws. The official nondiscrimination policy included "sexual orientation" for the first time in the 1981-82 Bulletin. The change as published in the 1981-82 Bulletin was intended to do more than simply satisfy laws. Commenting on MIT's new policy, former MIT president Paul Gray observed: "We did it because it was felt to be the right thing to do. It was intended to extend in a publicized way our practices of nondiscrimination in employment, promotion, and admissions. We knew that it put us in a tolerable but conflicted position with DOD policy."
Even though the history of American colleges and universities reveals that discriminatory practices within academia have mirrored those of other social and political entities, we in academia often say that the college and university experience represents a unique opportunity to rise above and possibly influence what goes on elsewhere. According to former MIT president James R. Killian, in his address at the 1955 discrimination conference, "one of the distinguishing characteristics of a college environment is that it is created out of altruism and ideal aims." He went on to state: "What better environment could there be for an examination of the differing opinions surrounding the methods involved in freeing American life of discriminatory practices?" In fact, colleges and universities are often looked to for guidance about human relations, about improved practices in democratic living, about ethics, and about honesty and morality in private and public relations. At colleges and universities, tolerance of diverse social and political perspectives is encouraged. Discrimination, as policy and practice, is discouraged. In particular, discrimination defined as the act of depriving someone of something that he or she might reasonably have were he or she not of a certain race, religion, ethnic group, or other discernible group, is discouraged, for such is detrimental to the notion of open inquiry fundamental to the educational enterprise.
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