Is there a conflict between diversity
and excellence at MIT?
To The Faculty Newsletter:
In his recent letter to the September/October 2011 Faculty Newsletter, Professor James H. Williams, Jr. worries that I have set up an opposition of diversity versus excellence that has the potential to create a toxic environment with deleterious consequences for black faculty members. My experience and actions on matters of diversity and excellence strongly confirm my belief that there is no conflict between the two, and that such arguments must not be part of the MIT culture that supports and celebrates the accomplishments of all individuals regardless of race, gender, sexual identity, religion, or other personal characteristics.
Unfortunately, as noted in the 2010 Report on The Initiative for Faculty Race and Diversity (see the article by Professor Paula Hammond in the January/February 2010 Faculty Newsletter) it is the case that there is tension at MIT around the concepts of inclusion and excellence. That fact is troubling and surprising to some, hence worthy of our intellectual engagement, challenge, and action. The 2010 Report concluded, “In general, the belief that inclusion must equal dilution of excellence is one that has not been effectively discussed and countered within MIT’s culture, although inclusion of the top scientists and engineers across a broad range of experiences can lead to innovation. It can also lead to the foundation of new research areas that have high impact in many parts of the country and the world.”
The Race Initiative report provides several recommendations to improve the recruiting, mentoring, promotion and career development, and climate of and for minority faculty, as well as structural recommendations intended to increase MIT’s overall engagement with faculty diversity issues. MIT has made some progress but still has a long way to go in carrying out these recommendations to their successful conclusion, and it is worthwhile to re-read the report and to ask whether we are doing all that we can.
One of the report’s recommendations was “The Institute should create forums at MIT where race and cross-cultural interactions are openly discussed.” The Human Diversity and Social Order Forum Series co-organized by Associate Provost Wesley Harris and Professor Leon Trilling during the MIT150 celebration was one major forum of this type. Discussions of this type can also occur at the departmental level, as advocated in my article in the March/April 2011 Faculty Newsletter, “Departmental Discussions of Diversity and Inclusion.”
On January 27, 2012 the Committee on Race and Diversity and the Committee on Staff Diversity and Inclusion will be co-hosting the 2012 Institute Diversity Summit, an event that will bring members of the MIT community together to brainstorm ways to help MIT be a leader in diversity and inclusion as it is a leader in many academic fields. I encourage all readers to participate.
In the February/March 2004 Faculty Newsletter, Professor Williams made a formal recommendation to the MIT Corporation that the official MIT motto be amended to “Mens, Manus et Cor” (Mind, Hand and Heart) to honor President Charles M. Vest. This suggestion gives a hopeful vision of an MIT where tolerance and warmth, merit and success, respect and inclusion are all central and recognized as integral to one another. Graduate students have encouraged me to help change the MIT culture from “sink or swim” to one of caring and support for all to achieve their best. This vision can be made reality, but only if we are willing to engage, grapple, and care enough – with mind, hand, and heart – to make it so.
Professor and Head
Department of Physics