MIT Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee

27th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast Celebration
February 8, 2001

"Confronting the Gap: Building and Sustaining Inclusion"

Dr. Lani Guinier

Professor/Civil Rights Attorney
Harvard Law School

It’s a pleasure to be here, although I’m not sure you can call this a breakfast. It’s moving into lunchtime. I want to speak about Dr. King’s methodology not just his dream and I want to talk about his methodology and try to use his ideas to illuminate what I think are some of the really important, really powerful voices that you heard from this stage this morning. You heard, for example, Christopher talking about the importance of properly defining a problem. You heard Maria talking about the importance of genuine understanding. You heard people who had actually met Dr. King talking about his courage and his commitment to community and you could not possibly have missed the message of the choir talking about joy. I think that all of this in some way is about joy. I am not here to deliver a prescription of medicine, but really a joyful message about how we all need to change. This is not simply about love, but it is a joyous message of transformation. Now most people think about Dr. King as a dreamer and as someone who had a dream that one day his children would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. But I think that Dr. King was actually an even more profound thinker and strategist and so I love the idea of speaking after graphs have been put up and we’ve been exhorted to get the blueprint and the green plan or all of the, the futures market and all of the terminology from all of you here in the audience. Dr. King’s methodology was really about taking from the margin to rethink the whole. So in terms of thinking about closing the gap I would challenge all of us to think not about how the problem is located in the people of color or the women who are under-represented but it is really a problem of this community and all of our communities in failing to deliver on their fundamental mission. Dr. King, for example, said that the goal of the American Negro was perpetual engagement to make America live up to her stated ideals and that by freeing themselves black people would be freeing whites, too. That is the message of taking from the margin to rethink the whole. It is a message that I try to capture with a simple metaphor, that of the miners’ canary. The miners used to take a canary into the mines to alert them when the atmosphere in the mines was too toxic for the miners. The canary’s more fragile respiratory system would give way first, signalling that there was a problem with the atmosphere in the mine. The argument that I am making and that I believe was Dr. King’s methodology is that the experience of women, the experience of people of color and particularly the experience of African Americans is the experience of the canary. And the problem has been that we have pathologized the canary and tried to locate the problem in the canary, when in fact the canary is signalling to us a much bigger problem with the atmosphere in the mine that is affecting all of us.

So the challenge is not to pathologize the canary, not to outfit the canary with a little pint—sized gas mask so that it can withstand the toxic atmosphere in the mine. The challenge is to fix the atmosphere in the mine so all of us can breathe cleaner air. I’d like to try and apply this idea of the miners’ canary, of taking from the margin to rethink the whole, to some of the issues that we heard discussed earlier today about the question of higher education and the question of the continued under-representation of people of color and women, particularly here at the graduate level, in the faculty and also among administrators. I want to tell you a simple story before I get into what I think is an even more fundamental problem that no one has really addressed and that is the problem of the testocracy. But before I get to the testocracy, let me tell you a story. Un Triesman is a Professor of Calculus. He is now a Professor of Calculus at the University of Texas. At the time of this story he was a Professor of Calculus at University of California, Berkeley. And he noticed, he was teaching first year calculus, he noticed that his African American calculus students were not doing as well as his Chinese American calculus students. He consulted his colleagues to find out why. His colleagues came forward with many of the predictable stereotypes, many of the assumptions that certainly they would share with I’m sure many people in this room. They said oh well, the African American students are not studying as hard. Oh, the African American students were not as well—prepared. Oh, the African American students came from single parent families and therefore they have many other distractions. In other words, pathologizing the canary. The reason the African American students were not doing as well is a problem that was located specifically in the African American students that were recruited to the University of California Berkeley. Well, Professor Triesman was not satisfied with these assumptions and so he actually hired researchers to follow the African American students around, as well as the Chinese American students, to at least test the hypothesis that the African American students were not studying as hard as their Chinese American counterparts. He found out that in fact his colleagues were wrong. The African American students were studying harder than the Chinese American students, if you count studying as sitting in your dorm room alone with the calculus book open in front of you. The African American students were putting in the time, but it turned out that they were not efficiently or effectively studying calculus, when you compare what Un Tniesman’s researchers found about the Chinese American students. The Chinese American students were studying calculus together. They were talking calculus on their way to class. They were talking calculus in the library. They would talk calculus over lunch. And it turned out that the process of understanding, and coming back here to the importance of understanding, of understanding a concept like calculus required intellectual engagement with your peers and particularly the willingness to ask questions when you don’t know the answer. The willingness to ask questions when you don’t know the answer. Understanding that not knowing what you, knowing what you don’t know, excuse me, is a key to then learning what you need to know. So Un Triesman designed a peer workshop in which he invited the African American students to come to solve calculus problems together. He set the problems out on a table. He served food, seeing the Chinese American students studying calculus over lunch, it seemed to create an informal atmosphere. He invited recent past learners to come to be available so that when questions came up there would be people there who would be in a position to help10guide the students in thinking through the problem. By the end of the first semester of attending this peer workshop the African American students’ calculus scores went up and by the end of the second semester they were among the highest scoring students in the class. Now. You say, what does this have to do with the canary? He fixed the canary. But it was at that moment that Un Triesman had an epiphany. He realized, after seeing the progress of his African American students, that in fact the problem was not located in the African American students. The problem was located in the way he, Un Triesman, was teaching calculus to everybody. He was the sage on the stage. He stood in front of the room and spoke at all of the students, who busily took notes. There was no engagement between him and the students or between the students and each other. He then introduced the concept of group learning, group collaboration, into the classroom and all of the students in his calculus class benefitted. That is the theme of the miners’ canary and I believe that was Dr. King’s most important contribution. It was not his dream, but his methodology. That if we take from the margin we can rethink the whole to benefit everyone. Now that is a story that I think can move, or at least I will try and move it into the argument as to why we need to think about the miners’ canary metaphor and need to use Dr. King’s methodology in considering what I think is a major problem, coming back to Christopher’s point that we have to properly define the problem, with the gap and sustainable inclusion and that is our devotion, our new religion, called the testocracy. We are committed to the idea that we objectively rank everyone in this room if we simply give them a paper and pencil test and time their performance on that test. And we believe that somehow we will get a ranking that will be something we can rely on, something from which we can predict who then not only is going to do well when we give the test tomorrow, but who somehow is going to do well in their future. We move from a paper and pencil test which we rank and score, to a prediction as to who we will provide opportunity to. Who will be given opportunity is based on who does well on a particular test.

Now. Why would I challenge this religion?

Why would I challenge the testocracy? Well, it turned out that when I was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School I had a student who came up to me who actually was not interested in the testocracy at all. She was interested in the fact that there weren’t enough women professors at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She wanted to do a videotape in which she did a role reversal. She had seen one at a medical school in which all of the professors were women in which the typical human body that was studied was that of a female and there were a few male students in the class in this videotape and one of them tentatively raised his hand at one point and he said, Professor. What happens if a man gets this disease? And the professor, a woman, wheels around, turns to the young male student and says, well, you’re smart! Extrapolate! Figure it out! So Anne wanted to do this for the law school and I said I would be happy to advise her, although I knew nothing about video. It seemed to me she needed a script so she went out and wrote a script and it was all about her. It was all about the experiences that she had had at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. I said, well now Anne, if you’re going to put all of this effort into making a video it seems to me you want some assurance, I don’t doubt that these experiences happened to you, but you need some assurance that your experiences, if not typical, are at least representative of the experience of others. So she did a 70-question survey, put in the mail folders of all the students at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, got over a 52% return rate and found that the women and men seemed to be going to a different school. The men were participating in class, they had enormous self-confidence, they felt that the professors were available to them to mentor them. The women, two-thirds of the women never raised their hand to ask a question and never went up to a professor after class and the explanation that they gave us in subsequent interviews is that they were waiting for friendliness cues I don’t know how many of you have been to a law school, but they’re still waiting. Now, having said all of that, I did exactly what Un Triesman did. I went to my colleagues and I said, these women do not seem happy at this law school. Many of the women came in, one—third of the first year women had an interest in doing public service, 10% of the first year men had an interest in doing public service. Third year women, 10% wanted to do public service, 8% of the men wanted to do public service. There seemed to be a shift in the aspirations of the women and yet they still were not participating in class. Two-thirds of the third year women still never raised their hand, never asked a question. Yet what was really important is that the first year women who never raised their hand in class were bothered by that fact. The third-year women had come to accept this as normal. So I went to my colleagues, I said, what do you think is the problem? And they said well, maybe you should see if this is affecting their performance. So we went to the dean, it was a new dean, he figured if he gave us all of this data it would reflect if at all on his predecessor, so he gave us all of the academic performance data of every single student then at the University of Pennsylvania Law School as well as every student who had graduated the year before. He also gave us the entry level credentials of all of the students. We found that the men had three times as great a chance of being in the top 10% of the class as the women and one and a half times as great a chance of being in the top 50% as the women and that this differential, which began in the first year, was sustained over the three years. We then looked at the entry level credentials and particularly in law school the LSAT, because this commitment, this religion, this belief that you can give people a test and then you can rank and score them and then, based on their performance on that test, you can predict what kind of lawyers they’re going to be is very deeply held in the law school community. So we looked at the LSATs and we discovered that there was a statistically insignificant differential between the LSATs of men and women. Men were a little bit higher but it was statistically insignificant. Women actually had higher undergraduate GPAs, but again it was statistically insignificant. Went back to my colleagues with this information and they said well, you need examine that statistically insignificant differential between the men and the women on the LSATs. That’s probably where the answer lies. Another one of my colleagues said, varsity sports. Varsity sports. His theory was that the reason the men were doing better in law school and had not done as well as undergraduates is that when they were undergraduates they were distracted because they were involved in varsity sports. And when they got to law school where there was no varsity sports then they could devote their full attention to their studies. Now all of this was very disturbing to me but at the time I was untenured and so I dutifully went and looked at this statistically insignificant differential in the LSAT and I also kept in mind the idea of the varsity sports. OK, now. Having looked now, I’m now explaining, how did I get into this understanding that we are misguided in our commitment to a testocracy? My colleagues believed in the LSAT and yet when we looked at the LSAT and its correlation with first year law school performance we found that it was successful in predicting 14% of the differential in first year law school grades. It was a little better second year. 15% of the differential. You may say as statisticians oh, that’s a really big and positive correlation. I was a civil rights lawyer. I was a voting rights lawyer. I was a lawyer who went into the Deep South and brought in political scientists and other social scientists to help me when we were trying to prove that if you knew the race of a voter you could predict the race of the candidate they were going to vote for, in order to establish racial polarization, which was an essential element of our claim, because we were trying to show that in many parts of Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama that many of the white people in the community would simply not vote for a black candidate and therefore it was hard for blacks to run and get elected. And I know Harvey Gantt is very familiar with this problem because one of the places where we litigated was North Carolina. In North Carolina we found that in the early 1980s 83.7% of the whites in North Carolina would not vote for a black candidate, even if their choice was to vote for no one. So we were talking about using statistics to try and develop some correlations. We would go into court with very high numbers saying if you knew the race of a voter you could predict the race of a candidate nine out of ten times. And the judge would turn to us and say well, where’s the other 10%? Where’s the other 10%? So when I’m looking at statistics that are the absolute opposite of the statistics on which we were trying to rely and the court was skeptical, I become very skeptical. So I started to investigate. Linda Whiteman, who was one of the people who developed the LSAT, said oh, the LSAT is 9% better than random in predicting first year law school grades nationwide. 9% better than random. And yet this is a test somehow that we rely on to predict performance. Following the Bach and Bowen study that President Vest referenced in his remarks there was a study at the University of Michigan Law School. This was in response to a affirmative action lawsuit and they looked at 30 years of graduates and were trying to see whether their affirmative action program had in fact yielded graduates who somehow were less successful than others and therefore they should reconsider their affirmative action program. They came up with three goals, three measures of success that they would use in trying to determine whether their graduates had achieved the mission of the law school. Financial satisfaction, professional satisfaction and leadership in the community. Mentoring younger attorneys, sitting on boards of public or community organizations. They found in fact there was no correlation between entry level credentials and financial satisfaction. No correlation between entry level credentials and professional satisfaction. There was a correlation between entry level credentials, particularly of the LSAT, and leadership in the community. A negative relationship. The higher your LSAT, the less likely you were to be a leader in your community after you graduated. So, you may say well, this only has to do with Michigan, it only has to do with lawyers. Harvard did a study of three classes of its graduates over a 30—year period. It was trying to determine, again, how well did its graduates fare in three areas, financial satisfaction, professional satisfaction and contribution to the community. Otherwise known as how much money do you make, how much fun do you have making the money and do you give any of it back to Harvard? One thing correlated with success as Harvard was measuring it. Actually, two things. Low SAT scores and a blue collar background. What Harvard concluded from this study is that motivation and an opportunity to succeed, when given to those people who are motivated to take advantage of it, yields people who then can go on and be successful, as Harvard was measuring it. Now this suggests to me if we’re going to be serious about Dr. King’s birthday, if we’re going to be serious about celebrating his dream as well as his methodology, that we have to rethink not only how we are treating the canary, but how we are constructing the atmosphere in the mine to affect everyone. This is not simply about lowering the SAT or the LSAT or the GRE requirements for students of color or for women. This is about rethinking the importance that we place on a single, fixed, paper and pencil test that we then use to predict performance over the course of someone s lifetime, when it turns out that we don’t necessarily have a basis for that reliance, not just for students of color, but for white students as well. And particularly for white, working-class and poor students, who are not counted I was very interested in Christopherts data that 70% of the population he said in the United States is white and 60% of the graduate students here at MIT are white. But I’d like to know what the socioeconomic data is on those 60% white students. If it’s anything like the University of California Berkeley, for example, a disproportionate number of the white students here at MIT come from families where the income is over $100,000 a year. So we are using the testocracy as a proxy for privilege. William Julius Wilson has done research showing that if you want to know someone’s SAT, the best predictor of their SAT is to look at their grandparents’ socioeconomic status. Their grandparents’ socioeconomic status. There is a strong correlation, in fact a stronger correlation between your grandparents’ socioeconomic status and your SAT score than there is between your SAT and your first year college grades. But I’d like to broaden the conversation, because this is not simply about how well you do first year at MIT, or how well you do first year at Harvard Law School or how well you do first year at the University of Pennsylvania. If all we were worried about is how well you did the first year at this institution we would not have a four year college, we would not have a three year law school. This is not simply about how well you do in this environment, but how well is this environment preparing all of its graduates to do well in our larger democracy. This is really a question about democratic citizenship. We abolished the literacy test and we abolished the poll tax and we abolished many of the arbitrary prerequisites that had been used to determine who can participate in our democracy. I think we need to reconsider the testocracy and some of the tests that we are using as gatekeepers to determine who can participate in our democratic polity now in the same way as what we were doing in the 1960s. Let me just say, I’m a professor, I give exams, I grade them. I’m not opposed to all tests. This is about high stakes testing that is being used to predict from one domain to another how someone is going to perform in the future. This is not about how well did you do in this particular class based on what it was that I expected you to learn. This is using a test, misusing a test to try to predict someone’s future performance. Now, the last point I want to make has to do with some research of Claude Steel, who is a Professor of Psychology at Stanford. I think his research is really important and it comes at the issue of the testocracy from another angle. Claude Steel as I said, is a psychologist. He administered the same very difficult verbal test, a 30 minute verbal test, to selected groups of black and white students, and these students were statistically equated on their ability level. When he gave the students a prompt that this is a test of your aptitude, the black students did much worse than the white students, although they had been grouped based on what the researchers thought was the same ability level Same test, same ability level, and yet the black students did worse on a test when the prompt was this is about your aptitude. He then assembled another group of black and white students. And instead of, again, statistically equated on ability level, instead of saying this about your aptitude the prompt was, we are giving you a problem solving task that has nothing to do with your ability. Black and white students did the same. He calls this the stereotype threat. And he says that when a test or when an environment or when an experience prompts anxiety about how one is perceived in an unfamiliar environment it can reenforce self esteem issues. And it goes back to that Un Triseman example where some of what seemed to help the black students when they were brought together in the peer workshop was enhancing their self confidence that they were learners. That they could ask questions and reflect the fact that they didn’t know the answer and they could still learn. This suggests it’s not just about the criteria we use to admit people, it is also about the way in which we conduct the environment in which we teach people. It has to do with our expectations, not only of our students but of ourselves. And just as a footnote, Claude Steel gave a very similar test to white males and Asian males, statistically equated for ability, a math test. He said to both groups, this is a test of how well you do on math compared to each other. Meaning, excited their competitiveness and said we’re trying to find out how well white males do compared to Chinese or Asian American males and the white males’ scores on this test went down compared to that of the Asian males. This is not just about reinforcing stereotypes regarding African Americans. This is about trying to use more creative, more experiential, more innovative ways of teaching that accommodate everyone’s learning styles, that motivate people to do their best, and that open up opportunity to all Americans who can take advantage of it and who will then use that opportunity to give back not only to the school that educated them, but to the society at large. And I want to just end with a story about how this can happen, not just about race, not just about gender, but about diversity in which we learn from each other and don’t assume that the best way of doing something is the way we alone would do it. My son, when he was eight years old, wanted to be an astronaut. He had us watch the movie Apollo 13 several times. You must remember, if you’ve seen it, the scene where they summon NASA, the astronauts are in a capsule, they are choking on their own carbon dioxide, there is leakage between a round tube and a square opening and they are in desperate shape. Houston, we have a problem. Now, the NASA administrator, in trying to deal with this tangible problem, did not say well, get me the person with the highest SAT scores on their physics or science or engineering tests. He assembled a diverse group of people with different kinds of expertise. He put them in a room, he gave them a reproduction of everything that the astronauts had on that capsule and he said now you have to solve this problem by working together. And they did. And they were able to convert what could have been a tragedy into a triumph. And I believe if we take the methodology of Dr. King, if we remember the lesson of the minors canary, that we too can avert what could be otherwise a tragedy and turn it into a triumph.

Thank you very much.