L. Rafael Reif, Provost

Report of the Initiative for Faculty Race and Diversity

D. MIT: A Meritocratic Institution of Excellence and Inclusion?

Almost all American universities are trying to increase the presence of minorities on their campuses and to improve the environment in which they live. This is certainly true of MIT, as is obvious by the commitment to this Initiative. MIT has been working for a long time to reach the goal of a more diverse faculty, but it, like other universities, has not been highly successful in this endeavor. Mitchell Chang (2000) reports on a project from AERA and the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford which concludes that while this is not unusual, it should not invite complacency.

When the notion of race . becomes an integral aspect of institutional life, it has multiple effects, both exposing competition among institutional interests and aggravating the tension between them. When these effects are left unresolved, they not only neutralize diversity-related efforts but also exacerbate intergroup tensions (p. 162).

Among the key competing interests that Chang analyzes is the tension between excellence and inclusion. The presence of this tension - between what we have labeled diversity and excellence - is a key finding of the study.

Diversity and Excellence

When our faculty were asked in the survey whether they felt that "a diversified faculty (one with a critical mass of ethnic diversity representation) is important for MIT's continued academic excellence," 69% agreed with this statement and 39% agreed strongly.10 This opinion differs significantly, however, between URM and non-URM faculty. While 36% of White and 38% of Asian faculty strongly agreed with this statement, a full 82% of URM faculty agreed strongly. Women are also more likely to strongly agree: 53% of women vs. 35% of men.11

This item was one of a battery of items about cultural climate and opportunities at MIT.
A factor analysis of this battery showed that this item loads positively on a factor on which the following items load negatively:

I feel that the climate and opportunities for minority faculty are at least as good as those for non-minority faculty.

I feel that the climate and opportunities for female faculty are at least as good as those for male faculty.

In other words, those who believe that diversity is important for MIT's academic excellence are less likely to believe that the climate and opportunities at the Institute are as good for minority and women faculty as they are for the dominant groups. For this reason, we labeled this factor "missed excellence" and formed a scale of these three items with this name.12 Thirty-nine percent of URM faculty were in the "high" category on this scale, compared to 22% of White and 18% of Asian. Forty-nine percent of women, compared to 15% of men, were in the "high" category. Using this scale as a dependent variable in a regression analysis controlling for other demographic variables, we find that these results hold and are statistically significant for women and underrepresented minorities. When the URM category is disaggregated, the coefficient for Black faculty is higher than for Hispanic, the latter not attaining statistical significance. In other words, URM (especially Black) and women faculty believe that MIT is missing the chance to enhance excellence through diversity, because they see the environment for URMs and women as less good than it is for White men. They are more likely to believe that MIT's continued excellence demands a more diverse faculty but, at the same time, feel that the Institute does not provide them with as supportive an environment as it does for White men.

These survey results reflect some of the intellectual tension in discussions of diversity and excellence. The story becomes more complex, yet nuanced, when we look at what the URM and non-URM faculty tell us in the interviews. Both non-URM and URM faculty affirm that excellence and diversity are intertwined, although URMs are more likely to articulate the connection.

White and Asian faculty repeatedly indicate their sense of the Institute's belief that you cannot have excellence without diversity: "The overall climate here is to positively correlate excellence and diversity"; "I think they see it as highly linked"; "I think everyone would agree that intellectual diversity is central to excellence . "; "In general the attitude here is that ... excellence is compatible with diversity."

"I get the impression that the majority of people here see that having a diverse environment is important to being a place that is excellent. Most would argue that those two things are reasonably, strongly connected."

Notably, these faculty are referring to the Institute's commitments. Less often but nonetheless also represented among the non-URM faculty is a sense of personal conviction about the connection. "It's a really strong connection and that excellence requires diversity and diversity produces excellence, or helps to produce excellence."

"I think that in the long run they have to be intertwined. You cannot say, 'I'm hiring for excellence here and I'm hiring for diversity here,' because [otherwise] there's an implicit notion that people who are hired for diversity are not excellent. I would like to think that while we place a very strong emphasis on diversity, the two have to be linked together. . And ultimately for diversity to succeed, excellence and diversity have to be not only in practice but in principle, and in perception, seen as an integral part. And so, while we push for diversity, we also keep emphasizing excellence."

Despite these assertions of connection, some cautions and doubts are also expressed:
"I think there has to be balance"; "Is MIT really thinking about what comes out of that collective experience of having people from these different backgrounds . I think the university is very open to seeing diversity as part of excellence, but how deeply are they thinking about it?"; "There's this clear commitment to excellence and diversity . but it hasn't been resolved; how exactly do you achieve both at the same time?"

"One might make the argument that until deans, particularly department heads, really feel motivated to do something, that not much is going to get done. Things need to change at that level . I would say some faculty probably see that there's a conflict [between diversity and excellence], and others don't."

URM faculty also see this connection. "Diversity is not incompatible with excellence, and homogeneity is not synonymous with excellence . the way I see it, diversity and excellence go together"; "I want an MIT in which excellence is recognized, that everybody who does good work is recognized" and the only way to do that "is to have a diverse faculty."

Unlike the non-URM faculty, URMs are more explicit about why diversity makes for excellence. You will have more ideas and try more things. "Excellence is about the intellectual pursuit. If we are going to have intellectual pursuit, then we need to hear from all of the members of our community and our society"; "There is a connection between your life experience and your intellectual interest, the kind of questions you ask and pursue . diversity, life experience, matters for the quality of one's research"; "Having a diverse faculty will lead to more excellence and better research, because you will be more innovative."

Problems can be defined differently in various fields of knowledge and by people with different kinds of experiences.

"I think that there is a difference in problem choice. I think there is a difference in perspective. I believe there are cultural differences in problem solving, and that there's not a better or a worse way, but that there are different ways. And I think people who are more successful are people who think beyond their own box. But you can't do much if you're not exposed to other systems of thought . the more diverse you are the greater you've improved your excellence level on everything."

Instead of holding everyone to one "orthodoxy," a variety of approaches and of experiences enhances the excellence of an institution. "I think it is better for an institution when the general assumption is that everybody who's here is capable of being here. So you're bringing sort of a wealth of different types of experiences, backgrounds, et cetera, to a level playing field. That's the way it should be."

We have the situation, therefore, where both URM and non-URM faculty affirm the connection of excellence and diversity, but the tension remains because some URMs are skeptical about the genuineness of the non-URM assertion. URM faculty attribute to non-URM faculty the belief that standards are lowered when MIT hires minority faculty and thus diversity undermines excellence. "Whenever we talk about diversity, the conversation immediately goes to 'we have to maintain excellence' . people see a tension . can't say 'diversity' and assume excellence is included."

"Many White faculty here think they are upholding MIT as an institution by resisting these calls for more minorities. It's not just racism, direct blatant
racism. It's that they don't want to undermine MIT . I think many minority faculty perceive [that for non-URM faculty] bringing in minorities means lowering standards."

There are reports of hiring committees where bringing up "excellence" is a code for dismissing a minority candidate.

Meritocracy and Standards of Excellence. But what are those standards for excellence? How do we know it when we see it? "Nobody wants to lower their standards in order to achieve diversity. However I don't know if we always have the right standards"; "I don't know if they do it on purpose, but I do think they have a view of what excellence is, and that excellence doesn't really feed the multiplicity of ways that excellence can be achieved."

MIT is seen as a meritocracy, but, as already mentioned, a number of URM faculty see this principle applied easily to their "superstars" but less well to others.

"There are two different kinds of minority candidates, the kind that's such a star that you're like, whoa, and then everyone wants to get them [and they get swooped up]. And then there's the kind of person who is a good candidate but not a star. And those candidates I think end up getting rated lower than White candidates who are [also] good candidates but not a star."

A total of 30 URM faculty talked about a strong meritocratic ethos at MIT where faculty are judged and rewarded on merit without regard to race. But, within this strong consensus, there is further differentiation and controversy. About one-third (n=9) of these 30 faculty (mostly Hispanic) embrace the idea that MIT is indeed a meritocracy and fear that explicit attention to race in hiring and promotion will lead to preferences for candidates with less intellectual capacity.

"I don't think there is any overt racial discrimination. I just think there's an inherent culture that says, 'Anything like race, any social construct like that, that may be important to you as an individual, is unimportant here.' So, it's not like it's bad that you're Hispanic, it is just not relevant in this culture. What is relevant are your ideas, empirical tests and other intellectual pursuits."

The remaining two-thirds of these URM faculty challenge the mindset that a commitment to increasing the number of faculty of color means considering less-qualified candidates.

"I think that MIT believes very deeply in itself as a meritocracy. And I think that complicates efforts to really be proactive . There's a lot of fear over giving tenure to somebody who turns out to be a bust. They would rather make the mistake the other way . And I think that kind of thinking plays into hiring for graduate students. I think it plays into taking a bet on junior faculty."

Even though White and Asian faculty tell us that they think diversity and excellence are intertwined, we need to analyze the skepticism voiced by URM faculty that non-URMs' commitments are genuine. Here, our interviews with URM faculty about race suggest that if not explicitly stated as a tension between excellence and diversity, racialized experiences underwrite URM faculty's doubts about the Institute's and faculty's claims "that everybody who is here is capable of being here."13

These varied accounts of the relationship between excellence and diversity have more implications than we can pursue. At the most surface level, as in all social action, there is a difference - greater or smaller - between what people say and what they do. Somewhat below the immediate surface are the varying degrees of appreciation of the subtler dynamics of social interaction as essential components of doing science and engineering. Some faculty suggest that because MIT is an institution dominated by science and engineering - and because these fields rely so heavily on objective indicators and measures - a community of engineers and scientists simply does not pay sufficient attention to the social organization of their work in labs, in departments and in the schools that constitute the Institute.

"MIT's crowning achievement is that it's a quote unquote meritocracy. That's indisputable. Who's going to argue with that? It's completely unobjectionable. That's grounded, I think, in science in some kind of way. That the numbers will sort it all out. . Any way in which the subtleties, the interactions that make scientific production possible are ignored. All people are concerned about is the end product, it seems. But there are labs. There are dynamics within labs. There's funding. There's all of these kinds of things which inform what happens. But somehow that all gets pushed to the side, purposely. We're not going to look at that because we are somehow committed to the scientific method. I think in other places there's just more cognizance of a more complex world."

Findings here suggest that URM faculty grapple with the idea and the reality of whether MIT is a true meritocracy in which people are rewarded solely according to their ability. URM voices suggest that there is disguised inequality embedded in an organizational culture deeply rooted in the belief that it functions according to merit-based practices.14 Findings suggest, further, that in the MIT culture which embraces the scientific ethos - and claims that science is itself beyond identity and race - race, racialization and racism, or the perception of them, are very difficult for many to recognize, address and discuss honestly.

Experience of Race

Because of this deep-seated belief that MIT works as a meritocracy, minority faculty have racialized experiences that remain invisible to most non-URM faculty. Here is a first bit of evidence of these racialized experiences, as reported in the survey. Respondents were asked the following question:

In your daily encounters on the MIT campus, has anyone ever assumed that you were a student, support staff or trespasser?

Women were more likely than men to be assumed to be a student or a support staff. White men were least likely to be assumed to be a student or support staff. All Black women faculty who responded to this question (n=8) reported having been assumed to be a student. And, while most groups had never been assumed to be a trespasser - someone who did not belong on the MIT campus, i.e. was trespassing - a shocking 42% of Black men reported having experienced this. Black and Hispanic men were also assumed to be support staff. (See Figure D.1.)

Figure D.1
In your daily encounters on the MIT campus, has anyone ever assumed
that you were a student, support staff or trespasser?


Clearly, some of MIT's minority faculty live in a different world from the rest. Their daily interactions are fraught with experiences most of the faculty cannot fathom.

"In terms of the faculty, there are still so few of us that one's presence is still different. Or I would say a person seeing me might not automatically assume I was a faculty member here, but perhaps in some other capacity. [And later in the interview] I was sitting at one table waiting for someone to come have lunch. It was kind of towards the edge of the seating area. And someone came up to me that asked to give me money to pay for their lunch and where they should be going to get their food."

Marginalization (i.e. excluded, ignored or valued less, relegated to the periphery of a group) is a common theme in the literature about race and is a common theme in the experiences recounted by the URM faculty participants. Ten URM faculty members referenced feeling marginalized by race personally, as scholars, or as a part of their department or school within the Institute. At MIT, departments in the humanities, social sciences and the arts are marginalized within the larger Institute that elevates departments in the sciences, in engineering, and in departments that have an economic, technological or scientific focus. Moreover, faculty of color within the humanities, social sciences and the arts are further marginalized within their peripheral homes in the Institute structure.

Of course, there is the other side of this dilemma, referred to in the literature as racial taxation, meaning the extra service work that people of color (and women) bear. For example, from the survey we learn that URM faculty are involved with significantly more committees than are non-URMs (8.67 vs. 5.95, p<.05). In the interviews, 25 URM faculty raised the issue of racial taxation, i.e. being more heavily burdened with students or committee responsibilities. Although many URM faculty report that they enjoy service work, especially that which seeks to help students succeed at MIT or contributes to substantive change at the Institute, this group reports participating in more service-related activities than their White peers while also receiving little credit for this work.

"I think I'm one of the token minorities in the department. And so, when there is a committee that involves something for racial diversity, I'm volunteered for it. Which is fine by me because I actually enjoy working on those things, but .
I guess I don't like the idea that I'm nominated because of my ethnicity. Like, on the one hand, I'm happy to be involved in the committee. I would volunteer for it if they asked for volunteers, but I don't like the idea that I'm being chosen on the basis of being a token minority."

"I've done a lot of committee work and search work. I think women have historically done more than their share of service. You are pressed to take this on, and then you wonder if you really get any credit for it. It takes a lot of energy and time and in some sense it isn't really the thing that influences promotion. That's true for women, and it's even more true for women of color, as when we serve, a committee gets both a woman and an underrepresented minority: two for the price of one."

Perhaps the most difficult, unpleasant and demeaning aspect of this work is that it types a person only by the characteristic of race. One faculty member reflects on being asked, as a junior faculty, about a potential candidate for the department:

"It stuck with me because I thought, oh, brother. These people are grown. They evidently are completely unaware of the racial dynamics and the burden. So I felt burdened. I said to myself, 'You wouldn't have gone into anyone else's office. You did not prance into any other junior faculty's office asking them about what you thought about that faculty member, and you'd never do it if he were White. The only reason you came in here to ask me was because he was Black.' It really angered me, because I thought it's unfair. It's an unfair burden that you're placing on me, and nobody else in my rank has to deal with this."

If there are extra burdens from being a representative or having to be the spokesperson educating the non-URM faculty, there is a simultaneous disenfranchisement of being invisible, especially if race is not the salient category of the interaction. One Black woman described this invisibility in a situation when she was on a dissertation committee as a junior faculty with two senior White men:

"So I make a suggestion, give her [the student] an interpretation of her work and make suggestions about how she may move forward. It seemed to be a good idea. One of the other faculty members looks at the other White guy and says, 'So you're saying--?' The other guy says, 'No, I didn't say that. XXX said that.' The other one says, 'So you're saying--.' I thought I was in some movie or something. This can't be for real. I wish I had a camera . And I thought, what the hell? These two guys are senior people, I'm giving a suggestion that's useful to a student, it's a good idea. I can't get the credit and I'm sitting in the room, with the other guy saying, 'I didn't say it!'"

Together, the extra taxation and invisibility reinforce the suspicion of URM faculty that they are valued only for their race. And, if matters are not already racialized, or race has not surfaced as a relevant issue, URMs may be invisible.

And there are more subtle dynamics as well.

"One reason I keep all these books on the wall is because I really do feel that here, as well as everywhere else, until people get to know you they assume you don't read. They assume you're . an affirmative-action kid who just got in. That you're not a real scholar. I have this here to show them."

People even experience curiosity and judgmental evaluation about the food they eat, as evidenced by a URM faculty member who brought a special energy drink into a faculty meeting: "I popped it open at one of my first faculty meetings in the department here. Two people told me you can't drink beer in a faculty meeting. As if I don't know enough not to pop open a Colt .45 in a faculty meeting? That's what it's like being Black, day-to-day."

These experiences cumulate into different routines, different expectations walking the
corridors, and different standards of normal for URM and non-URM faculty.

"People have a lowered expectation of minority faculty when they walk in the door, something not spoken or even perceived. So it's sort of like when the African American or Hispanic professor walks in the door, people think 'Well, we'll just be happy if this person publishes something by a reasonable time.' I think that there is a dialogue that goes on in people's heads. 'We'll be happy if we can foster this person enough that they will be able to stay here and be tenured. We'll just be happy with that.' And they may be even feeling good about themselves when thinking that."

Unless they are "superstars," URMs are constrained by doubts about their abilities. They, and sometimes the content of their research, are marginalized on the one hand, burdened with race-specific assignments on the other.

A number of URM faculty feel that the non-URM group - particularly White men - have no understanding of current racial dynamics.

"I think many of our faculty that are not minorities often don't fully appreciate the nuances of what it is to be a minority. They may understand what it was 30 years ago or 40 years ago. The racial issues that society had then are not the issues of today. Racism is more subtle now. I've never experienced a place as good as MIT but there can still be a problem. Addressing the problems of this decade and the next decade will require a different approach. These problems are less dire, more subtle, but they still exist and therefore they must be dealt with. The perception that 'it's a lot better now so we can throttle back our attention and effort' is uninformed, inappropriate."

Differences in Racial Orientation Within the URM Group. Although we differentiate between non-URM and URM faculty, we must remember that the URM faculty are themselves not a homogenous group. Indeed some differences between Blacks and Hispanics, and men and women, have already been mentioned. One can also differentiate among URM faculty by the interpretative repertoires they mobilize concerning issues of race at MIT. These orientations, or cultural repertoires, echo patterns researchers have observed elsewhere. In particular, there is a common dominant orientation characterized by racial apathy and color blindness, and an alternative orientation that sees race as more of a sociopolitical and historical construct, as indicated in Table D.1. Rather than set opinions or decisions, these are clusters of linguistic schema and interpretations that are often, not exclusively, mobilized with each other as faculty try to make sense of their experiences and ambitions for themselves and the Institute.

Table D.1
Dominant and alternative racial orientations at MIT

(Racial Apathy/Color Blind)
(Bonilla Silva, 2003; Forman, 2004)

(Sociopolitical & Historical Construct)
(Omi & Winant, 1994; Eseed, 2002)

  • Equal opportunity exists for all who choose to seize it.
  • Denial that racism affects life experiences and opportunities of people of color, often against a backdrop of meritocratic ideals.
  • Issues pertaining to race are often transformed into more palatable discussions about gender or broader issues of equity and diversity.
  • Discussions about diversity stop short of discussing race and racism.

(N=16; 11 Hispanic, 5 Black)

  • Race is a sociopolitical and historically contingent reality that matters and has meaning.
  • How race is experienced is linked to meanings, constructed by relations within the Institute AND relations that exist in the larger society.
  • Willing to engage the meanings of race and the consequences of those meanings.

(N=19; 4 Hispanic and 15 Black)

To the extent possible, we coded the MIT URM respondents according to these racial orientations and found differences within this group. Results show that Black faculty are more likely to articulate a more critical conception of the role of race than is true for Hispanics (p<.01).15 Women also show a preponderance for the alternative, counter-dominant orientation (5 of 7, 71%), while men are evenly split, but the difference is not statistically significant. Finally, 11 of 18 (61%) tenured URM faculty, as opposed to 8 of 17 (47%) untenured, display the alternative orientation - again not statistically significant.

Here are some examples of the dominant orientation from our interviews:

"I mean, I like to think of us as beyond the race issue. And I know that's idealistic . I don't think we should not concentrate our efforts in trying to improve or increase inclusion, but trying to again get rid of the remains of those bad things that are stopping our very egotistical and at the same time great objective, which is to get the best people here for a greater purpose."

"We're very proud of the fact we're a meritocracy. There are actually many good things to say about that. Ideally, in a meritocracy, people should be blind to race and gender. Why does that matter? All that matters is how good you are by some measure."

And some examples of the alternative orientation from the interviews with MIT minority faculty:

"I mean, I think it's just a fact of life at MIT or elsewhere. Race does matter. And I think - I am of the view that people should acknowledge that and deal with it, rather than deny it or have different expectations. It did have impact on what I experience around here."

"The three ways that race relates to the university: one is that we do a lot of analysis where race is a factor . We also ought to help students understand the organizational and dynamic aspect of race in organizations. And then third, we ought to help students understand race as part of their own personal experience and their professional effectiveness, and so forth. And there ought to be opportunities for them to learn something about themselves on those last two points so that they leave the university better off and more sophisticated than they came. Universities do a very good job at number one. Not every faculty member in every university, but in general, universities do a very good job on number one. And, in general, we do a lousy job on two and three. We tend not to pay much attention."

Summary of Section D

So is MIT a meritocratic institution of excellence and inclusion? The answer is complicated. Most faculty, URM and non-URM, buy into the idea that diversity and excellence should and do go together. But not many, particularly not the non-URM faculty, try to understand the mechanisms that lie behind this connection: what diversity brings to intellectual creativity and innovation and how diversity makes this contribution. Despite this common belief that excellence and diversity are intertwined, the experiences of the minority faculty, particularly of Black faculty, are different from the rest; race is a significant part of their identity and they can articulate how it plays out in their lives at MIT. But it is disregarded by most of the community; they are both invisible and have extra demands placed on them. They live in a world where excellence is presumed, though sometimes not for them.

C. Hiring and Career Trajectories

E. Summary and Conclusions


10 There is no difference between tenured and non- tenured faculty on this item.

11 These differences are all statistically signifcant (by chi-square tests) at p<.001.

12 The Cronbach alpha for this scale is .7. Scale scores reach the maximum (15), and those greater than 11 (between 12 and 15) were considered "high" on this scale.

13 In a study of scientists in R&D labs, DiTomaso, Post, Smith, Farris, & Cordero (2007) show that White U.S.-born men get more favorable task assignments and evaluations, whereas most others fall into an average zone on these aspects of their work. Only U.S.-born Black women were actually less favorably evaluated and had less access to the work experiences that are related to performance: "Our fndings suggest that in science and engineering, the relative structural position of U.S.-born White men provides them with greater access to favorable work experiences.as well as giving them the beneft of the doubt in the evaluation of their performance." (p. 197)

14 Through a lab experiment, Castilla (2008) has shown that a merit-based system, compared to one that makes evaluations more casually, actually enhances the societal biases that people bring into the workplace, probably because people in the casual system are more alert to the possibility of such bias than they are when the system is described as specifcally merit based.

15 Chi-square with Yates correction = 6.2, p=.01; Fischer's exact test, p=.006.

L. Rafael Reif
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Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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