MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XIX No. 5
March / April 2007
The Saga of the Struggle for Survival
of the Faculty Newsletter
The Management of Change: Institute Facing Key Issues in the Immediate Future
The More Things Change
the More They Stay the Same
Getting More Learning
out of Lecture and Recitation Time
Why Diversity Matters
The Martin Luther King, Jr.
Visiting Professor Program
Desired End State: Reaching the Goal
MLK, MIT, and Me: A Personal Essay
Recruiting Underrepresented
Minority Students to MIT
Filling the Pipeline
Faith vs. Fact in the Pursuit
of Fairness at MIT
Ode to William Wells
Stephen M. Meyer
CMI – A Bold Experiment
in International Partnership
Response to Prof. Sussman's Call
for Interdisciplinary Research
Appreciation for Special Edition
Faculty Newsletter
Cutting the Pie of Undergraduate Education
Getfit@mit with the FNL
Underrepresented Minorities at MIT
MIT Faculty:
Women and Underrepresented Minorities
Printable Version

Why Diversity Matters

Karl W. Reid

Until the 1960s, many U.S. universities expressed little concern for the paucity of minority students attending their institutions. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 accelerated the desegregation of colleges and universities, particularly in states that resisted the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision outlawing racial segregation in public education.

While colleges in the South reluctantly moved to comply with these and other federal mandates, several northern colleges and universities, including MIT, had already begun to aggressively address the problem years before the Civil Rights Act was signed. Clarence William’s Technology and the Dream (2001) chronicles MIT’s early efforts first to eliminate bias and discriminatory practices against racial and ethnic minorities, and then to increase the structural diversity of its student body.

In response to Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices Commission legislation, MIT president Karl Compton stated in 1947 that MIT “has no quotas, nor do we limit any group or groups because of race, religion, color, national origin, or ancestry” (Williams, C.G., Technology and the Dream, p. 15. 2001, Cambridge, MA: MIT press). A few years later in 1952, the Institute Committee (now the Undergraduate Association) issued a resolution to eliminate discriminatory practices within campus organizations. Still, African American student enrollment in that era remained persistently small, comprising only about one percent of the undergraduate population. Consequently, MIT faculty and senior administrators responded with more aggressive recruitment efforts.

In 1964, the Admissions and Financial Aid committees urged increased contact with Black high schools, forging greater ties with Black organizations, and creating more scholarships earmarked for African American students. Thirty-one percent of the 743 high schools visited by MIT students and staff that year were predominantly Black schools.

In the fall of 1964, staff and faculty identified promising African American students from 46 majority Black schools that were visited during that season.

That same year, President Julius Stratton formed the Committee on Educational Opportunity to explore how the Institute could become more involved in addressing problems of race, segregation, and integration. However, not until President Howard Johnson appointed the Task Force on Educational Opportunity in 1968, chaired by then Assistant Provost Paul Gray, did MIT take significant steps toward making the undergraduate student body a more inclusive and diverse community. As a direct result of the Task Force’s efforts, the incoming class of 1969 saw a seven-fold increase in African American freshmen from the previous year. Major recruitment thrusts for Latino/Hispanic and women students followed in the ensuing 38 years.

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Today, MIT is recognized as having one of the most diverse undergraduate populations among its peer institutions. Still, our racial and ethnic diversity at the graduate and faculty levels is about one-fourth of the Institute’s undergraduate high-water mark of just under 20 percent. Only five percent of graduate students come from underrepresented minority groups, and about 4.5 percent of faculty are African American, Latino, or Native American.
Upon accepting my appointment as Assistant to the Chancellor in October 2005, I undertook an effort to map graduate student diversity efforts across MIT. The aim of my interview study was to understand the challenges, opportunities, and most promising initiatives employed by departments and divisions to increase the number of enrolled underrepresented graduate students. I discovered that several departments and offices were extremely committed to the recruitment and success of their graduate students of color, but that the efforts, practices, and commitment employed by units across the Institute were highly variable, making year-to-year improvement inconsistent.

More poignantly, I found that many faculty lacked an empirical (and experiential) appreciation for the merits of diversity.

Several faculty I interviewed echoed a prevailing belief among a handful of their most vocal colleagues that an emphasis on diversity would sacrifice research productivity. In short, they believed that diversity was the antithesis to quality.

This opinion has the potential to circumscribe the promise of students from underrepresented groups, particularly if this attitude infuses admissions or hiring decisions. More tragically though, the research also shows that such attitudes could also negatively impact the entire MIT community, including its faculty.

It is commonly held in academe that all students benefit when campuses reflect a broad range of intellectual, cultural, and demographic perspectives. A diverse college campus fosters an environment where stereotypes and biases are challenged, where perspectives are broadened, and where critical thinking skills are sharpened. A campus characterized by cultural pluralism stimulates deep learning and better prepares students to thrive in an increasingly diverse and global workforce.

Still, these studies generally do not answer the question why racial and ethnic diversity matters for faculty. How do teaching and research benefit from a pluralistic campus? I sought to answer this question in order to inform the recent Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons during their deliberations about a proposed diversity requirement. Fortunately, there is emerging literature that begins to answer the question.

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One survey study of 1,500 Research I faculty found that neither the quality of students nor the intellectual engagement in their classrooms suffer from diversity (Maruyma, G., & Moreno, J. (2000). “University faculty views about the value of diversity on campus and in the classroom”: American Council on Education. American Association of University Professors).

 On the contrary, between one-third and one-half of the respondents Agreed or Strongly Agreed that diverse classrooms

  • broaden the variety of experiences shared
  • confront stereotypes on social and political issues
  • confront stereotypes on racial and ethnic issues
  • confront stereotypes tied to personal experiences
  • lead to interactions that expose students to different perspectives
  • raise new issues and perspectives (particular to a diverse class)

Still, does having a diverse team benefit the research enterprise for which MIT is most known? In the same faculty study referenced above, a majority of the 1,500 faculty surveyed felt that diverse research teams increase their understanding of their discipline. Furthermore, illuminating the reciprocal link between research and teaching, the study found that faculty research views were strongly influenced by their classroom diversity.

Clearly, more research needs to be conducted to inform our decisions about which factors to look for when making admissions or hiring decisions. Remaining still are questions about whether GRE scores and Carnegie classifications of undergraduate institutions are as predictive of research productivity for underrepresented students as they are perceived to be for non-minority students. How does one account for variation in undergraduate institutional resources when making graduate student admissions decisions? To my knowledge, few have attempted to rigorously answer these questions here at MIT.

Despite these gaps in our understanding, thought-leading institutions like MIT have recognized that their campuses must aggressively pursue capable students who will eventually shape policy or create solutions for societies in which they live and participate.

Indeed, the MIT imprimatur ostensibly invites everyone to the table of innovation and discovery regardless of their background, legacy, or wealth. The 2004 faculty resolution which calls upon the Institute “to take all necessary and sufficient steps to increase the percent of … underrepresented minority graduate students by roughly a factor of three (3) within a decade” is evidence of this inclusive acknowledgment.

In response to this unanimous faculty resolution, the DUE (Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education), the GSO (Graduate Students Office), and the OME (Office of Minority Education) have partnered to build on the success of the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP) and CONVERGE preview weekend in attracting prospective graduate candidates to MIT. The recently launched OME Laureates and Leaders program will identify and cultivate MIT undergraduates’ interest in advanced graduate study from as early as the freshman year. Last year, the DUE launched a cross-functional Diversity Team – one of six strategic DUE teams – whose task is to increase UROP participation and to triple the number of underrepresented MIT undergraduates who matriculate in MIT graduate programs.

For almost 40 years, MIT has embedded lessons of inclusion into the social and educational fabric of the undergraduate experience, but it will take a collective effort to similarly realize dramatic improvements in racial and ethnic diversity at the graduate school and faculty levels. In summarizing decades of his higher education research, Alexander Astin (Astin, A. W. (1993). What Matters in College: Four Critical Years Revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass) maintained “beliefs are fundamental.” His statement suggests that our collective first step should be for the faculty to increase its understanding of the benefits of diversity, both as individuals and as a distinctive community.

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