MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXIV No. 1
September / October 2011
Political Climate Change Threatens
Scientific Endeavors
Putting the Genie Back in the Bottle:
MIT Faculty and Nuclear Disarmament
Rise of the Rest, Fall of the Best?
Innovations in Communication Instruction at MIT: Celebrating Ten Years of the Communication Requirement (CR)
HASS Exploration Program:
Entering Phase Two
Faculty Fallout
A Letter to President Hockfield
MIT Ranked 3rd in the World, 5th in the U.S.?
Teaching this fall? You should know . . .
MISTI Expands Faculty Seed Funds and Launches New MIT-Chile Program
College Admissions 101
Request for Preliminary Proposals for
Innovative Curricular Projects
Nominate a Colleague for the
MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program
Commenting on “Departmental Discussions of Diversity and Inclusion”
U.S. News & World Report: Best College Rankings for Nartional Universities, 2003-2012
Printable Version


Commenting on "Departmental Discussions of Diversity and Inclusion."

To The Faculty Newsletter:

 “The MIT Department of Physics is committed to increasing the diversity of its faculty and student populations,” Professor Edmund W. Bertschinger writes in the March/April 2011 MIT Faculty Newsletter (FNL) [“Departmental Discussions of Diversity and Inclusion”]. He then offers some analyses of MIT’s “racial climate,” and reports on his role in “leading change” in diversity and inclusion, mentioning the “lower probability” of success by black (and other “underrepresented”) junior faculty, as well as making inferences about the unspoken thoughts of black (and other “underrepresented”) students about their race.
 The author addresses several issues concerning racial diversity and inclusion within MIT’s Department of Physics and presents a how-to manual of sorts. Bertschinger describes his efforts to seek solutions through monthly catered lunches whose purpose is to discuss these issues. He describes ways to make discussions “fun and easy to reveal hidden bias.” In the only unambiguous example that I am able to cull from his article, Bertschinger warns that “A sympathetic remark like ‘It’s okay to get a B’” to a black student “can be interpreted as ‘You don’t think I’m capable of earning an A because of my race.’” Now, when embedded in the appropriate constraints of discourse, “It’s okay to get a B” is an innocuous sentence. However, in the absence of context, as presented by the author, such a remark is deeply problematic. In my opinion, this example actually has nothing to do with race. If we substitute “female” for “black” and “gender” for “race” the issue is clear. Bertschinger’s article leads me to question the merit of writing about black people in this fashion.

At MIT we have been fortunate to have had numerous faculty and administrators who have positively contributed to diversity. As a student and junior faculty member, I had fantastic mentors and role models. I know other individuals who are currently proactive around these issues, some of whom I have personally visited to acknowledge and express gratitude for their support of black, as well as other, students.

Because of MIT’s Physics Department world-class status, it is capable of doing great good. I know and respect several faculty colleagues in that Department. But I question the value of Bertschinger’s approach and am saddened by his language in the article.

Although many black students are withdrawing from Institute and departmental extracurricular activities, they are concurrently and increasingly perceiving themselves as members of a post-racial society. Go figure: There appears to be an inconsistency here, but crosscurrents and subtleties abound in racial matters, all the more reason they should not be treated callously and especially not with overtones of a master-chattel history. [I have decided to respect the preferences of our black students as choices of their journey, just as my parents’ generation chose to defer to my generation’s lie-ins, love-ins, and sit-ins. My most persistent advice to them is that they should (1) not draw a line between work and fun (2) set high and independent standards of thought and achievement for themselves (3) exercise, at least, a child’s portion of common sense in their daily lives and (4) habitually use the words please and thank you. I rarely discuss matters of race with black students, and only if they ask me about the elephants in our backpacks. Black students at MIT are lugging around a lot of stuff: they are ensnared within the mottled and evolving sociopolitical tensions of affirmative action, extant – internal and external – prejudices, an ill temper of black angst and anger, and the ideals of equality.]

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As I have written in previous FNL articles, the psychological damage to black students around these issues at MIT can extend beyond their graduation, often well into their careers. But some of them are reluctant to complain for fear of being labeled as unappreciative. An article that suggests that monthly catered luncheons where blacks are discussed in ways that are “fun and easy to reveal hidden bias” benefit black students needs to provide more evidence than simply asserting such benefits. Although, according to the author, “attendees regularly tell me how much they enjoy and look forward to these lunchtime discussions,” we need to know that the information and interactions actually produce results, rather than simply allow faculty to feel less guilt about continued structural bigotry – at all levels – at MIT.

Referring to his lunch attendees, Bertschinger writes that “Everyone was concerned that underrepresented minority faculty members were being promoted with lower probability…,” and described discussions of the “tension at MIT” concerning “diversity and inclusion versus excellence.” But I worry that setting up an opposition of “diversity versus excellence” has the potential to create a toxic environment that would harm the careers of black junior faculty. In an MIT culture based on diversity versus excellence, what added obstacles will black junior faculty – indeed, senior black faculty too – confront when they solicit prospective research sponsors, teach their students, recruit graduate students, chat with MIT colleagues, communicate with colleagues from other universities, or interact with their families, friends, golfing buddies…? It would be a shame if readers of Bertschinger’s article were to conclude that everythingthat any black faculty member accomplishes at MIT is evaluated using a diversity-versus-excellence scale. Indeed, black faculty have every reason to feel insulted.I do not believe that this article represents the kind of discourse we should be engaging in at MIT. For what it’s worth, I offer one modest near-term solution to the MIT Physics Department’s acknowledged problems of diversity and inclusion.

Black Undergraduates in Physics: The Physics Department does not admit MIT undergraduates; they are admitted by the Institute. Undergraduates choose their course of study, and consequently determine the diversity within each department. Thus, MIT’s Physics faculty should simply treat their few black undergraduate majors precisely the same as they treat any (other) undergraduate.

Black Graduate Students in Physics: The Physics Department barely has any black graduate students. Thus, MIT’s Physics faculty should simply admit and treat their occasional (if any) black graduate student(s) precisely the same as they treat any (other) graduate student.

Black Faculty in Physics: The Physics Department has no black faculty.
There are authentic concerns regarding diversity and inclusion at MIT; a serious one being suggestions that black students and faculty don’t belong here and would not be here except for policies like affirmative action.

James H. Williams, Jr.
Department of Mechanical Engineering

Twenty (20) years ago: Throughout April 1991, Professor James H. Williams, Jr. conducted a weekly fasting sit-in at the offices of the MIT president and provost. At that time, he was the only native-born black American faculty member in the combined schools of engineering and science. The primary, though frequently mischaracterized, purpose of that protest was to highlight several of the themes about black students discussed in this article.

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