Does MIT Have a Leading Role to Play?

James H. Williams, Jr.

I had absolutely no intention of responding to Professor Kerry Emanuel's article that is cited below. Besides, I'm on leave. The article here was written at the invitation of the MIT News Office to inaugurate its faculty editorial feature in Tech Talk. Regrettably, I had to decline their proposed editing, which would have deleted approximately two-thirds of this article and would have compromised essential aspects of my message.

More than a decade ago --- in recognition of the advancing centennial of the separate but equal doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson --- I predicted this current state of backsliding. With the emergence of a black middle-class toehold, the folk wisdom of a level playing field --- having lain dormant for substantial periods since 1619 --- seems to be conveniently re-insinuating itself into the Zeitgeist. Only a comic would suggest the absence of bias in every facet of American society.

Conversely, it would be erroneous to conclude that blacks are not partially culpable for this backlash: the focus of a different article. The battles of a generation ago, which have been infantilized by far too many black adults and black students who are sophomoric in their knowledge of history, were about serious business, not pantomiming and trifling foolishness. Thus, even if like romantic love, this group of black students is short-lived, we should be mistaken to conclude that their transience would disqualify them from significance; they will have been the ones who allowed a piece of the Dream to die.

Sunday: Jekyll

I may have met Professor Kerry Emanuel but I do not recall. Within a half-hour of receiving the November/December 1997 issue of The MIT Faculty Newsletter, I had read Professor Emanuel's "What Price Diversity?" and telephoned to acknowledge it. Though reaching only his voice mail, I thanked him for writing an interesting article while cautioning that such a complex subject could not be so tidily explored. He promptly responded with a note of thanks, stating that, in part, his goal was to encourage discussion.

Professor Emanuel is to be commended. I believe there is not a scintilla of maliciousness intended in his article. Malevolence seeks the cowardly corners of the corridors --- and there are many long corridors at MIT --- or the darkness, away from the disinfectant of sunlight. I believe it is from courage that one vulnerably chooses the squeamish landscape of public discourse; that it is from love that one seeks reason, in the Enlightenment sense, for our Institute where wizardry, emotion, and sophistry, while tolerated and even protected, should not form the basis for administrative action.

First, as if dealing with synonyms, Professor Emanuel facilely glides between the words "minority" and "black." This may not be a good idea.

Second, in quoting the MIT admissions criteria, Professor Emanuel notes that no one is admitted below the category that is officially defined as "will likely be successful." He then, in his own words, states that "the very best universities must admit marginally qualified or under-qualified students...." English is an elastic language but here Professor Emanuel ruptures it.

Third, I suspect there is an inkling of a widely held mindset when Professor Emanuel writes "we now import [emphasis added] under-qualified minorities ... for the benefit of the majority student population." From where does he think these black students come? Professor Emanuel should be informed that blacks were imported during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, but the Thirteenth Amendment declared such practices illegal.

Fourth, is Professor Emanuel advocating, in part, the admission of more whites who are categorized as "will likely be successful" to replace a decreased number of blacks who are identically categorized? We are certainly left to assume so.

Indeed, some of the notions (his "domino effect", K-12 ruminations,...) in his article are too sweeping to be taken seriously, except that they generate the fuzzy warmth of resonance and recognition in far too many faculty. Clearly, there is comradeship as well as intellect in Professor Emanuel's article.

Still, the important issues on this matter are not confined to Professor Emanuel's article; so before proceeding to a broader terrain concerning the academic performance of black students at MIT, I summarize my rejoinder to Professor Emanuel's central thesis as follows.

Crux Number 1

We are dealing with individuals in these decisions, so Professor Emanuel's proposal will be damaging to potentially high achievers as well as to potentially low achievers since we are unable to distinguish them individually. Justice is not administered on a statistical basis; nor should the treatment of black students who "will likely be successful" at MIT.

Further, if we can believe reports from Atlanta where the "domino effect" may not have yet reached, the Georgia Institute of Technology has already been successful in both recognizing the aforesaid bullets and matriculating black students; thus Georgia Tech may be succeeding where MIT is failing. This suggests that the locus of our dysfunction must lie within the Institute.

Monday: Hyde

I don't give a flying #!?& what these people do! Why do we have to scream increasingly louder and more frequently to be heard? Boston continues to be the most bigoted major city in this country and MIT is at its disingenuous epicenter. These people think there is a math and science gene, and they believe it's defective in all blacks. These people don't want us here; never have. When I leave, who will speak openly for black students confronted with such ambushes? Our schizophrenic Nietzschean dichotomy is that, in the singing of our individual songs, we build their institutions while our own atrophy. [Calm down, chill, and take a deep breath, Bro'. Luckily, it's a short day.]

Tuesday: Jekyll

These types of open debates can be psychologically hurtful to black students and even damaging to their progress here. They can be hurtful as students see themselves discussed as political chattel, reminiscing a sordid history of servitude on this continent. They can also be damaging by reinforcing any prejudices and stereotypes in the minds of faculty and by buttressing standards which faculty may have suddenly rediscovered, standards that far too many of us have relaxed in recent years. Indeed, peppered with the failure rates of black students, can all professors be ensured to objectively evaluate their work? I don't think so. Nevertheless, statements like Professor Emanuel's deserve to be aired, but they must not go unchecked: James Madison's First Amendment civics salve to heal black students' wounds.

If the changes in admissions policies proposed by Professor Emanuel are implemented (eliminating "race" and "gender" as admissions criteria), blacks will not be the only group affected. White women (the Gordian knot of Professor Emanuel's proposal), Native Americans, Hispanics, as well as the oxymoronic "learning disabled" (5 percent of one of my recent classes, none black) will all be sent scurrying. Although I doubt such changes in admissions policies will be implemented by MIT, to continue to allow the current carnage among black students is cruel. A comparable failure rate among white students would be viewed as an Institutional tragedy, resulting in corrective action; why not so when blacks are affected? Thus, as Professor Emanuel suggests, the status quo is unacceptable. Indeed, if no other corrective action is undertaken, I feel that Professor Emanuel's final solution should be seriously considered.

When I arrived at MIT as an undergraduate in the 1960s, I was one of about a dozen blacks --- none female --- in the entire 4000-plus student body. I certainly did not know of such aids as "bibles" or study groups, and to seek the assistance of a professor in his office was unimaginable --- for black students, a period of all Lent and no Easter. I heard about a few black or female professors, but I never saw any, a condition not substantially changed for many students with respect to black faculty to the present day. Unfortunately, a significant number of the present faculty may wish to return to those good old days.

As a student, I had professors who could not have been nicer to me had I been their son. Yet, approximately once per semester, I also encountered a professor who I felt certain was not objectively evaluating my work. Such negative experiences toughened me. In the intensely competitive climate of MIT, the opposite will be true for marginalized students, who may plausibly surrender to nascent doubts.

The pathologies within the black student population are the same as those among the student population at large. In an intensely competitive academic environment, such pathologies will be most acutely expressed among those who are repeatedly told that they are marginal.

Professor Emanuel and I share a common angst concerning the statistically poor academic performance of black students. I believe black students, as a group, can perform significantly better than presently; I do not know what Professor Emanuel believes on this point. I further believe that the Office of Minority Education (OME) is a major offender in this regard.

Facts, though a grainy mind reading, are nevertheless persistent things; a bit of history is in order.

In 1973 when I was approached to become the first director of OME, I formulated several conditions of acceptance that were assessed to be too excessive. In part, I offered to resign permanently from the faculty in order to assume a three-to-five-year staff appointment, then leaving MIT altogether. I felt that changes in the admissions criteria should have been gradual, concomitant with the development of a culture of successful scholarship. Believing that all sense of unearned entitlement should not go unchecked, I proposed that any black student admitted under differentiated criteria, though taking regular subjects in his or her chosen discipline, would be a part of my program of support and encouragement, and that any black student judged by me to be performing below his or her potential would be sent packing; tough love. I further recommended that such a program be phased out by the year 2000, more than a quarter of a century thence.

Then, throughout, and now, my focus has been the pursuit of excellence and the development of scholarship and leadership (The MIT Faculty Newsletter, March 1991; Tech Talk, April 10, 1991; The Tech, May 3, 1991). The size of the black student population has always been secondary to me, despite the press' reporting of my protests --- leaders, not numbers, change the world.

In the mid-1980s, the OME was formally moved from the Provost's Office into the Office of the Dean for Student Affairs (ODSA), and the OME directorship --- which I adamantly feel (and felt) should be at the hand of a professor in engineering or science or, at least, someone who is commensurately accomplished --- was depreciated. I expressed my fervent objections to those demotions to both the president and the dean. In fact, my objections became so intense, and lamentably so personal, that I have not spoken to that now-former dean to this day.

Consider the following example, the least personal of several I could cite, to be indicative of why the academic de-emphasis of OME was a recklessly critical and tragic decision concerning the scholarship of black students; notwithstanding a recent titular consolidation of the ODSA and some educational functions.

I sometimes encounter black students who lack decorum and elementary etiquette; admittedly, it's partly a generational thing. Either they do not possess simple manners and graces or they do not appreciate their importance in a professional setting. I wanted to reinforce the etiquette of those who were already practicing it --- fortunately the majority --- and to enlighten those who were not. I approached the director of OME for a mailing list of black students in order to distribute a letter to the students. Though explaining thoroughly why I wanted the list, I was told: (i) I was not allowed to have such a list, (ii) any letter that I composed had to be submitted to that Office, and (iii) any such letter would be edited by them and sent out on their stationery.

Not only has MIT committed intellectual gerrymandering by placing intermediate-level career administrators in the role of academic support for black students, these same administrators serve as gatekeepers who view the rendering of their services as a permanent part of the landscape and who, out of their own insecurities and ignorance, sometimes block black faculty access to black students. Contrastingly, these individuals themselves are de facto victims of senior administrators who knew --- or should have known --- that the dispensation of illusory scholarly imprimaturs could neither imbue them with a comprehension of the rigors of the MIT intellectual experience nor validate their academic advice whatever to black students. It's all okay; except, without a clear sense of the intense academic and political challenges to be met and strategies for confronting those challenges, far too many black students must pay the price and bear the burden.

It is inconsistent to have counseling deans, who are sustained by the misfortune of students, rather than professors, who are sustained by the success of students, in charge of an academic resource. Such policies are prima facie asinine; and because white students are not academically supported via the Dean for Student Affairs, such policies are prima facie "the r-word."

Crux Number 2

Yes, something is out of kilter. But don't 246 years of slavery followed by a century of Jim Crow warrant a better effort than expended thus far? Hmmm, 246 years (!); that's longer than the age of the United States of America.

The current MIT president has solid instincts and a steadfast commitment to address this issue, but he should seek a vision beyond running with the pack of the Association of American Universities. Are we leaders or pack runners? Whereas individual faculty members, both junior and senior, have been consistently supportive, the MIT faculty en masse has been woefully lacking in its innovation, reactionary in its assessments, and diffident in its behavior. Indeed, a principal role of the OME should be the design, development, and nurturing of both broad and enduring faculty involvement; including the integration of black students into the academic support mechanisms of their respective departments, thus counteracting some of the students' clannish tendencies. Diversity is a two-way street.

At the beginning of this decade I wrote the following (The Tech, April 30, 1990):

If the main focus of the U.S. consciousness during the 1930s was overcoming the depression, the 1940s defeating the Axis, the 1950s containing communism and improving the standard of living, the 1960s embracing technology and civil struggles, the 1970s recognizing global limitations and social needs, and the 1980s economic competition and the declining debt-based standard of living; then the 1990s should be about addressing our deficits: trade (international competitiveness), federal (infrastructure, savings and investment) and people (education, quality of life and pluralism).

In the pursuit of educational justice, the job is begun but incomplete. Why not ensure the future by creating it? Does MIT have a leading role to play?