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Diversity Pledge

MIT’s faculty has voted to double its percentage of underrepresented minorities–and triple the graduate school’s–over the next decade.

Rafael Bras was naïve when he came to MIT as an undergraduate in 1968. He was, he says, “oblivious” to the realities of racism, in part because in his home of Puerto Rico, “everyone is Puerto Rican.” Bras ‘72, SM ‘74, ScD ‘75, arrived on campus in 1968, less than six months after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. For the first time, he started thinking about civil-rights issues. “I began to create a consciousness,” he says. He encountered discrimination himself (he was once told by a landlord, “We don’t rent to people like you”), and he saw others suffer it. MIT, Bras says, has been no different in this regard than the rest of the country. Which is why, when he became a professor of civil and environmental engineering and, later, head of the department, he made diversity his “personal agenda item”—making sure, for example, that people are treated fairly within his department regardless of race or gender.

In 2003, Bras became chair of the MIT faculty, and his scope was now Institute-wide. He started meeting with other mi­nority faculty members for dinner about every six weeks. Out of those dinners came a resolution to significantly increase the number of underrepresented-minority faculty and graduate students at MIT. The resolution, presented to the faculty in May 2004, passed unanimously.

MIT defines underrepresented minorities as African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics—populations with disproportionately few members working in science, technology, engineering, and math. (Any subsequent mentions in this article of “minorities” at MIT refer to people from these groups.) According to Provost Robert Brown, diversity has been a priority at the Institute for more than a decade; but while the proportion of women faculty members has grown, minority recruitment has been less successful. “This is clearly something [MIT has] not done well,” says Brown. “We’re stuck.” Bras hopes that the recently approved resolution, which he says is the Institute’s first formal decision on the subject, will change that.

The resolution sets out ambitious goals: within a decade, MIT is to double the percentage of minorities on its faculty and ­triple the percentage of minority graduate students. According to a report published by the Faculty Policy Committee shortly before the resolution was passed, less than 5 percent of the Institute’s 6,200 graduate students are minorities. The percentage of minorities on the faculty is about the same. Although the percentage of minority undergraduates has grown steadily in the last 25 years—it now stands at about 20 percent—the number of graduate and faculty minorities has been stagnant for nearly 15 years. As a result of the resolution, MIT devised a new reporting structure that is intended to help recruit minority faculty members. The Institute also hired a new assistant dean to help attract minority graduate students. Nonetheless, three obstacles still stand between MIT and its 10-year goal: a nationwide shortage of minorities in science and engineering, the rigor of MIT’s selection process, and its own daunting reputation.

Missed Talent

MIT is not alone in its dismal numbers of minority faculty and graduate students. Bras calls MIT’s peer universities “equally bad,” especially with respect to faculty recruitment. (Some schools have done a better job of attracting minority graduate students.) That’s no big surprise, given historical trends. The U.S. science and engineering workforce in 1999 was about 80 percent white and 75 percent male, according to a report released last year by Building Engineering and Science Talent, a public-private partnership based in San Diego that promotes diversity in the workforce.

Statistics like these could be the reason that federal funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, now require grant seekers to show that they are actively working to improve diversity before their funding requests will be certified. Although NIH doesn’t set quotas, it wants to see evidence that grant recipients are succeeding in their outreach efforts. “The sabers are rattling,” says Isaac Colbert, MIT’s dean for graduate students. Funding agencies have to meet their own diversity goals in hiring, Colbert says, and since they “get their employees from us…they need people to fill the pipeline.” Provost Brown and others agree that increasing minority representation is in MIT’s own interest, because different perspectives enhance creativity. In the past, MIT relied greatly on international students to provide diversity. But now that the U.S. government has made it harder for foreign nationals to get visas, the Institute has an incentive to look for talent closer to home.

“Some people look at diversifying like it’s a burden,” says biology professor Nancy Hopkins, who has worked to increase the number of women on the faculty. “They say, ‘Let’s go out and find a minority or woman student,’ and that’s enough. [They should say], ‘look at all this incredible talent we’re missing. We need to get them here and get them to flourish.’”

Changing the Search Process

In addition to setting statistical goals, the resolution recommended a new reporting structure that is designed to help coördinate recruitment efforts. Regarding faculty searches, all departments must share information about faculty and graduate student candidates with Brown. He in turn must report annually to the MIT faculty, the Faculty Policy Committee, and the Council on Faculty Diversity about the progress schools and departments have made. His first report is due this spring.

Methods that proved effective in attracting women faculty will be modified and used in minority searches. The Institute has been relatively successful in recruiting women, especially since issuing a report on women in science in 1999. That report rallied women faculty to the cause and helped improve the campus cultural climate. Since then the population of women faculty members has grown by roughly 25 percent—from fewer than 140 in 1999 to 178 in 2004. The Faculty Policy Committee hopes its minority report will generate similar momentum.

The School of Engineering managed to attract more women by broadening faculty searches, especially for appointments in mechanical engineering. The committee hopes similar methods will work to improve minority recruitment. In 2001, the Department of Mechanical Engineering had one woman faculty member, yet about 30 percent of its undergraduate enrollment was women. By changing its search methods, the department was able to add eight more women to its ranks.

The department created a central search committee to coördinate all searches and staffed it with faculty members particularly committed to diversity. The committee was aggressive in seeking female applicants. Members called colleagues at peer uni­versities and asked them to recommend recent graduates or otherwise tracked down attractive candidates and invited them to apply. The committee also expanded the scope of its search to include related disciplines where there were larger populations of women. If a talented female candidate didn’t fit the criteria for one job, a committee member might recommend her for another or even to another department.

Special funding available to departments through what is called a “bridge slot” also helped the School of Engineering attract more women. A decade ago, the MIT provost’s office decided it would fund faculty positions for five years if they went to senior women. After that, funding would have to come out of the annual budgets of the new hires’ departments.

Keeping the diversity issue on the front burner will be tricky. Hopkins has worked on gender equality issues for the last 10 years; some weeks, she says, they seem to consume half her time. “It’s nobody’s primary job,” she says. Bras and the faculty chair-elect (Bras steps down this summer) have been visiting every department “so the issue won’t get lost,” he says.

Focus on Students

The challenges involved in diversifying MIT’s graduate student population resemble those of hiring more minority faculty members, because graduate school admissions are decentralized and carried out by individual departments. Although a department chair may make diversity a priority, the department’s main focus is always on teaching and research; recruitment of mi­nority grad students tends to get short shrift. And department heads rotate every four or five years, which leads to inconsistent recruiting efforts.

Hopkins believes the only way to reach and maintain higher numbers of minority graduate students is through a centralized effort, like the undergraduate admissions office’s. “You need people who truly understand it from years of doing it,” she says. She points to the biology department, which hired a recruitment officer; but after a few years, the yield of minorities was too low to justify the position. “[The recruiter] had the best will in the world, and the resources to do it, and it did not work,” Hopkins says. She would like to see one office doing a lot of the recruiting legwork that departments now do.

The Graduate Student Office is moving in that direction. After the resolution passed, the office hired Chris Jones, SM ‘01, SM ‘03, a new assistant dean who will work both internally and externally to recruit minority students to MIT.

But such institutional reforms will not by themselves be enough. After all, there are many reasons minority students tend not to go to grad school. One is money: many minorities come from low-income homes and may want to help support their families by getting jobs right after college. Graduate school, and its low-paying stipend for five or more years, is not an appealing option. Others are the first in their families to go to college, and grad school may not be on their radar. In some minority communities, an advanced degree in science or engineering carries distinctly less status than other professional options, says Hector Hernandez, vice president of the Graduate Student Council and a PhD student in chemistry.

Selling students on MIT in particular is an additional challenge. Boston is not always perceived as a welcoming city. “It’s cold in many ways,” says Jones. The weather can’t be changed, ­of course, but MIT’s reputation can, says Hernandez. He says many minorities think getting into MIT is unachievable: as a student at the University of South Florida, he felt that way himself, until he was recruited at a conference by his current boss. Jones is trying to counter this stereotype by developing relationships with potential “feeder” schools—universities with large African-American populations, say, or the University of Puerto Rico.

Internally, the Institute needs to make minority students feel more welcome, says dean for grad students Colbert. “I’m not talking about brass bands and lollipops and popcorn,” he says. “I’m talking about bringing out the human element.” One way to do that is to find what Colbert calls a “faculty champion” in each department, someone who will work with the Graduate Student Office to reach out to potential students—at conferences, research competitions, school visits, and over the phone. Jones is actively searching for such champions—among both faculty members and current grad students—and eight departments are now involved in the effort, he says.

MIT also runs several programs for college undergrads that are aimed at improving graduate student diversity. Jones hopes to strengthen these, increasing their enrollment and, consequently, the number of minority students who later attend MIT. One of the programs is a 10-week summer research program for minority college sophomores and juniors; according to Jones, 17 percent of the students who have participated in it have ended up at MIT. (A faculty committee is now working on increasing that number.) Last fall, the graduate office launched an initiative called Converge, which invites two dozen college seniors who are likely grad school candidates to visit MIT for a weekend, meet with faculty and graduate students, and learn about not only academic programs but also such critical factors as financial aid and housing.

Some MIT departments have long been working to increase diversity on their own initiative. The urban-studies department, for example, has engaged in active minority recruitment for at least 15 years, according to chair Larry Vale, SM ‘88. Department faculty determined that experience with different cultures was particu­larly ­important among their master’s students, who often end up working in economically and racially diverse communities. “You may say there is no ‘black’ physics,” says Vale, “but there are things that people of color bring to planning and urban development. We fail as a department if it is not training people who care about issues for people of color.”

The department searches for potential graduate students by holding graduate student recruiting events in nontraditional places. Last October, James Rojas, SM ‘91, MCP ‘91, helped organize a recruiting event at a Los Angeles gallery that was exhibiting work by area Latino and Latina architecture students. And at an MIT open-house weekend last April, the department hired an organization that specializes in giving tours of Boston that highlight the city’s racial and ethnic diversity. The department’s efforts have paid off: 80 percent of minority applicants accepted last year decided to study at MIT. Fifteen percent of grad students in the department are minorities—a figure that’s still lower than Vale’s goal of 25 percent but higher than those for most other Institute departments.

Many faculty agree that putting more effort into diversifying the university only increases the quality of its students and faculty. And minority or not, it is always a challenge finding people to come to MIT, Vale says. “There are not many people out there who can succeed here,” he says. MIT is now committed to finding and attracting the minority candidates who can.

The Climate for Minorities

Even if the Institute’s recruitment efforts pay off, however, the quality of campus life for minorities remains a major concern. The 1999 report on women at MIT revealed recurring patterns of discrimination. Hopkins, who cowrote the report, says many of the obvious inequities (pay differences, for example) have disappeared. But for both women and minorities, she says, there still exists what she calls the “unconscious, invisible bias” that may be inevitable in a department that has only one woman or one minority faculty member.

Faculty and grad students interviewed for this article say their experiences have been mostly good. But discrimination still exists. “We are a large community here, and there have been incidents of blatant racism. There have been insensitive remarks,” says Bras, who adds, however, that he personally has found MIT to be very supportive. Hernandez tears up when he talks about the “warm, welcoming community” he discovered at the Institute. Assistant dean of grad students Jones, who is African Ameri­can, says the isolation and self-consciousness he felt as a graduate student were what all students—minority or not—feel at times. That said, he notes that minorities do not have the networks in place to help them deal with those feelings.

“White males and Asians have enormous pockets of support, not only throughout the Institute, but also throughout the city, and they also have very good success,” says Jones. “Yes, it is a chicken-and-egg problem. Do the pockets of support increase success and numbers, or does the success and do the numbers increase the pockets of support?” Jones and others look forward to solving that problem.

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