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The Diversity of Diversity

It’s More than Race.

I take heart in the lively conversation that has taken place in the pages of Technology Review the past few months, following a column written by my predecessor, Paula Olsiewski, PhD ’79, on diversity. I take pride in the diversity of the students I see walking down the Infinite Corridor and of our alumni population. But I have to admit that I take issue with “diversity”—the word, that is. Forty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it seems that the word is an easy-to-say, often misunderstood, bland example of bizspeak that belies the complexity and heterogeneity of the problems, issues, and solutions that it is meant to connote.

MIT has welcomed its first woman president, our faculty has resolved to increase the number of its minority members, and the Institute is recasting programs like Project Interphase and MITE2S that were created to foster excellence in minority student performance. MIT is grappling with the “d word” in all of its many dimensions, including:

  • The absorption of women into all aspects of economic life
  • The redress of the monumental wrongs of slavery, Jim Crow, and the treatment of Native Americans
    The immigrant-driven multicultural society
    The ramifications of a global economy
    The end of discrimination based on any of a number of personal characteristics, including race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexual identity
    The tension between the identity of the individual as an individual and as a member of a group (or, really, of many groups)

    Recently, I browsed through two books that speak to some of these issues, especially the last one: how to account for (or ignore, as some would have us do) the meaning of sociocultural groupings in a society with an ideology of individual achievement. The two books are Technology and the Dream: Reflections on the Black Experience at MIT, 1941-1999 (MIT Press, 2001) by Clarence Williams, former special assistant to the president of MIT, and Katharine Dexter McCormick: Pioneer for Women’s Rights (Praeger, 2003) by Armond Fields, my MIT roommate’s brother-in-law.

    The most chilling parts in these books describe the sheer hostility faced at times by women pioneers in engineering and the sciences and by the first large groups of African-Americans to attend the Institute. Conversations with women and African-American alumni of my generation and earlier confirm the incidents of insensitive and even antagonistic behavior they endured at school and in their careers. In 1964, I myself received a letter from an administrator at a well-known engineering school, not MIT, which stated, “In any year we have perhaps as many as 25 [women] in the entire college [of engineering]. Our experience is that about one out of ten will stay to take a degree in engineering.…today women in this profession must still struggle for recognition.”

    Earlier in its history, MIT reflected the cultural biases of the larger society: it enjoyed a culture of meritocracy, as it does today, yet that culture excluded large numbers of people of merit who were not white men. The hostility faced by the few who made it was directed at them not as individuals, but as members of a group. They were the object of hostility before their fellow classmates and professors even had a chance to know them.

    Today, many honestly believe that our society has solved the parts of the diversity puzzle that can be solved and that in admissions, for example, it is useful to encapsulate a student’s accomplishments with a single set of measures—say, the SATs. As an educational counselor, I have been interviewing prospective freshmen from an elite independent school for several years. These are accomplished, talented, well-traveled, experienced students who never fail to astonish me with their achievements. But I can’t help but think of the disparity in life chances, life expectations, and test scores between these students and the bright students at inner-city high schools who may not even know about similar opportunities for achievement. For African-American youth, in particular, low societal expectations—which are often internalized—still constrain their ability to take advantage of opportunities that are no longer closed to them through outright discrimination.

    Today, our society is more comfortable thinking about redressing discriminatory acts committed against individuals. But we have a much harder time addressing the effects of more generalized discriminatory attitudes and stereotypes, such as unconscious attitudes that might affect a faculty member’s tenure prospects or a graduate student’s recommendations from her advisors.

    Members of affected groups, while succeeding as individuals, desire the identification, renewal, and strength that come from a shared group experience. In order to encourage engagement by all MIT alum­ni, the Alumni Association is sponsoring events like BAMIT’s 25th anniversary celebration, which took place this past October, and the Women’s Leadership Conference, which will be held in April.

    Diversity is not one set of questions with one set of answers, and I do not have another word for it. The conversation on diversity must continue in every sphere of this society, including in these pages. MIT must find every creative avenue to present its vision so that, as President Hockfield has so eloquently stated, it will be “the dream of every child who wants to make the world a better place.”

    Linda Sharpe ’69 is president of the MIT Alumni Association

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