Race and Merit at MIT

Institute, whose report on equity for women was considered pathbreaking, examines gaps in rates at which minority and white professors are promoted -- and the ideal of meritocracy.
January 15, 2010

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- in a detailed report released Thursday -- found "uneven" progress and significant gaps in the way black, Latino and Native American professors are promoted and their views of various university policies and experiences.

The report provides unusually detailed information about the university's hiring and promotion practices, and reveals some key strengths in efforts to diversify the faculty. For example, those from underrepresented minority groups (those who are not white or Asian) are much more likely to come to MIT after being actively recruited than are white or Asian faculty members, who typically just apply.

But once there, they leave at higher rates and report difficulties in discussing issues of race and ethnicity. The new study also details MIT's strong reliance on a very small group of universities (itself included) for faculty hiring, and a gap in attitudes between underrepresented minority professors and others about the ideas of diversity and meritocracy.

MIT's hiring and promotion policies are of course influenced by its academic stature and its traditional strengths in science and engineering fields. But many of the issues discussed in the report extend well beyond MIT. And previous MIT reports on women and science have served as models for many other colleges and universities exploring issues of gender equity on the faculty. MIT also faced several years ago a very public dispute over a rejected tenure bid by a black scientist in which he went on a hunger strike amid allegations of unfair treatment -- allegations that were strongly denied by the institute and professors involved in the tenure review.

The report -- more than two years in the making, from a faculty panel -- makes strong statements about the need to increase the representation of minority groups on the faculty. While the MIT faculty's proportion of black, Latino and Native American professors has increased to 6 percent from 4.5 percent over the last decade, the study notes that those groups make up 30 percent of the population of the United States, a share that is growing every year.

"The contrast in these numbers with the population values is significant; it is clear that there is talent within the United States that has not been tapped at the highest levels of our educational system - our faculty," the report says. "It is intrinsic to the mission of excellence in science and engineering that we engage a truly diverse faculty; otherwise, we stand to lose in both our competitive advantage and our overall mission."

Here are some of the key findings of the study with regard to hiring.

  • MIT has a narrow pool. Of underrepresented minority faculty interviewed, 55 percent had a Ph.D. from one of just three institutions: MIT, Harvard University or Stanford University. The figures are lower for white and Asian faculty members (50 percent and 43 percent, respectively), but still are high. The report says that the "narrowness" of the sources of faculty members may represent a "significant lost opportunity" to hire diverse faculty members.
  • Underrepresented minority hires are sought by MIT. Nearly 80 percent of white and Asian faculty members applied for their positions without being specifically recruited, but only 37 percent of underrepresented minority faculty reported that they were not recruited.
  • Hiring patterns differ widely by department. The report identifies departments -- such as nuclear science, chemistry and mathematics -- that did not hire a single underrepresented minority faculty member from 1991 through 2009. In other departments, such as music, theater and writing, more than one fourth of hires were from underrepresented groups.

Once faculty are hired, their tenure and promotion rates also differ by race and ethnicity. MIT uses a two-stage process, in which junior faculty members are first promoted to associate professor without tenure and then from that level are considered for tenure. So the column on the right represents the share of those who made it to the first stage, not everyone who started down the path to tenure.

Promotion Rates by Race and Ethnicity

Group % Promoted to Associate Professor Without Tenure % Tenured
Black 61% 58%
Latino 50% 40%
White 75% 63%
Asian 79% 60%

The report notes several factors that may contribute to the promotion gaps.

For example, the study found wide variation in the quality of mentoring experiences for junior faculty members, some of whom felt well served and others who reported that "mentors were non-existent, or were not engaged or active, or in which the junior faculty received ill-conceived or overly-directive advice." While MIT didn't find, based on survey and interviews, that problems with mentoring were unique to minority professors, it did find that the negative experiences were more common among underrepresented minority professors than among others, and that frustration was "particularly high" among underrepresented minority women.

Underrepresented minority faculty also reported being concerned about whether they would have an "objective" review process for promotion and tenure. These faculty members "feel requirements for tenure are less clearly communicated with them than their [white and Asian] counterparts," the report says.

The finding is consistent with the work of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education, or COACHE, which is run by the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and which focuses on the perspectives of junior faculty members. COACHE has repeatedly stressed that junior faculty members care about the clarity of tenure procedures and that many female faculty members feel that expectations aren't sufficiently spelled out.

Diversity and/vs. Meritocracy

Much of the report is data-heavy, with an introduction to an issue, an analysis of MIT's numbers, and hypotheses for the notable gaps. But one section of the report is more philosophical -- a discussion of the role of meritocracy in MIT's image of itself and of the relative value placed on diversity.

The report notes that among faculty members, men who are black, Latino or Native American and women generally tend to see diversity as "critical" to MIT's overall mission, but that others do not. "This difference indicates a deeper dissimilarity in the appreciation of why participation at the highest levels of all groups is needed for future technological and research developments. The idea that MIT’s long-term success depends on recruitment of the top talent throughout the U.S. as well as the world is a message that has not yet reached a large part of the faculty. Furthermore, it is clear that the value placed on gaining a diverse faculty is not high," the report says.

Further, the report says that, based on interviews with faculty members of all races, "there is great awkwardness in openly addressing race and racial differences at MIT, leading to a sense of silence regarding race." Minority faculty members, the report says, "may feel that speaking on diversity as a topic in any way can potentially 'brand' them as someone who focuses only on this concern at the expense of other issues. Examples of situations in which this kind of 'silence' can be inhibiting include the discussion around a minority faculty candidate or a promotion case in which comments from a referee, or a negative interaction with specific members of the field, might bring about a relevant concern impacted by race or gender."

These issues relate to the way MIT views the idea of meritocracy, the report says.

"Meritocracy is a concept that is key to the ideals at MIT. Although it is important to strive for this ideal, there is tension created by the outward presumption that true meritocracy is already essentially achieved at MIT. Such presumptions preempt the potential for hidden bias or preferential behavior and do not acknowledge the use of relatively monolithic criteria of excellence (which often works against those who are minorities by race, gender or field). As a community focused on scientific and technological advances, MIT holds a great deal of pride in the concept of a merit-based society in which those who excel are rewarded proportionately," the report says.

"On the other hand, the presence of bias remains a possibility even among those who are most well-intentioned. For that reason, it is not possible to guarantee that racial, gender and other cultural biases do not impact the way in which faculty are evaluated. In short, it is not possible to proclaim a fully meritocratic process when our society presents innate biases to which all can be susceptible on some level.... Furthermore, although the ideal of a meritocracy is, in general, one that can be appreciated by many, there are flaws in the belief that merit is equitably assigned to different kinds of contributions.

"In particular, the tendency to use two or three highly defined metrics as a means of evaluating quality can lead to a more myopic view of excellence. It may also lead to an inability to quantify, value and recognize other types of achievements that also enrich and contribute to the academic excellence of the Institute. On the other hand, the ability to recognize and reward a broader range of merit can lead to creative and significant advances in new areas. A quote from a young [underrepresented minority] faculty member describes this concept: 'To insist on orthodoxy [i.e., narrow, singular definition of excellence] would stifle one of the pillars of MIT which is to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship of ideas.' ”

Senior MIT officials issued statements praising the report and saying that, after they review it, they will work with deans and faculty members to respond to the issues raised by the study.


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