• Speakers at an MIT forum on

    Speakers at an MIT forum on "Education in the United States" included, from left: Harvard historian Evelyn Higginbotham; University of Maryland physicist Sylvester Gates; MIT professor of chemical engineering Paula Hammond; and MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and associate provost, Wesley Harris.

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The drive for diversity

Speakers at an MIT forum on "Education in the United States" included, from left: Harvard historian Evelyn Higginbotham; University of Maryland physicist Sylvester Gates; MIT professor of chemical engineering Paula Hammond; and MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and associate provost, Wesley Harris.

At ‘Human Diversity and Social Order’ panel, faculty cite continuing need to encourage the prospects of minorities in academia


Higher-education institutions, including MIT, still face significant challenges in ensuring that there is diversity among their faculty and students, according to four scholars at a panel discussion Thursday evening.

“The challenge of my generation was the production of scholarship by African-Americans,” said Wesley Harris, the Charles Stark Draper Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and associate provost for faculty equity at MIT. And while progress has been made since the civil rights era of the 1960s, he said, in many ways the status of minorities in academia remains disappointing.

“The calculus does not compute,” said Harris, adding that universities have witnessed a “lost opportunity” to diversify in the last four decades.

The panel, “Education in the United States,” in the Stata Center, wound up focusing largely on the difficulties that African-American, Native American and Hispanic faculty face in earning tenure and recognition for their work.

“The true success of diversity is not simply the admission of undergraduate and graduate students of color,” said Evelyn Higginbotham, professor of history and African-American studies at Harvard, who chaired the panel. “It’s not simply that they are brought in, it’s that they graduate. Likewise the true success of faculty diversity is not simply the hiring of more junior faculty, it’s by their ability to get tenure.”

Gates: diversity a ‘force multiplier of innovation’

Sylvester Gates ’73, PhD ’77, currently the MLK Visiting Professor of Physics at MIT, outlined the case for diversity among science faculties, calling diversity “a force multiplier of innovation.” For one thing, Gates stated, “It is often the case that the outsider carries the seed of innovation.” Albert Einstein, as Gates noted, regarded himself as an outsider from Europe’s physics establishment at the crucial early stage of his career.

Beyond that, Gates said, developing more fully the talent available in society will increase the generation of useful new ideas.

“If you want innovation, you want the largest group of ideas brought to bear on the new paradigm,” said Gates, whose own work helped establish theories of supersymmetry, part of string theory. That means, he said, “you want the most diverse group of people” in science.

Hammond on MIT’s 2010 report

Establishing greater faculty diversity was a central focus of a report released in January 2010 by MIT’s Initiative on Faculty Race and Diversity. Paula Hammond ’84, PhD ’93, the Bayer Chair Professor of Chemical Engineering, who led the committee that prepared the report, outlined many of its findings for Thursday’s audience.

“I have a huge faith in MIT and what we can do here,” said Hammond, “but I also have a huge sense of reality, and I think we all do, about where we are now and how far we have to go.”

About 55 percent of under-represented minority faculty at MIT are trained at Harvard, MIT and Stanford, Hammond noted, suggesting a need to recruit more widely and find excellent job candidates at institutions with greater minority representation. (By comparison, about 50 percent of white faculty and 43 percent of Asian faculty are from Harvard, MIT and Stanford.)

When it comes to faculty retention, Hammond noted, 74 percent of white assistant professors at MIT are promoted to the next level, associate professor without tenure, compared to 55 percent of underrepresented minority faculty, who either leave MIT before the promotion occurs or do not clear that particular hurdle. “We’re seeing a significant difference in the first three to five years of experience” on the faculty, Hammond added, suggesting that better mentoring systems could help change this disparity.

She cited both Gates and Harris as “incredible role models” from her undergraduate days at MIT.

Thursday’s event was the last of four panels in the “Human Diversity and Social Order Forum,” held over the last two months as part of MIT’s 150th anniversary celebrations. Previous panels focused on diversity in the arts; in world politics; and in civic society in the United States.

“I thought it was fantastic,” Harris told MIT News after the event, speaking about the effect of the whole series. “I think the MIT community is tremendously enriched as a result of this series of forums.”


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