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Arguments against affirmative action are 'nonsense'

The following article consists of excerpts of remarks on affirmative action from the Robert Taylor Lecture--"Believe and Achieve: Success is Earned, Not Given at MIT"--that Professor Rafael Bras recently gave to MIT's minority students. "I suspect that many will agree and others will honestly disagree (minorities and non-minorities alike). My hope is to stimulate thinking on an issue that I personally hold very close to heart," he wrote in his preface in the spring 1998 issue of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, where the comments were originally published under the title "Note from the Department Head."

Other opinion pieces by MIT faculty members on affirmative action can be found in the November/December 1997 and January/February issues of the MIT Faculty Newsletter.

I would like to spend whatever time I have left talking about affirmative action. This national policy is being undermined. Proposition 209 in California dismantles affirmative action in all state units, including universities. In Texas, court decisions have tied the hands of universities in their effort to diversify the student body. The University of Michigan is fighting to keep a very successful affirmative action plan in place.

The end result of all these attacks has been a catastrophic drop in minorities' and women's enrollments in the affected campuses and elsewhere. The main reason for this drop, as I will state later, is a set of misguided, biased and wrong admissions criteria that fails to recognize excellence.

Here at MIT, a colleague and friend wrote an article questioning affirmative action which has sparked a lively debate. He summarizes the core of the arguments against an affirmative action policy. It goes like this.

First, affirmative action implies admitting students who may, on paper, have weaker academic records. Two, minorities and women have larger failure rates. Three, given the previous statement, presumably MIT is harming these individuals by setting them up for failure. And finally, we must protect our so-called 'standards.' My response to all of the above is summarized in one word: nonsense.

Any self-respecting place of higher learning makes all admissions based on a combination of objective and subjective criteria. Exams like SATs, GREs, etc., are the worst predictors of academic success and have proven to be biased in a variety of ways. If the only criterion was SATs, I would not be here today. When MIT looks at all student candidates, it tries to honestly evaluate the whole person--to seek the virtues and gifts of intelligence, drive, honesty, hard work, discipline and leadership. We seek a student body that will make us proud--that will succeed in a complicated, demanding and diverse society.

All of you more than qualify. Your records are a litany of accomplishments. You are here because you are good and because you are whole persons with the potential that we seek. Do not let anybody tell you otherwise.

The argument about higher failure rates is a distracting tactic. If I start stratifying various groups, I can probably prove that white Anglo-Saxon males have a higher failure rate than other unnamed groups. Does that make them unworthy?

The important statistic is that all failure rates at MIT are insignificant relative to the success rate. We are talking very small numbers. This is an argument for emptying the glass when it is 99 percent full and starting all over again. I would rather focus my energies on stopping the leaks but keeping the precious fluid that fills my glass.

The third argument is my favorite. Paraphrasing: we (those who know better) want to protect your fragile egos and hence will not allow you to play in the big leagues, although the odds are overwhelmingly in your favor. Give me a break! What I want is the opportunity. I am--and you are--more than capable of taking care of ourselves. I want to play. I will control my destiny.

When I started as an undergraduate here 30 years ago, women and minorities were practically nonexistent on campus. Was the place any better then? No. Our standards are as high as ever, our accomplishments even higher. That the corridors of MIT now show some variety in color and gender is for the better, in all dimensions.

Let me be blunt. In my view, affirmative action is not a gift, nor a way to redress past wrongs. It is a way to create not only a level, but a playing field. Affirmative action implies making sure that opportunities are available to talented and qualified individuals. And trust me, the playing field is not yet leveled, and opportunities are not always offered to the best people. I am very proud that MIT and President Vest have been, so far, unbending in their commitment to opportunities and creating a racially diverse and, more importantly, a better MIT.

Some opposition to affirmative action is malicious; most is honest and well intentioned. All of it works to undermine our self-confidence. Please do not let that happen. Be alert! You are here because you are good and we think you have all the ingredients for success. Do not waste time second-guessing how you got to where you are. Spend your energy doing your work. Success is all that matters and is the only answer to the doubters.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 3, 1998.

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