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Task force on minority achievement appointed

Eleven MIT professors and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President Shirley Jackson (SB 1968, PhD 1973) have been appointed to the Task Force on Minority Student Achievement, among them two faculty officers and two MacVicar Faculty Teaching Fellows. The appointments were made by President Charles M. Vest and Professor Steven R. Lerman, chair of the faculty.

The task force is charged with assessing and reviewing whether gaps exist between predicted and actual academic performance of MIT minority students and, if so, identifying the reasons for the gaps and recommending strategies to address the issue. The members will consult with experts inside and outside MIT as necessary.

The impetus to appoint the task force was provided in part by former Ivy League presidents Derek Bok of Harvard and William Bowen of Princeton in their book The Shape of the River. The authors identify a gap between academic expectation and accomplishment among African-American students at 28 selective US universities. MIT was not included in their study.

President Vest has discussed the issue for the past year with members of the MIT community and concluded that an internal study was called for. "We must examine this question in a substantive manner here as well," President Vest said at last February's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebratory Breakfast. At that time he said he would appoint the task force.

President Vest said, "We in leading colleges and universities have two fundamental duties regarding all students: first, to seek and admit talented, accomplished and motivated students; and second to provide a learning environment that enables them to realize their highest academic and personal potential. The contributions of our minority graduates to virtually every field are striking. And yet, their reflections on their MIT experiences also raise a persistent question: Given the talent and promise of our students and the resources that we devote to developing that talent, have we done -- are we doing -- our best?"

Professor Lerman said, "It is crucial that as faculty, we provide all of our students with an educational experience that helps them fulfill their full potential. The task force will help us better understand how both the formal curriculum and the overall academic environment affect how students learn."

The task force will be chaired by Professor John M. Essigmann of bioengineering and environmental health and chemistry, who is housemaster of New House.

Professor Essigmann said, "The ultimate phase of our task will be to propose programmatic strategies to make the MIT environment as good as possible for minority students. Certainly, part of this task will be to look at what other science and engineering institutions do, but we want to try to be as inventive as possible in coming up with solutions that will work in our environment."

Other members of the task force are professors Michael Artin of mathematics; Arnold Barnett of the Sloan School of Management; Rafael Bras of civil and environmental engineering; Evelynn Hammonds of science, technology and society; Paul Matsudaira of biology; Daniel Nocera of chemistry; Adam Clayton Powell IV of materials science and engineering; Rafael Reif of electrical engineering and computer science; Leigh H. Royden of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences; James Williams Jr. of mechanical engineering; and Dr. Jackson, a lifetime trustee of the Institute. Karl Reid, executive director of special programs in the School of Engineering, will provide the principal staff support for the task force.

Professor Matsudaira is associate chair of the faculty and Professor Hammonds is secretary of the faculty. Professors Essigmann and Williams are MacVicar Faculty Teaching Fellows, selected for their outstanding contributions in teaching and innovation in education.

The task force held its first meeting last Friday. President Vest and Professor Lerman have requested a report by the end of the academic year. "We have a big task, and we'll try to meet our deadline," said Professor Essigmann. "At the end of the semester we should know whether our job will have to continue into next year."

Taking appropriate measures to maintain the confidentiality of student records, the group will statistically assess the academic performance of MIT's minority and non-minority undergraduates and their correlation with high school records of accomplishment, grades and test scores.

They will examine strategies adopted by other universities to support academic achievement, identifying successful practices while taking cognizance of factors that may be especially pertinent to programs in science and engineering.

They also will assess how advising, mentoring and participation in key undergraduate programs such as the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) differ for minority and non-minority students, and how those differences might contribute to possible differences in academic performance.

The group will evaluate the services, resources and organizational structure available to support the academic achievement of minority students at MIT.

"The early work of the task force will be to find out what data are available to assess issues relevant to our charge," said Professor Essigmann. The members will start by interviewing students and administrators. Once the interviews have been completed, the task force will collect and analyze data. The group will deliver a written report to President Vest and Professor Lerman.

The task force plans to consult with, among others, Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones; Associate Dean Leo Osgood Jr., director of the Office of Minority Education (OME); Associate Dean Margaret Enders, co-director of Academic Services; Regina Caines, director of Affirmative Action and Diversity Programs; Dean for Undergraduate Research Kim Vandiver, faculty director of UROP; Dean for Graduate Students Isaac Colbert; and others who play a role in bringing minority students to MIT and who maintain a sustained relationship with them.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 13, 2000.

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