2001 27th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration
2001 27th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration
Confronting the Gap: Building and Sustaining Inclusion
Professor, Harvard Law School
MLK Leadership Awardees
MIT faculty, 1972-85
Director, Office of Minority Education, 1975-79, MIT
MIT chemical engineering major
Partner, Gantt Huberman Architects, Charlotte, NC
27th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Celebration (2001) — Dr. Lani Guinier
President Charles M. Vest's remarks
Excerpts from President Charles M. Vest's remarks at MIT's 27th annual celebration of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., February 8, 2001
© Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2005. To reprint or excerpt for publication, please contact Laura Mersky at firstname.lastname@example.org.
REFLECTIONS ON THE OCCASION
As we gather together to celebrate the life and accomplishments of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., this year’s theme could not be more appropriate: Confronting the Gap: Building and Sustaining Inclusion. There also could be no more difficult theme in America to address in a meaningful way at the dawn of the 21st Century.
Throughout my life, I always looked forward to the passing of dates made famous by anniversaries, books and movies that once seemed so distant — 1976, the Bicentennial Year; 1984, the setting of George Orwell’s political novel; and, of course, 2001 — the year of Arthur C. Clarke’s space odyssey. I hoped that as these milestones ticked by, they would be markers along the way to a bright and exciting future. By and large, they have been. Yet as we gather here in 2001, the issue of race in America remains one of our deepest dilemmas. And the gaps in opportunity and participation in what is best in our country and our institutions remain very much with us.
I would like to subtitle my ruminations this morning "Two Books and a Plateau." The books present hope. The plateau is a difficult reality to be confronted and overcome. The books, of course, are The Shape of the River, and Technology and the Dream.
The Shape of the River
Last year at this breakfast I commented extensively on The Shape of the River. This book, then recently released, is a detailed statistical study of the effects of affirmative action in admission of African-American students to elite colleges and universities. It tracks academic performance and experience, and chronicles the resulting legacy of their education in their personal and professional lives.
To a large extent, it is a book about success. The inclusion of race as one of many factors in college admission decisions has clearly been an important element in building an ever-increasing middle class of people of color. But the book also presented a stark and indisputable reality. Students of color — as a group — had lower grades overall than other students in these schools. This gap persisted even when grades were corrected for factors such as high school grades, SAT scores, socioeconomic status, gender, school selectivity, etc. There is, of course, a huge statistical variation, but the pattern is clear. While MIT was not included in the study, it was clear to me that we had to take a look at our own campus and make an assessment of these same issues.
Subsequently, Professor Steve Lerman, Chair of the MIT Faculty, and I appointed a faculty Task Force on Minority Student Achievement to assess how well minority students are doing at MIT and, where problems are found, to design new strategies for confronting them. I believe that as the task force identifies programs and strategies to enable minority students to achieve their full potential, we will find that they will benefit allstudents at MIT.
The task force is headed by John Essigmann and staffed by Karl Reid. John is a highly visible faculty member, a Housemaster, and has a deep insight into the lives of students on this campus. Karl is known to many of you as the Director of the MITES program. He is also the Executive Director of Special Programs in the School of Engineering and is a two-time alumnus of the Institute.
The task force has been working steadily since last September — interviewing students, faculty and staff; analyzing data on student performance trends; and assessing how well our current resources in academic support, financial aid, and counseling are meeting the needs of our students. They are beginning to review how other schools, particularly those that emphasize science and engineering, are addressing the gap. On the basis of these investigations, the task force — with input from the community — will design programs to help make MIT a more vibrant, stimulating and supportive educational environment — not only for our minority students, but for all of our students. The task force is working on a fast track, and expects to present their report and recommendations this summer. The group is operating in the classic MIT tradition of working together to design solutions to tangible problems. In the case of this design project, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Technology and the Dream
The Shape of the River spurred us to appoint the task force, which will help current and future generations of students make the most of their MIT experience. The second book, Technology and the Dream, holds over half a century of lessons for our future.
Last month the MIT Press released this truly extraordinary volume, authored and edited by our good friend and colleague Clarence Williams. This volume chronicles the lives of 75 MIT alumni, faculty and administrators. It is accompanied by a CD containing some 100 additional oral histories. In the book, you will find luminaries such as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and RPI president Dr. Shirley Jackson; scholars such as Professors James Gates and James Williams; players in our national history such as Louis Young, one of the famous Tuskegee Airmen of World War II; and many people who have lived ordinary lives — or at least as "ordinary" as it gets for MIT graduates!
This wonderful collection of oral histories is a fitting companion to The Shape of the River, because unlike that book, it focuses largely on scientists and engineers. More important still, it provides the human side of the story — the memories, experiences and reflections of people whose lives have helped shape and have been shaped by MIT. It is a book about the experiences and accomplishments of these individuals, but, more deeply still, it is about us — about MIT. It is about both triumph and failure. It is about the complexity of life and race. It is about injustice and about thoughtless, unintended injuries.
But Technology and the Dream also is about the value of an MIT education and about life lessons — both pleasant and unpleasant — that lead to growth. It is about perseverance, pride, determination and personal accomplishment. It is about how things look to a student and how they look to that same person years later. It is a book that simultaneously gives us hope, pride and inspiration, yet says how slowly many important things have changed. It displays, for all to see, the gap between where we are and where we ought to be in our quest for an inclusive, just society. Clarence, we all thank you for educating us — yet again — through this remarkable book.
As Clarence’s book demonstrates, we have worked hard and continuously in this institution to build a diverse community of scholars, professionals and staff — one that truly represents the changing face of America and one that is truly inclusive. And I must say that it is simply exhilarating to walk down the Infinite Corridor amidst the wonderfully diverse sea of our students. They come in every color and shade, every national origin and culture. I often visit other campuses across the country — campuses that, if you will excuse the expression, are pale by comparison.
But we have reached a point here at MIT that leaves me very uncomfortable. Our progress in some critical dimensions has stalled. It has hit a plateau in the last few years — a leveling-off that cannot stand. During my ten years as president, I have maintained a personal database of measures of diversity at MIT. I want to share with you just one graph from it — a graph that speaks volumes. Many of us of my generation believed that if we worked hard to create substantial diversity in the undergraduate population of our universities, then, in due course, our graduate enrollments, and then our faculties, would change.
As you can see, this has not been the case at MIT. Neither graduate enrollments nor faculty composition have tracked with the very substantial progress that has been made at the undergraduate level. You can find the same phenomenon with women at MIT, although their presence in the graduate student population is not as far out of whack. Worse still, we are not alone. Indeed, we have roughly double the national average in the percentage of African-American and Hispanic-American undergraduates who are enrolled in science and engineering. At the graduate level, however, we are slightly below the national average.
But my real point is that our graduate enrollments have hit a plateau. And the number of African-American and Hispanic American members of our tenured and tenure-track faculty, after having doubled from 1990 to 1998, has been stationary from 1998 to the present. This does not describe the leadership position to which we aspire.
What are we doing, and what must we do?
MIT has at least 36 formal programs in support of diversity according to an audit we undertook two years ago. These range from the MITES program for promising high school juniors — to Project Interphase for incoming students — to ECSEL for curricular reform — to the Sloan Minority Fellows program for graduate students — to the Provost’s Minority Faculty Hiring Initiative — to the Committee on Campus Race Relations, which works to realize the promise of inclusion in all elements of our community.
But these programs are not sufficient. During the current academic year we have placed renewed emphasis on working through a new Council to build and sustain diversity in our faculty. Just as in the case of the Task Force on Minority Student Achievement, we are asking the tough questions, engaging minority faculty who know the score, and trying to make a difference for the long haul. The Council on Faculty Diversity was established to mount a focused and sustained effort to increase the number of underrepresented minority and women faculty members at MIT. Councils, in the sense used here, deal only with issues that we believe are critical to the future of the Institute. They are comprised of both faculty and administrators so that thinking and implementation are interconnected. We have only three other such councils. In other words, this is serious business.
The Council is lead by Professor Nancy Hopkins, Associate Provost Phil Clay and Provost Robert Brown and includes faculty leaders in all five schools of the Institute. The Council is examining every facet of university culture with the goal of achieving an MIT faculty that better mirrors the diversity in our student populations. This is the "A Team," and we are in this endeavor for the long haul.
Although the deliberations of the Council are at a relatively early stage, three specific objectives already have emerged: 1) Putting in place an active program to enhance the pipeline of young promising minority and women graduate students into the academic profession. Here we hope that MIT will become a role model for other institutions.; 2) Getting all units at MIT to aggressively seek women and minority faculty members, using the "best practice" for identification and recruitment; and 3) Active monitoring and mentoring of the careers of faculty. Guidance and career advice are as important to young faculty as they are to students, and we should make such mentoring the expected norm here at MIT.
By the end of the year, we hope to have programs in place to deal with each of these goals. In addition, the Council is looking at the issue of balancing family and professional responsibilities within a major research university. These are not new topics, but the thought, leadership, and hands-on approach that Bob Brown, Phil Clay and Nancy Hopkins and their colleagues are applying to them give me faith that we can leave the plateau and climb the trail of leadership once more.
I have talked about students and faculty. What about staff at MIT?
Here again, we are at something of a plateau. The number of minorities in administrative positions at MIT is still low. While there has been some growth in the number and percentage of minority administrators (from 9 percent to 11 percent between 1991 and 1999), there has been virtually no growth in the number of African Americans in administrative positions. For underrepresented minorities at the support staff level, the picture is similar — with a growth of only 2 percent during that same period. In an academic institution, it is important that the staff, as well as the faculty, be able to understand, and offer guidance and inspiration to our students. In order to do so, our staff, particularly in areas that support student life and learning, needs to reflect the character of our student body. We have a long way to go.
In order to address the challenge of creating a more diverse campus community, the Human Resources department last year launched a diversity initiative. This working group quickly decided that the most effective course would be to concentrate on one aspect of diversity rather than try to effect change in all dimensions simultaneously. They decided to concentrate on the barriers to and opportunities for increasing the number of underrepresented minorities on the administrative and support staff at MIT. The group is collecting and reviewing data, past studies and programs, and conducting interviews and focus groups — with the aim of developing a set of recommendations by the end of the spring term.
Triumph and failure.
That to me is the picture. MIT was a pioneer in educating and advancing minority students. We do have a triumph in our undergraduates, although we have some hard work to do if we are to spiral this success even higher. But we are failing at leadership in diversity at the graduate level and within our faculty and staff. We must expect more of ourselves. We must realize our goals and vision.
Today we are grateful to have such extraordinarily accomplished men and women as Wes Harris, Harvey Gantt and Desiree Ramirez in our community. But we need more such leaders at all levels, and we must create an environment that not only fosters professional success, but one that eliminates marginalization and extends respect in every dimension to talented people of color. MIT is not about plateaus or gaps. It is about leadership. We want to be the best in all that we do. And that must mean being the best in realizing our vision of a proud, accomplished, diverse and mutually respectful community.
Dr. Lani Guinier's remarks
Confronting the Gap: Building and Sustaining Inclusion
Presented at the 27th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast Celebration
February 8, 2001
Dr. Lani Guinier
Civil Rights Attorney
Professor, Harvard Law School
It’s a pleasure to be here, although I’m not sure you can call this a breakfast. It’s moving into lunchtime. I want to speak about Dr. King’s methodology not just his dream and I want to talk about his methodology and try to use his ideas to illuminate what I think are some of the really important, really powerful voices that you heard from this stage this morning. You heard, for example, Christopher talking about the importance of properly defining a problem. You heard Maria talking about the importance of genuine understanding. You heard people who had actually met Dr. King talking about his courage and his commitment to community and you could not possibly have missed the message of the choir talking about joy. I think that all of this in some way is about joy. I am not here to deliver a prescription of medicine, but really a joyful message about how we all need to change. This is not simply about love, but it is a joyous message of transformation. Now most people think about Dr. King as a dreamer and as someone who had a dream that one day his children would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. But I think that Dr. King was actually an even more profound thinker and strategist and so I love the idea of speaking after graphs have been put up and we’ve been exhorted to get the blueprint and the green plan or all of the, the futures market and all of the terminology from all of you here in the audience. Dr. King’s methodology was really about taking from the margin to rethink the whole. So in terms of thinking about closing the gap I would challenge all of us to think not about how the problem is located in the people of color or the women who are under-represented but it is really a problem of this community and all of our communities in failing to deliver on their fundamental mission. Dr. King, for example, said that the goal of the American Negro was perpetual engagement to make America live up to her stated ideals and that by freeing themselves black people would be freeing whites, too. That is the message of taking from the margin to rethink the whole. It is a message that I try to capture with a simple metaphor, that of the miners’ canary. The miners used to take a canary into the mines to alert them when the atmosphere in the mines was too toxic for the miners. The canary’s more fragile respiratory system would give way first, signalling that there was a problem with the atmosphere in the mine. The argument that I am making and that I believe was Dr. King’s methodology is that the experience of women, the experience of people of color and particularly the experience of African Americans is the experience of the canary. And the problem has been that we have pathologized the canary and tried to locate the problem in the canary, when in fact the canary is signalling to us a much bigger problem with the atmosphere in the mine that is affecting all of us.
So the challenge is not to pathologize the canary, not to outfit the canary with a little pint—sized gas mask so that it can withstand the toxic atmosphere in the mine. The challenge is to fix the atmosphere in the mine so all of us can breathe cleaner air. I’d like to try and apply this idea of the miners’ canary, of taking from the margin to rethink the whole, to some of the issues that we heard discussed earlier today about the question of higher education and the question of the continued under-representation of people of color and women, particularly here at the graduate level, in the faculty and also among administrators. I want to tell you a simple story before I get into what I think is an even more fundamental problem that no one has really addressed and that is the problem of the testocracy. But before I get to the testocracy, let me tell you a story. Un Triesman is a Professor of Calculus. He is now a Professor of Calculus at the University of Texas. At the time of this story he was a Professor of Calculus at University of California, Berkeley. And he noticed, he was teaching first year calculus, he noticed that his African American calculus students were not doing as well as his Chinese American calculus students. He consulted his colleagues to find out why. His colleagues came forward with many of the predictable stereotypes, many of the assumptions that certainly they would share with I’m sure many people in this room. They said oh well, the African American students are not studying as hard. Oh, the African American students were not as well—prepared. Oh, the African American students came from single parent families and therefore they have many other distractions. In other words, pathologizing the canary. The reason the African American students were not doing as well is a problem that was located specifically in the African American students that were recruited to the University of California Berkeley. Well, Professor Triesman was not satisfied with these assumptions and so he actually hired researchers to follow the African American students around, as well as the Chinese American students, to at least test the hypothesis that the African American students were not studying as hard as their Chinese American counterparts. He found out that in fact his colleagues were wrong. The African American students were studying harder than the Chinese American students, if you count studying as sitting in your dorm room alone with the calculus book open in front of you. The African American students were putting in the time, but it turned out that they were not efficiently or effectively studying calculus, when you compare what Un Tniesman’s researchers found about the Chinese American students. The Chinese American students were studying calculus together. They were talking calculus on their way to class. They were talking calculus in the library. They would talk calculus over lunch. And it turned out that the process of understanding, and coming back here to the importance of understanding, of understanding a concept like calculus required intellectual engagement with your peers and particularly the willingness to ask questions when you don’t know the answer. The willingness to ask questions when you don’t know the answer. Understanding that not knowing what you, knowing what you don’t know, excuse me, is a key to then learning what you need to know. So Un Triesman designed a peer workshop in which he invited the African American students to come to solve calculus problems together. He set the problems out on a table. He served food, seeing the Chinese American students studying calculus over lunch, it seemed to create an informal atmosphere. He invited recent past learners to come to be available so that when questions came up there would be people there who would be in a position to help10guide the students in thinking through the problem. By the end of the first semester of attending this peer workshop the African American students’ calculus scores went up and by the end of the second semester they were among the highest scoring students in the class. Now. You say, what does this have to do with the canary? He fixed the canary. But it was at that moment that Un Triesman had an epiphany. He realized, after seeing the progress of his African American students, that in fact the problem was not located in the African American students. The problem was located in the way he, Un Triesman, was teaching calculus to everybody. He was the sage on the stage. He stood in front of the room and spoke at all of the students, who busily took notes. There was no engagement between him and the students or between the students and each other. He then introduced the concept of group learning, group collaboration, into the classroom and all of the students in his calculus class benefitted. That is the theme of the miners’ canary and I believe that was Dr. King’s most important contribution. It was not his dream, but his methodology. That if we take from the margin we can rethink the whole to benefit everyone. Now that is a story that I think can move, or at least I will try and move it into the argument as to why we need to think about the miners’ canary metaphor and need to use Dr. King’s methodology in considering what I think is a major problem, coming back to Christopher’s point that we have to properly define the problem, with the gap and sustainable inclusion and that is our devotion, our new religion, called the testocracy. We are committed to the idea that we objectively rank everyone in this room if we simply give them a paper and pencil test and time their performance on that test. And we believe that somehow we will get a ranking that will be something we can rely on, something from which we can predict who then not only is going to do well when we give the test tomorrow, but who somehow is going to do well in their future. We move from a paper and pencil test which we rank and score, to a prediction as to who we will provide opportunity to. Who will be given opportunity is based on who does well on a particular test.
Now. Why would I challenge this religion?
Why would I challenge the testocracy? Well, it turned out that when I was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School I had a student who came up to me who actually was not interested in the testocracy at all. She was interested in the fact that there weren’t enough women professors at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She wanted to do a videotape in which she did a role reversal. She had seen one at a medical school in which all of the professors were women in which the typical human body that was studied was that of a female and there were a few male students in the class in this videotape and one of them tentatively raised his hand at one point and he said, Professor. What happens if a man gets this disease? And the professor, a woman, wheels around, turns to the young male student and says, well, you’re smart! Extrapolate! Figure it out! So Anne wanted to do this for the law school and I said I would be happy to advise her, although I knew nothing about video. It seemed to me she needed a script so she went out and wrote a script and it was all about her. It was all about the experiences that she had had at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. I said, well now Anne, if you’re going to put all of this effort into making a video it seems to me you want some assurance, I don’t doubt that these experiences happened to you, but you need some assurance that your experiences, if not typical, are at least representative of the experience of others. So she did a 70-question survey, put in the mail folders of all the students at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, got over a 52% return rate and found that the women and men seemed to be going to a different school. The men were participating in class, they had enormous self-confidence, they felt that the professors were available to them to mentor them. The women, two-thirds of the women never raised their hand to ask a question and never went up to a professor after class and the explanation that they gave us in subsequent interviews is that they were waiting for friendliness cues I don’t know how many of you have been to a law school, but they’re still waiting. Now, having said all of that, I did exactly what Un Triesman did. I went to my colleagues and I said, these women do not seem happy at this law school. Many of the women came in, one—third of the first year women had an interest in doing public service, 10% of the first year men had an interest in doing public service. Third year women, 10% wanted to do public service, 8% of the men wanted to do public service. There seemed to be a shift in the aspirations of the women and yet they still were not participating in class. Two-thirds of the third year women still never raised their hand, never asked a question. Yet what was really important is that the first year women who never raised their hand in class were bothered by that fact. The third-year women had come to accept this as normal. So I went to my colleagues, I said, what do you think is the problem? And they said well, maybe you should see if this is affecting their performance. So we went to the dean, it was a new dean, he figured if he gave us all of this data it would reflect if at all on his predecessor, so he gave us all of the academic performance data of every single student then at the University of Pennsylvania Law School as well as every student who had graduated the year before. He also gave us the entry level credentials of all of the students. We found that the men had three times as great a chance of being in the top 10% of the class as the women and one and a half times as great a chance of being in the top 50% as the women and that this differential, which began in the first year, was sustained over the three years. We then looked at the entry level credentials and particularly in law school the LSAT, because this commitment, this religion, this belief that you can give people a test and then you can rank and score them and then, based on their performance on that test, you can predict what kind of lawyers they’re going to be is very deeply held in the law school community. So we looked at the LSATs and we discovered that there was a statistically insignificant differential between the LSATs of men and women. Men were a little bit higher but it was statistically insignificant. Women actually had higher undergraduate GPAs, but again it was statistically insignificant. Went back to my colleagues with this information and they said well, you need examine that statistically insignificant differential between the men and the women on the LSATs. That’s probably where the answer lies. Another one of my colleagues said, varsity sports. Varsity sports. His theory was that the reason the men were doing better in law school and had not done as well as undergraduates is that when they were undergraduates they were distracted because they were involved in varsity sports. And when they got to law school where there was no varsity sports then they could devote their full attention to their studies. Now all of this was very disturbing to me but at the time I was untenured and so I dutifully went and looked at this statistically insignificant differential in the LSAT and I also kept in mind the idea of the varsity sports. OK, now. Having looked now, I’m now explaining, how did I get into this understanding that we are misguided in our commitment to a testocracy? My colleagues believed in the LSAT and yet when we looked at the LSAT and its correlation with first year law school performance we found that it was successful in predicting 14% of the differential in first year law school grades. It was a little better second year. 15% of the differential. You may say as statisticians oh, that’s a really big and positive correlation. I was a civil rights lawyer. I was a voting rights lawyer. I was a lawyer who went into the Deep South and brought in political scientists and other social scientists to help me when we were trying to prove that if you knew the race of a voter you could predict the race of the candidate they were going to vote for, in order to establish racial polarization, which was an essential element of our claim, because we were trying to show that in many parts of Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama that many of the white people in the community would simply not vote for a black candidate and therefore it was hard for blacks to run and get elected. And I know Harvey Gantt is very familiar with this problem because one of the places where we litigated was North Carolina. In North Carolina we found that in the early 1980s 83.7% of the whites in North Carolina would not vote for a black candidate, even if their choice was to vote for no one. So we were talking about using statistics to try and develop some correlations. We would go into court with very high numbers saying if you knew the race of a voter you could predict the race of a candidate nine out of ten times. And the judge would turn to us and say well, where’s the other 10%? Where’s the other 10%? So when I’m looking at statistics that are the absolute opposite of the statistics on which we were trying to rely and the court was skeptical, I become very skeptical. So I started to investigate. Linda Whiteman, who was one of the people who developed the LSAT, said oh, the LSAT is 9% better than random in predicting first year law school grades nationwide. 9% better than random. And yet this is a test somehow that we rely on to predict performance. Following the Bach and Bowen study that President Vest referenced in his remarks there was a study at the University of Michigan Law School. This was in response to a affirmative action lawsuit and they looked at 30 years of graduates and were trying to see whether their affirmative action program had in fact yielded graduates who somehow were less successful than others and therefore they should reconsider their affirmative action program. They came up with three goals, three measures of success that they would use in trying to determine whether their graduates had achieved the mission of the law school. Financial satisfaction, professional satisfaction and leadership in the community. Mentoring younger attorneys, sitting on boards of public or community organizations. They found in fact there was no correlation between entry level credentials and financial satisfaction. No correlation between entry level credentials and professional satisfaction. There was a correlation between entry level credentials, particularly of the LSAT, and leadership in the community. A negative relationship. The higher your LSAT, the less likely you were to be a leader in your community after you graduated. So, you may say well, this only has to do with Michigan, it only has to do with lawyers. Harvard did a study of three classes of its graduates over a 30—year period. It was trying to determine, again, how well did its graduates fare in three areas, financial satisfaction, professional satisfaction and contribution to the community. Otherwise known as how much money do you make, how much fun do you have making the money and do you give any of it back to Harvard? One thing correlated with success as Harvard was measuring it. Actually, two things. Low SAT scores and a blue collar background. What Harvard concluded from this study is that motivation and an opportunity to succeed, when given to those people who are motivated to take advantage of it, yields people who then can go on and be successful, as Harvard was measuring it. Now this suggests to me if we’re going to be serious about Dr. King’s birthday, if we’re going to be serious about celebrating his dream as well as his methodology, that we have to rethink not only how we are treating the canary, but how we are constructing the atmosphere in the mine to affect everyone. This is not simply about lowering the SAT or the LSAT or the GRE requirements for students of color or for women. This is about rethinking the importance that we place on a single, fixed, paper and pencil test that we then use to predict performance over the course of someone s lifetime, when it turns out that we don’t necessarily have a basis for that reliance, not just for students of color, but for white students as well. And particularly for white, working-class and poor students, who are not counted I was very interested in Christopherts data that 70% of the population he said in the United States is white and 60% of the graduate students here at MIT are white. But I’d like to know what the socioeconomic data is on those 60% white students. If it’s anything like the University of California Berkeley, for example, a disproportionate number of the white students here at MIT come from families where the income is over $100,000 a year. So we are using the testocracy as a proxy for privilege. William Julius Wilson has done research showing that if you want to know someone’s SAT, the best predictor of their SAT is to look at their grandparents’ socioeconomic status. Their grandparents’ socioeconomic status. There is a strong correlation, in fact a stronger correlation between your grandparents’ socioeconomic status and your SAT score than there is between your SAT and your first year college grades. But I’d like to broaden the conversation, because this is not simply about how well you do first year at MIT, or how well you do first year at Harvard Law School or how well you do first year at the University of Pennsylvania. If all we were worried about is how well you did the first year at this institution we would not have a four year college, we would not have a three year law school. This is not simply about how well you do in this environment, but how well is this environment preparing all of its graduates to do well in our larger democracy. This is really a question about democratic citizenship. We abolished the literacy test and we abolished the poll tax and we abolished many of the arbitrary prerequisites that had been used to determine who can participate in our democracy. I think we need to reconsider the testocracy and some of the tests that we are using as gatekeepers to determine who can participate in our democratic polity now in the same way as what we were doing in the 1960s. Let me just say, I’m a professor, I give exams, I grade them. I’m not opposed to all tests. This is about high stakes testing that is being used to predict from one domain to another how someone is going to perform in the future. This is not about how well did you do in this particular class based on what it was that I expected you to learn. This is using a test, misusing a test to try to predict someone’s future performance. Now, the last point I want to make has to do with some research of Claude Steel, who is a Professor of Psychology at Stanford. I think his research is really important and it comes at the issue of the testocracy from another angle. Claude Steel as I said, is a psychologist. He administered the same very difficult verbal test, a 30 minute verbal test, to selected groups of black and white students, and these students were statistically equated on their ability level. When he gave the students a prompt that this is a test of your aptitude, the black students did much worse than the white students, although they had been grouped based on what the researchers thought was the same ability level Same test, same ability level, and yet the black students did worse on a test when the prompt was this is about your aptitude. He then assembled another group of black and white students. And instead of, again, statistically equated on ability level, instead of saying this about your aptitude the prompt was, we are giving you a problem solving task that has nothing to do with your ability. Black and white students did the same. He calls this the stereotype threat. And he says that when a test or when an environment or when an experience prompts anxiety about how one is perceived in an unfamiliar environment it can reenforce self esteem issues. And it goes back to that Un Triseman example where some of what seemed to help the black students when they were brought together in the peer workshop was enhancing their self confidence that they were learners. That they could ask questions and reflect the fact that they didn’t know the answer and they could still learn. This suggests it’s not just about the criteria we use to admit people, it is also about the way in which we conduct the environment in which we teach people. It has to do with our expectations, not only of our students but of ourselves. And just as a footnote, Claude Steel gave a very similar test to white males and Asian males, statistically equated for ability, a math test. He said to both groups, this is a test of how well you do on math compared to each other. Meaning, excited their competitiveness and said we’re trying to find out how well white males do compared to Chinese or Asian American males and the white males’ scores on this test went down compared to that of the Asian males. This is not just about reinforcing stereotypes regarding African Americans. This is about trying to use more creative, more experiential, more innovative ways of teaching that accommodate everyone’s learning styles, that motivate people to do their best, and that open up opportunity to all Americans who can take advantage of it and who will then use that opportunity to give back not only to the school that educated them, but to the society at large. And I want to just end with a story about how this can happen, not just about race, not just about gender, but about diversity in which we learn from each other and don’t assume that the best way of doing something is the way we alone would do it. My son, when he was eight years old, wanted to be an astronaut. He had us watch the movie Apollo 13 several times. You must remember, if you’ve seen it, the scene where they summon NASA, the astronauts are in a capsule, they are choking on their own carbon dioxide, there is leakage between a round tube and a square opening and they are in desperate shape. Houston, we have a problem. Now, the NASA administrator, in trying to deal with this tangible problem, did not say well, get me the person with the highest SAT scores on their physics or science or engineering tests. He assembled a diverse group of people with different kinds of expertise. He put them in a room, he gave them a reproduction of everything that the astronauts had on that capsule and he said now you have to solve this problem by working together. And they did. And they were able to convert what could have been a tragedy into a triumph. And I believe if we take the methodology of Dr. King, if we remember the lesson of the minors canary, that we too can avert what could be otherwise a tragedy and turn it into a triumph.
Thank you very much.
In MLK talk, Vest notes efforts to advance minority opportunities