MIT Professor Explains Resignation, Charging “Unconscious Discrimination Against Minorities”

8/8/07Follow @bbuderi

There’s an interesting discussion going on at The Scientist‘s website about discrimination in academia, and particularly at MIT. The conversation was sparked by an essay written by Frank Douglas, formerly Professor of the Practice at MIT and director of the school’s Center for Biomedical Innovation. Douglas, who is black, resigned last June in the wake of the institute’s decision to deny tenure to James Sherley, another black professor who earlier in the year grabbed headlines with a hunger strike protesting his treatment by MIT. Douglas’s piece, written for the publication’s October issue (The Scientist issued a press release about the article today), explains his decision, citing “an unconscious discrimination against minorities” at MIT. Douglas writes that he resigned because of that attitude, “and because my colleagues and the institute authorities did not act on my recommendations to address these issues.”

Douglas’s article is particularly thought-provoking because he does not paint discrimination as a cut-and-dried issue. Rather, he speaks of “the complex, insidious nature of discrimination in a university context.” He also makes some subtle distinctions between how institutions address charges of racial inequity as compared to those of gender discrimination, an issue on which MIT has made substantial progress since biology professor Nancy Hopkins and other women faculty members pressed the issue in the 1990s.

Notably, Douglas talks about the standards of excellence on which tenure decisions are typically based: papers, research contributions, and such. But he also speaks of two other types of standards—what he calls “social acceptance” and “best fit.” These can rest on factors such as an individual’s style or demeanor and how they are perceived. If these standards enter into tenure decisions, the fact that members of minority groups might well have different styles and demeanors can make it harder for them to gain tenure. Douglas suggests that “MIT needs to reexamine its criteria for discrimination of social acceptability and best fit to ensure that it is relevant in a rapidly changing world.”

Douglas makes it clear that he did not resign over Sherley, but over what he perceived as the lack of will on the part of MIT—which is a beacon of economic growth for Massachusetts and the nation and should also be a beacon of diversity—to really examine racial issues. The essay in The Scientist quotes his resignation letter to associate provost Claude Canizares: “The issue for me is not whether Prof Sherley should be given immediate tenure or not. I cannot judge that and would not even presume to do so. The issue is: Why has this great institution not been able to find a mutually, acceptable solution for a problem that affects, not only Prof Sherley, but every present and future minority faculty member? I am convinced, and I have other reasons to believe this, that the will to do this is lacking.”

The questions raised by Douglas of course need to be taken seriously—and they impact not just universities, but government, business, and society. As he makes clear, it’s not about the “rightness” of specific actions, but about the rightness of the process. There’s an old saying about justice: “Not only must justice be done, it must appear to be done.” The same is true about a tenure system or charges of discrimination: not only must the system be fair, it must be perceived to be fair.

Xconomy sought comment from Hopkins, whom Douglas credits in his article for leading the fight against gender discrimination at MIT. “One has to be deeply concerned that Douglas believes that MIT, and perhaps all leading research universities like MIT, do not yet understand diversity issues well enough, or have enough commitment to them, to be able to successfully address the under-representation of minority groups on the faculty,” Hopkins replied. “I am extremely sad that Douglas did not stay on at MIT to help solve this problem. In particular, he had much to contribute to the important initiative on race that is now under way at MIT under the leadership of Professor Paula Hammond (Chemical Engineering) and faculty representatives of the five Schools of MIT.”

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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  • Frank Douglas

    Bob, You are one of the few individuals to understand the larger concern and my dismay that MIT does not recognize its responsibility to create an environment where issues of diversity are addressed. If the MITs do not address this they will be losing the opportunity to prepare graduates and to develop solutions for these global problems. The minority faculty issue is the tip of the iceberg.

  • Gerard J. Holder

    First, I do not profess to know anything about the inner workings of the MIT’s implicit discriminating work environment, but it sounds like the research of Mary P. Rowe, Ph.D. conducted in 1973 on “micro-inequities” have only reach the conscious but have yet to recondition the unconscious. Carl Jung wrote about the two components of the ego; the persona and the shadow. The persona is who we let the world see and the shadow is the part of us that we are ashamed and guilty about. We can have conscious conversation about implicit or explicit discrimination and strategies of change all day long. But until we individually become aware of our implicit biases, confront our shadows and are willing to make an authentic and conscious decision of change that will ultimately become part of our unconscious, only then will the perception of change exist, therefore change will exist. To echo the saying in the above article, “not only must the system be fair, it must be perceived to be fair.”

    What this all boils down to is that people in an academic, business, or social environment must become “unconsciously intelligent” in order to sustain change. To truly value an individual one must not be judge by the color their skin but by the content of their character; words of the late Martin Luther King Jr. Therefore, we must not judge individuals by their race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, demeanors or based on “social acceptance” but rather on their skills, knowledge and ability (SKA). Therefore, if MIT establishes a tenure process that has a SKA foundation, then perhaps “social acceptance” and/or demeanors are no longer perceived as an implicit requirement.