On ghetto-ing MIT

Last week Brandon Briscoe (MIT, class of 2014) published an incendiary article on the decline of MIT’s excellence in The Tech (MIT’s student newspaper).

http://tech.mit.edu/V132/N4/briscoe.html

In short, Mr. Briscoe argues that affirmative action policies are ruining MIT’s standards and ability to achieve excellence. His article (though he cites other articles) is founded on feelings, much like this one.

Full disclosure, I speak the language of the ghetto as one Newt Gingrich would put it.

However, I grew up far from the ghetto. In fact, I was raised in an affluent suburb. Mr. Briscoe’s article struck a very personal chord with me because it confirmed every fear that I’ve had: that I didn’t truly merit anything. I, like many other students, women or not, underrepresented minority or not, suffer from impostor syndrome (look it up, it’s real). I’m constantly questioning my successes and whether I merit or deserve my achievements.

This questioning started in high school when, after completing my freshman year with good grades in all the advanced courses, my classmates remarked that they were “surprised” I did so well. Thanks guys. At the end of high school when I was admitted to some elite universities my classmates made cracks that I was only admitted due to my last name. They didn’t know I never mentioned my ethnicity in my application, writing in “human” in the write-in for Other (in fact, I’ve spent most of my life pretending to be white), or that I had a perfect GPA and good SAT scores. It took me years to accept that I did deserve to be admitted to those schools. Before that realization I constantly questioned the admissions boards’ decisions.

When I went to college this complex persisted and I constantly doubted whether I deserved to be there on a full academic scholarship. It ultimately made me work harder than I had in high school. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, an honor that requires a certain GPA and recommendations from professors.

The same self-doubt arose when MIT admitted me for graduate school. I’m not using this article to brag about my achievements, I’m developing an argument for Mr. Briscoe and those who think like him. I “deserve” to be at MIT, something he has probably never questioned of himself. Frankly, the admissions process is so competitive that everyone who is admitted, affirmative action or not, deserves to be there. Admissions committees are selecting individuals who will not only provide diversity to the campus community, but also who will in one way or another contribute to the exceptional legacy of pioneering in research and technology of MIT. That’s really the crux of the matter, students admitted by affirmative action have to meet the same requirements that other students meet. In the end, it’s the same criteria for all students to graduate, regardless of how they were admitted, thus students who are admitted via affirmative action may work as hard or harder than their colleagues to achieve this goal.

When I think objectively, I know I ‘deserve’ to be at MIT, however Mr. Briscoe’s articles brought up a great number of my own insecurities of my merit. Luckily for me, some disagree with Mr. Briscoe:

“The naïve, Briscoe approach to admissions and hiring would entail an abrogation of MIT’s core values making it all but certain that MIT would miss out on the best and brightest unless they happen to look like him. That’s neither fairness, equality, nor meritocracy, but mere intellectual sloth, unworthy of the Institute.”

6 thoughts on “On ghetto-ing MIT”

  1. I hate to sound old, but I guess that’s something that naturally comes with age. I remember back in the day when I was the Tech opinion editor, and we would get similar columns. Of course, back then we didn’t have blogs as our competition.

    Anyway … Briscoe is making an elementary error. MIT is skimming almost anybody they want off the top of the stew pot. Even if (and don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe this) … even if women engineers were somehow on average not as qualified as male engineers, the tail ends of the Gaussian curve don’t give a damn about where the average falls. When the variation between individuals is bigger than the variation between the groups (and it certainly is true in this case), then averages become unimportant. What is important is judging the individuals on their own merits.

    1. Since MIT can cherry pick a class of qualified students to form almost any sort of combination of race/gender/income level/nationality from its large, diverse applicant pool, how should MIT take these factors into account, if at all?

      Briscoe IS arguing that individuals should be judged by their own merits. Sure there are undertones of racism in his article, but his core argument can’t just be ignored or dismissed. He’s arguing that those factors are irrelevant in determining academic merit and should thus be ignored. If this were the case, it would have the effect that each admitted class would have roughly the same makeup as the pool of qualified applicants.

      But take a look at admission rates for different groups and you can see that this isn’t the case. Some people are more likely to get in (i.e. underrepresented minorities, women). Once again, this isn’t saying that those minorities and women are unqualified. I understand why MIT might run their admissions like this. Maybe it wants an extra diverse class. Maybe it wants to help out those who haven’t had access to a great education (in this case, income level, not race is the important factor). But in each of these cases, some group (either white/Asian males or relatively wealthy people) is getting a relative statistical disadvantage. As I understand it, THAT is the crux of Briscoe’s argument.

      Personally, I’m still trying to figure out exactly where I stand. There are valid reasons (to me) to give some groups a leg up, but that also conflicts with my instinct that the process should be fair (cue arguments that the process isn’t fair to begin with). It doesn’t help that MIT and other universities that practice affirmative action avoid explicitly saying what their policies and methods are.

      It’s been great reading the well-thought-out responses that the article has provoked (e.g. Cerulo’s letter here: http://tech.mit.edu/V132/N6/letters.html), but I hate how many people have been dismissing Briscoe as a racist or a whiny white male. He can be both of those things and still have a valid point.

      1. Most mountain climbers are men. But when I was doing a lot of climbing, I preferred mixed parties of men and women. Why? I thought it brought some complementary strengths to the party. The climbing party as a whole was able to take advantage of these complementary strengths. All the party members should be good climbers, but given that, I preferred when there were both good men climbers and good women climbers in the group.

        I feel much the same way in the engineering world. I do think that having some women around improves the thinking and behavior and performance of the men. I strongly suspect that the same is true of mixed groups being stronger than all-women groups would be, too.

      2. Since I’m not, nor ever was, a student at MIT, I am only learning of this through the blog. Has Briscoe’s article set off a firestorm? Are people talking about it all over the campus or is it just a small group? Just curious.

      3. I think that it’s set of as much off a firestorm as there would be at MIT. (Kes, chime in here, you’re more “with it” around MIT than I am)
        This is what I know:
        The positive outcome of Briscoe’s article is that, as a result of its strong language, it sparked a lot of discussion about affirmative action on campus. The online version of the article has over 100 comments, coming from current students and alums. Additionally there was an Affirmative Action Forum last Wednesday organized by the Office of Minority Education and the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies open to the community that the Assistant Director of MIT Admissions, Quinton McArthur, attended to answer questions about admissions and affirmative action. Additionally, today Stu Schmill, the Dean of Admissions, had a column (http://tech.mit.edu/V132/N7/schmill.html )in the The Tech today, re-iterating that every student “deserves to be here, and was selected to create a student body that is uniformly excellent.”

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