September/October 2023Vol. XXXVI No. 1

Advancing Racial Equity After the End of Affirmative Action

Faculty Advisory Committee, Office of Minority Education

“At the same time, as all parties agree, nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.” Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in his opinion on Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard College.

On June 29, in a 6-2 decision, the Supreme Court banned the use of applicants’ race in university admissions with the argument that doing so is discriminatory and involves racial stereotyping, among other reasons. MIT’s admission readers will no longer receive racial information about applicants unless applicants divulge this in essays. If they do, Justice Roberts wrote, “the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual – not on the basis of race.”

This decision affects students applying this fall for undergraduate or graduate admissions. Graduate admissions committees should seek advice from the MIT Office of General Counsel (OGC) regarding changes to fellowships, post-baccalaureate programs, or any other practices that have previously involved race. OGC has shared preliminary guidance in a confidential and privileged communication to MIT faculty, PIs, and graduate admission administrators.

How will this impact MIT? The experience from states that have banned affirmative action in college admissions suggests that underrepresented racial and ethnic group members will become even less represented in our classrooms from 2024 on.

It will become harder to achieve the goal set by the Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid in October 2015:

Every student should feel that “there are people like me here” and “there are people different from me here.” No student should feel isolated; all students should come into contact with members of other groups and experience them as colleagues with valuable ideas and insights.

Compared with its peers, MIT has some advantages in recruiting a diverse student body. First, MIT has never had legacy admissions, a practice of favoring children of alumni. Second, MIT is one of only seven American colleges or universities that practice need-blind admissions and meet the full financial need of all undergraduates, including international students. MIT practices holistic admissions and works hard to attract applications from underrepresented populations. These practices are also generally followed in graduate admissions, although their application is specific to each graduate program.

The SCOTUS decision also affects current students, some of whom have been told by peers that they were admitted because of their race. Currently enrolled students may be treated differently from incoming classes starting in 2024. Racism does not disappear because the Supreme Court says that race may no longer be considered in admissions. It also will not disappear if we say that we treat everyone the same regardless of race or any other personal characteristic.

The affirmative action ruling does not change the MIT mission or values. But it will affect the composition of our student body, it may affect the experiences our students have at MIT, and it should inspire us to consider how to best carry out our mission in alignment with our values.

What faculty can do to help students

Faculty are responsible for “providing … students with an education that combines rigorous academic study and the excitement of discovery with the support and intellectual stimulation of a diverse campus community.” Now more than ever it is important for faculty members to recognize and communicate the values of higher education, including MIT’s commitment to diversity and equity.

An excellent example of such communication was provided by Dean of Admissions and Student Financial Services Stu Schmill ’86 in his June 7 blog post Reaffirming our commitment to diversity. In our many roles, we, too, can communicate our commitment. We can recruit, admit, and educate students who are first generation or come from low-income families. We can support and advocate for pre-college programs that provide transformative experiences to students who often do not see others like them in STEM. Even simply mentioning these opportunities to friends, colleagues, and students can make a difference.

Our biggest commitment as faculty is, however, to our current students whom we advise, teach, and mentor. As members of the Faculty Advisory Committee of the Office of Minority Education with many years of collective experience working to advance diversity and excellence at MIT, we have four suggestions for all faculty working with students.

  1. Focus on students’ potential for growth, not on what they lack

The expectations we communicate have a profound effect on students’ sense of belonging and their mindset. It is foolish to conflate preparation with ability, yet we hear too often of students being told by faculty that “you should try doing something else” (indeed, several of us received that advice as students). This is especially harmful when it comes from a belief, even if not consciously held, that minoritized students may be less capable than others. Research shows that student performance is enhanced when faculty recognize student capabilities and build on their strengths (Wang & Hazari, 2018; Faulconer, Griffith, & Gruss 2021). If a student lacks the preparation needed to succeed in a class, it is best to show them what is needed, suggest ways they can obtain it, and encourage them to succeed.

  1. Use data to critically examine your impact as an educator

MIT faculty love working with data, but beyond looking at our teaching evaluations, how many of us use data to assess our teaching? Although few of us are trained in the methodology, there are experts in both the Teaching and Learning Lab and Institutional Research.

MIT-wide information is available on six-year graduation rates, for example, at the publicly accessible MIT Diversity Dashboard. Did you know that MIT women complete bachelor’s degrees at consistently higher rates than men? Or that graduation rates have improved over the last decade for almost all racial groups?

Given the small numbers of students and the challenges of identifying and correcting for confounding variables, we do not recommend that faculty collect and analyze data from their own classrooms. However, at the level of a department or School, leaders can work with MIT Institutional Research to address questions about persistence and success across majors. Are there differences in degree attainment or other outcomes based on race or gender? If so, why?

  1. Find the stories in the data; recognize the data in the stories

When we find patterns in data, we are drawn to ask what they mean. Why might there be different outcomes for people depending on gender or race? Should we be examining learning gains rather than absolute performance? Are there problems with our teaching that need to be solved?

Scientists and engineers use data to tell stories. It is equally important to understand that human stories are also data, even if they are not quantitative. When a student is told by peers they got into MIT only because of their race, that might encourage them to study independently, either because they want to avoid further slights or to prove that they can succeed on their own. The student then loses an opportunity to learn from their peers and to deepen their understanding by sharing it with others, who also lose the benefits of peer learning and community. They may spend so much time attempting to solve some problems that they do not advance to later material. Imposter feelings (“I was admitted by mistake; everyone is better than me”) are common and can make it harder to persist. A story can become a statistic.

Qualitative data such as human stories help us not only to understand patterns in quantitative data, but also to find meaning. Once a faculty member sees the positive effects of listening to and affirming students’ experiences, they may be motivated to transform their approach to education.

  1. Adopt research-based teaching strategies

How can we improve our educational practices to help all students succeed? Fortunately, there is a growing understanding of how people learn and what instructional strategies are most effective. The MIT Teaching and Learning Lab has an excellent set of informational resources and events and programs for interested faculty and other community members.

Effective teaching is far more than knowledge transfer and skill building. It requires creating an environment where all students feel both valued and challenged to grow within their zone of proximal development (Sanford 2020, Section 3.1). This concept refers to the situation where a student is capable of practicing a skill or solving a problem with help or guidance; the problem is neither impossibly difficult nor one they have already mastered.

Good teaching requires thinking about more than cognition; it also involves considering how learners plan, monitor, and evaluate their own learning (metacognition) as well as fostering a sense of belonging in the classroom. We do not expect our students to know all the material before they take our classes, and we should not expect to know educational psychology if we have not studied it. But we should make an effort to learn and practice those skills that will make us more effective.

Given our commitment to the success of all students, including those who may question whether they belong because of their race or other aspects of their identity, we should seek ways to inform ourselves. The physics community has prepared an informative report (AIP, 2020) that has good tips for all MIT faculty including a departmental self-assessment rubric. It’s also a good practice to encourage TAs, and graduate students interested in becoming faculty, to earn a teaching certificate at the Teaching and Learning Lab or to take a course such as the 3-unit class 8.998 Teaching and Mentoring MIT Students.

What the Office of Minority Education is doing

The Office of Minority Education (OME) was founded in 1975 “to strengthen the sense of community among minority students and to facilitate access to the full range of educational and counseling resources that exist at the Institute” (Wiesner, 1973). The OME mission is “to promote academic excellence, build strong communities, and develop professional mindsets among students of underrepresented minority groups, with the ultimate goal of developing leaders in the academy, industry, and society.” It does so by offering a wide range of services and programs that are open to all MIT students. In particular, programs like Interphase EDGE, a program for admitted MIT students to ease the transition from high school and to build community among new students, will continue to play an important role. Indeed, this program has been expanded into a hybrid online/in-person version (Interphase EDGE/x) that increases the number of students served.

SCOTUS is not the only influence on university practices relating to diversity; some states (not including Massachusetts) have passed laws that would hamper or eliminate offices like the OME.

Moreover, in August the founder of Students for Fair Admissions filed a new lawsuit challenging diversity fellowships at law firms, and there are likely to be additional lawsuits against programs that use race in both companies and universities. The OME’s mission is to support minority students; yet, they are intentional about serving all students. The office is reviewing its policies, practices, and communications to ensure that they continue to be fully inclusive.

What happens next?

Higher education has had limited time to process the implications of the end of affirmative action. Important perspectives are available from the National Academies’ report Advancing Antiracism, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in STEMM Organizations: Beyond Broadening Participation (NASEM, 2023) and from faculty leaders of color at other institutions (Gates, 2023; Maldonado-Vlaar, 2023). We encourage faculty to reflect on these writings, and to share their own experiences and perspectives with colleagues and in the Faculty Newsletter.

On academic matters of societal importance such as race and diversity in higher education, our faculty should engage in Institute-wide conversations. These may occur in committees such as the Institute Council on Belonging, Achievement, and Composition, departmental Visiting Committees, or the Academic Council. We feel, however, that broader and more inclusive discussions are needed. Faculty should be listening to students and also collaborating with them to host Institute-wide discussions on advancing racial equity after the end of affirmative action. We will be working with others to organize forums.

With its ruling, this Supreme Court has established its legacy in higher education. It’s time for us as faculty to plan and enact ours.