Sunday, October 07, 2007

Discrimination in Academia?

Frank Douglas has resigned from MIT.

On June 3, I resigned from faculty and administrative positions at MIT, effective June 30. I did so because I perceived an unconscious discrimination against minorities and because my colleagues and the institute authorities did not act on my recommendations to address these issues. The timing was such that many of my colleagues thought I was resigning over the case of James Sherley, who was denied tenure in 2004 and went on a hunger strike earlier this year in protest. But my decision was based on the complex, insidious nature of discrimination in a university context.

I will go into more detail about my decision below, but several things have become clear to me throughout my decades of experience in industry and academic science. Academia is where the leaders and change agents of society and the world are educated, imprinted and nurtured. Selecting and preparing these future citizens and leaders has historically relied on various methods. Foremost is that done on the basis of excellence, whether it is in ability to recite, repeat or find new solutions to historical problems. This is the discrimination of excellence to the discipline, and is widely held to be a good thing.

The other two methods are not considered as positive because of the role that personal preferences - that is, prejudices - plays in them. One, the curious phenomenon of fraternities, sororities and special clubs, which discriminate along social lines, is the discrimination of social acceptance. The other, based on a behavioral or style component supportive of the goals of the department or discipline, is the discrimination of best fit. What makes these selection methods particularly troublesome for minorities is that discrimination of excellence to the discipline is impacted by the other two criteria. Recent events at MIT have been no exception to this pattern.

The Full Monty including interesting and mostly supportive commentary is available at The Scientist

Brother Douglas is not lying about his motives being complex and discrimination being insidious and highly resistant to change within the scientific establishment. Frankly, I'm confused as all get out about the BiDil connection - because I don't appreciate the scientific validity of a "race drug" - but the rest of it I understand and fully appreciate. My concerns about a "race drug" stem from my disbelief that the folks pursuing that aim possess the objectivity to do so in good faith. In fact, anything smacking of racial science raises the hairs on the back of my neck because the entire field of endeavor has a history of being polluted by bad intentions to its very core.