Paul Penfield, Jr., Faculty Diversity, The MIT Faculty Newsletter, vol. VI, no. 3, pp. 1, 12-15; January/February 1994; originally issued in unpublished form February 26, 1993.

Faculty Diversity

Paul Penfield, Jr.


The term "diversity" is used today for an environment that welcomes people of many races, religions, genders, national origins, sexual orientations, cultural backgrounds, classes, or perhaps other kinds of differences. This paper examines why programs to increase faculty diversity in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science may be in the department's self-interest. It is a personal statement by the author and does not necessarily represent a department consensus.


Why do we want faculty diversity? Different people will offer different reasons. Often diversity is discussed in terms of moral principles, political philosophies, or legal requirements. However, at least with respect to the hiring, promotion, and retention of faculty in our department, the reason that seems to make the most sense is actually very simple: A diverse faculty can carry out the mission of our department better than a nondiverse one.

This argument, which is developed more fully in this paper, is firmly rooted in the goals of our department, rather than the political goals of society at large, or the self-serving goals of any special-interest groups. It is not based on personal attitudes of members of the department, which vary greatly, or on any requirements imposed on the department from outside.

There are major advantages to basing diversity programs on our fundamental mission. First, all department people can be expected to participate in such programs, regardless of their personal feelings about the matter. Second, when such programs (inevitably) conflict with other principles or programs that are also designed to help us fulfill our basic mission, then compromises can be found by appealing to the same basic objectives. Third, the design of any program depends on the purpose it serves. If we do the right thing for the wrong reason, we may do it in the wrong way.

Faculty Diversity Today

There are several types of differences among people -- race, religion, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, culture, class, and perhaps others. Of these, race and gender are the ones most obvious at a glance, and the ones that lead to the most stereotypes. I believe the department faculty now has adequate diversity of religion, national origin, and culture. I am not sure about sexual orientation and class. This paper deals exclusively with race and gender.

Currently, our faculty of somewhat over 100 includes one black professor and seven women. I believe more minority and women faculty are needed for us to achieve the various benefits of diversity described below.

Department Mission

The primary mission of our department is to help our students get the best possible education and professional development.

To fulfill this mission we must

  1. attract the best students, both undergraduate and graduate,
  2. provide them the best environment for learning once they are here, and
  3. help them develop the personal and professional skills and attitudes they will need in later life, especially in their careers.

A diverse faculty is better able to do these things than a nondiverse one.

Our Changing Environment

Historically, most of our students have come from the United States, and until a few years ago most were white males. And because our graduates went to work in a white-dominated society and a male-dominated workplace, some felt it unnecessary for them to appreciate other viewpoints or cultures.

Today things are different:

One Benefit of Diversity: Role Models

As we see, an increasing number of our students and potential students are women or minority members. They cannot do their best if they believe that their chosen profession is one in which only white American males can succeed at the highest levels. Students think of the faculty as successful professionals. Therefore it is important that our faculty include women and people from minority groups to provide role models or "existence proofs."

Women and minority role models on the faculty also benefit white male students. During their careers all our graduates will encounter women or minority members as professional colleagues and supervisors. It is important that they recognize that excellence is found in both genders and all races. They must shed any stereotypes to the contrary they may have brought with them when they entered MIT.

Finally, some of our faculty may have similar ingrained stereotypes, or a lack of appreciation of how the needs of women and minority students may differ from those of white male students. Diversity on our faculty will help improve the understanding of all our faculty in these matters.

A curious question arises with respect to black faculty. Can a black person from Africa or the Caribbean be a suitable role model or contribute a minority viewpoint? I have heard different opinions on this. Foreign woman professors can usually be suitable female role models. However, some feel the kindred sense between African Americans and foreign blacks is far less than that felt between women of different nationalities. One reason may be that most foreign blacks were not brought up in a society that treated them as racial inferiors, and so may not appreciate the effects of the minority experience on African Americans. Some believe that our African American students cannot regard foreign black faculty as living proof that black Americans, brought up as minorities, can succeed in engineering. Others, however, point out that African colonialism produced effects similar to American slavery and racism, and that in any event African Americans find it easier to identify with blacks from Africa or the Caribbean than with white Americans.

A Second Benefit of Diversity: An Enriched Intellectual Environment

Women and minority faculty members bring to the department a different perspective on engineering. Whether because of biology or culture, women usually tend to have somewhat different beliefs about what is important, about appropriate uses of technology, and about how human occupations, including engineering, are or should be carried on. These different attitudes and styles should be represented in our teaching and research program. Our students' education is incomplete without them. Although many male faculty understand these differences, they are not usually motivated to introduce them into their teaching or into the everyday activities of the department.

A similar argument can be made with respect to enrichment from the differences in viewpoint of minorities. These differences are more difficult for white faculty to appreciate because so few of them have minority members as close friends, and because these differences are more subtle and harder to articulate.

A Third Benefit of Diversity: Improved Counseling and Mentoring

The functions of our faculty include formal counseling, informal mentoring, and research guidance. Although our women and minority students can generally be mentored and advised satisfactorily by white male faculty, there are two potential problems. First, faculty counselors, mentors, and research supervisors should be sensitive to the needs of a broad spectrum of students; collegial interactions with a similarly broad faculty can help all our faculty appreciate such needs. Second, all students may, especially at a time of personal crisis, have a greater than average need for help from people with whom they can identify; only a diverse faculty can serve that role for a diverse student body.

The Costs of Diversity

Actions on behalf of diversity should be considered with an awareness of the costs involved. These are of two sorts: the cost of the effort to increase diversity, and the cost of dealing with the effects of increased diversity. Neither cost can be quantified easily.

The first cost of diversity is the time and energy spent in (1) more thoroughly searching the faculty candidate pool for diverse people, (2) expanding the number of women and minorities in this pool, and (3) judging candidates by appropriate criteria. If we say we want the benefits of diversity we must develop and use criteria, for all candidates, that place appropriate values on differences. If we use criteria appropriate only for white males, we will probably end up with only white males.

The second item above is particularly important because of the severe shortage, nation-wide, of minority doctoral graduates. It has been suggested that the most effective thing we, as a department, can do to address faculty diversity on the national level would be to increase the number of women and minority members in our own doctoral program.

The second cost of diversity comes from the greater range of held values, at least those values that are gender-specific, race-specific, or culture-specific. In a homogeneous environment, much can be taken for granted at all levels of discourse. Diversity inevitably requires that common assumptions be reiterated and that care be taken to ensure that differences in style or attitude are not misunderstood. If the differing values are strongly felt by some in the community, there is a potential for friction, alienation, and loss of respect. This is especially important in a university environment, with students at an age where they are sorting through their own ethical and moral principles, and looking to faculty for guidance. They will have to deal with mixed signals in a heterogeneous community. This problem will not go away easily since it is caused by the very enrichment that is a benefit of diversity.

What We Want in Our Faculty

When judging potential faculty members, we look at many things. We look for technical expertise. We look at desire and ability to teach and act as a mentor for students. We look at research accomplishments and potential. We look for the potential of collaboration with other faculty. We look for ability to shift areas of interest. We look for depth. We look for breadth. We ask whether this person will be someone who will do exciting things, and bring luster and glory to MIT. When we are done looking at all those things, we somehow "add them up" and make a subjective judgement about how well the candidate can contribute to the mission of the department.

Are these criteria sufficient if, to help us fulfill the mission of the department, we wish to increase faculty diversity? Probably two other criteria are needed -- criteria that can and should be applied to all candidates, although they favor women and minority members. First, we should recognize that women and, especially, minorities grew up in the face of many obstacles presented by society. The fact that a candidate has succeeded despite great obstacles is evidence of perseverance and strength. And second, it is relevant to consider explicitly whether a candidate will add diversity to our department.

This second additional criterion, which is intended to favor candidates who are different from current faculty, must be applied with care. Recall why it is to our advantage to have a diverse faculty in the first place. Three benefits were discussed above: role models, an enriched environment, and improved counseling. For a woman or minority faculty member to actually contribute to those departmental benefits, it is essential that he or she meet the standards of quality and performance expected of all faculty. A poor teacher or a lackluster researcher cannot be a satisfactory role model. Without the respect that comes from bona fide success, a faculty member cannot be effective at enriching our environment, nor can he or she serve as a credible counselor. A faculty member whose performance reinforces negative stereotypes is no help at all, but is instead a detriment to the department.

The performance standards just referred to are independent of a person's race or gender. They have to do with effective teaching, research, counseling, etc. A faculty member can bring to the department the benefit associated with racial or gender diversity only by meeting the usual standards, applied in a way that ignores race and gender.

Faculty Recruiting

Here is how faculty searches typically occur in our department. Each year, the Dean of Engineering gives us permission to search for a small number of faculty. Usually each faculty opening is designated for a specific technical area. To be successful a candidate must pass three tests: (1) a good match between the candidate's technical interest and our need (the field test); (2) a high expectation that the person will succeed in our environment, be an excellent teacher and researcher, and merit receiving tenure (the absolute test); and (3) ranking above all other candidates (the competitive test). An offer is made only to a person who passes all three tests.

Why are these tests applied? The absolute test is one that is necessary to preserve the high quality of our faculty. By applying this test, we are saying that we would prefer to hire nobody, than to hire someone who does not meet our absolute standards. Our fundamental mission requires us to maintain faculty quality. On the other hand, the other two tests are necessary because MIT has limited resources and must therefore keep the faculty size limited. The competitive test is required because we have a limited number of openings, and want to choose the best person. The field test is required if openings are designated for specific fields.

The normal search process works well for white males, and it yields an acceptable number of junior women. However, there is still a shortage of senior (i.e., tenured) women faculty, and of minority faculty of all ages. For this reason, the MIT Provost is willing to consider extra faculty openings, as needed, for qualified minority and senior women candidates.

Under the Provost's program , we can relax the competitive test, since faculty openings will be created for each successful candidate. Thus, someone hired under this program need not be judged to be the best person available that year. Also, a role model can be effective from any technical area. Therefore there is no need to apply the field test; we can search across the entire domain covered by the department, although for balance we should emphasize fields that do not now have faculty diversity of the type sought. We do, however, need to apply the absolute test, since the candidate needs to meet the usual departmental standards in order to bring the benefits associated with diversity. In using the Provost's program, I think we should apply the absolute test in the following way.

For junior minority faculty candidates, we should make an offer only to a person believed to be close to or above the average level of department faculty of comparable age and level of experience. The performance of the new faculty member will then not be below that of the bulk of our faculty.

For senior candidates, the arguments are more complex. It is always harder to judge whether senior faculty will succeed here (junior faculty are still young enough to learn and adapt to our ways of doing things). And the decisions for senior faculty are more permanent because tenure is involved. Thus, the decision is more difficult and the cost of a mistake is greater. Therefore we must use more care and adhere to somewhat higher standards than for junior candidates.

In the case of senior minority candidates, we should seek a high level of confidence that the person's performance, in our environment, will be at or above that of the average of our faculty of comparable level of experience. This requirement, somewhat more stringent than for junior faculty, provides a margin of error to help us avoid costly mistakes.

For senior women, the arguments are still more complex. We currently have four senior women in a faculty of a little over a hundred, along with three junior women who we hope will, in time, become senior faculty. Although this is not enough to provide the full benefit of diversity, it is enough to permit us to be somewhat more selective than for senior minority candidates. I believe that for a senior woman we should seek a high degree of confidence that her performance, in our environment, will be significantly better than that of the average of our current faculty at a comparable level of experience. Also, we should focus on areas of the department not currently represented by women faculty.

To see these standards in context, note that we do not ordinarily search for senior faculty, because of the risks cited above. For a white male senior candidate to be hired, there would have to be a field-specific search authorized, and the candidate would have to pass both the field test and the competitive test. Then, in applying the absolute test, I believe we should seek a high degree of confidence that his performance, in our environment, will be significantly better than that of almost all of our current faculty at a comparable level of experience.


MIT President Charles Vest has said, "If MIT is to lead in the future as it has in the past, we will need to better reflect the changing face of America." I believe this thought applies to our department, as well as to MIT as a whole.


The writer is pleased to acknowledge helpful discussions with, and good ideas from, many people, including Fernando Corbató, Paul Gray, Fred Hennie, Vera Kistiakowsky, Nancy Lynch, Mitch Maidique, Gary May, Bill Ramsey, Mary Rowe, Jeff Shapiro, Art Smith, Chuck Vest, Cardinal Warde, and Clarence Williams. The final paper is entirely the responsibility of the author.

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Created: Dec 9, 1994  |  Modified: Dec 31, 1998
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