Suckering Minorities Into MIT Grad School

a letter to The Tech February 15, 1994 by Philip Greenspun

The spectacle of MIT administrators beating their chests in anguish because of the paucity of underrepresented minorities here is becoming a regular feature for the Tech. Your February 8th article on minority graduate student enrollment has some prize quotes. "If there are any excellent students of color out there, we ought to be able to attract them," enthuses Isaac Colbert, Associate Dean of the Graduate School. Beautiful sentiment, but unfortunately the most commonly sought Ph.D. is in education. Is Colbert proposing that we start an education school?

Clarence Williams, special assistant to the president and assistant equal opportunity officer, implies that we have enough departments, but they aren't properly administered: "The problem lies in departments that make the decisions." Would the problem be fixed if departments accepted every minority student who applied?

Apparently not, Colbert returns to claim. Society is at fault. He wants to "point [secondary school] students to math, science, and engineering." If these are such great careers, how come Colbert himself has chosen paper shuffling? When he is singing the praises of NerdDom to a high-school class and one of the students asks him what happens after graduate school, does he mention that there are about 750 applicants for every engineering professorship these days? Does he wax rhapsodic about the wonderful physics Ph.D. thesis published by the cab driver who brought him from the airport?

Colbert goes on to decry the fact that black and Latino males are "enmeshed in our legal system [i.e., either imprisoned, under indictment, or with previous criminal records]." Frankly, although the living conditions may be similar, I doubt that prison is a common alternative to MIT graduate school. Someone who was prepared for a career in science or engineering but didn't end up here would be more likely to be found in law, medical, or business school. Should we shed tears for a promising minority undergrad who passed up the big career opportunities in computer science ("I get my own cubicle, PC and C compiler, and $50,000/year after seven years of grad school? That's better than I expected!") for medical school ("I only get paid $250,000/year to be a radiologist and look at slides six hours a day? I worked so hard in med school for four years; I deserve more!").

Perhaps instead of trying to fix all of society's problems, we should look a little more closely at the actual experience of an MIT graduate student. What if the plethora of high-powered administrators mentioned in the article were reassigned from minority enrollment hand-wringing to corporate fund-raising? We could use the new funds to raise stipends. How many people think a $1000/month increase in the RA stipend would be more likely to attract a minority graduate student than a letter from any combination of administrators?

Philip Greenspun '82 G

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Alexander E. Long G responded in a letter on February 18, 1994:

"Clearly, there is no need to refute Greenspun's arguments as the ignorance about them is self-evident."