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Jewish World Review April 2, 2002 / 20 Nisan, 5762

John Leo

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Consumer Reports

Bogus bias at MIT | One of my first columns here was on a 1989 report accusing Wellesley College of racial discrimination. The report contained no evidence of real bias. Instead, it focused on discomfort among nonwhite students-some cafeteria food was unfamiliar; posters in the bookstore featured Bavarian castles but no Third World settings. All of this was said to add up to subtle, "unconsciously white" bias that hobbled minority students.

This was my first exposure to the modern evidence-free, feelings-based bias report. Perhaps the most successful of these reports was the 1999 one on gender bias at the Massachusetts Instituteof Technology School of Science. Gender bias operates in "a stealthlike way," said biology Prof. Nancy Hopkins, the driving force be- hind the report. "Stealthlike," "subtle," and "institutionalized" biases are the kinds you needn't document or even describe. They are just there.

After complaining bitterly, Hopkins was allowed to be the lead chair of a panel, which conducted its own inquiry and-lo and behold-produced the report that found her charge accurate. The committee made a stab at gathering evidence, measuring offices, and counting heads, but nothing convincing was put on the table. The panel said it looked at quantitative measures of academic achievement but refused to make its data public. Prof. Judith Kleinfeld of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, who did an analysis for the right-of-center Inde- pendent Women's Forum, said the MIT study "presents no objective evidence whatsoever to support claims of gender discrimination." Younger women teaching at MIT seemed to agree. Buried in the back of the report was the admission that "untenured women faculty feel that men and women faculty are treated equally."

Shaky ground. No matter. America's diversity machine threw itself fully behind the report, shaky as it was. The New York Times gave it uncritical Page 1 coverage. The Ford Foundation donated a million dollars to see if other universities needed the MIT treatment. Hopkins was invited to the White House. MIT capitulated, accusing itself of deep (but "subtle" and vague) gender bias.

Now the gender bias analysts at MIT are back, this time with reports on four MIT schools not mentioned before. Again, the text is awash in feelings-based prose, with "women more frequently reporting negative experiences" and expressing "feelings of exclusion." The word marginalization, mandatory in bias reports, appears relentlessly.

Why do some MIT women feel marginalized? According to a report coauthored by James Steiger, a statistician and professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, MIT senior women in biology, on average, published fewer scientific articles, were cited less in other scientists' work, and brought in less grant money than the male scientists. All the women at MIT are very good. All would be stars elsewhere. But MIT is a very fast track, so some are below average for a campus that sets standards that high. Men in this predicament can't chalk it up to gender. Women can.

One MIT report tosses in good news, then paddles past it. It mentions that the engineering school has a history of giving tenure to a higher percentage of women than men and quicker promotions to full professor as well. But then the report lurches back to chatter about marginalization.

The new reports' 100 pages are laid out in a way that makes it hard for journalists to encapsulate what is being said. One example, though: At one point the management report tries to measure comparative discomfort levels of female and male professors. It's a wildly unscientific effort. In general, says Steiger, "any undergraduate in a research methods course could debunk these reports."

The sad truth is that MIT, one of the world's great centers of scientific education, has now produced and accepted two astonishingly unscientific studies of its own administrative behavior. In response to these studies, nobody on campus has spoken out. "The people on the gender committees control the airwaves on this story, and nobody will speak up," Steiger says. "And with good reason. If they speak, they will be branded as misogynists, and their careers will be in jeopardy."

Worse, the culture of MIT is being changed. Gender equity has replaced scientific merit as the value administrators will be judged by. And as always in preference schemes, women on the faculty will now come under suspicion as people who wouldn't be there except for politics. And all without any real discussion or open debate. Amazing.

JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Incorrect Thoughts: Notes on Our Wayward Culture. Send your comments by clicking here.


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