MIT’s Report on Race and Diversity: A Template for Change?

MIT has just issued a lengthy report on its hiring and promotion of underrepresented minority faculty, a document several years in the making.  I will be writing more about this report in the next few days, trying to put it in historical perspective.  MIT may be one-of-a-kind, sitting well above almost every other technical institution in the country, but my first glances suggest that as I read it I’ll be thinking about how this report might shift thinking on diversity in other STEM higher ed settings.  Here’s why:

Like most other documents on diversity in STEM fields, this report works from the premise that because valuable science is produced by a pool of talented personnel, racial equity is desirable because it will enlarge that pool.  But at the same time, unusually, the report bluntly acknowledges that notions of scientific talent are themselves sometimes subject to biases. Even more promising, the report grants that something about science makes its institutions uniquely resistant to social reform:

Findings suggest, further, that in the MIT culture which embraces the scientific ethos — and claims that science is itself beyond identity and race — race, racialization and racism, or the perception of them, are very difficult for many to recognize, address and discuss honestly.

These kinds of acknowledgments are vital if a STEM diversity effort is to have an authentic social justice agenda.  And they are rare in educational policy and university self-studies, not least because they hint that exclusive venues gain their status in part from…exclusion. If MIT’s new report really does dig deeply into the ways that self-proclaimed meritocracies perpetuate social exclusion, it can have important ripple effects.  More soon on the report’s overall handling of these provocative ideas…

Moving Jobs Up the Skill Ladder

In a piece on NPR the other day on Where the Jobs Will be This Decade, Harvard labor economist Lawrence Katz made a vital point about  the “polarization” of American labor markets.  That term might sound dry or technical, but Katz guides us towards some transformative thinking about the current job situation.

Katz explained that without a new approach to employment, we  will see new jobs created at the very top and very bottom of the “skill ladder,” but few in between. Most boldly, he suggested that traditionally low-skill, low-wage jobs like home healthcare work  be redefined in their essence, to include more education and skills.  We should take up this challenge to our familiar thinking about jobs in America: Why have we accepted, for so long, that so many jobs in our economy must be so low in intellectual and monetary reward?  Who in the economy does this presumption benefit, and harm?  (And why do those questions seem today to arise mostly in labor history classes, not in our now daily conversations about un- and underemployment?)

Katz didn’t go as far as he might have; he didn’t suggest that those home health workers be taught some of the skills now associated with nursing or psychological counseling; only that they perhaps be taught about “problem solving, interpersonal relations and teamwork.”  But his idea that the content of education at this level could be altered seems truly practical, and  holds the seeds of some genuinely reformist thinking about our customary, and deeply inequitable, ways of dividing up work and workers.