Education in the United States: Evelyn Higginbotham, Sylvester Gates, and Paula T. Hammond (2011)

Event Date

17 March 2011


Evelyn Higginbotham, Professor of History and African American Studies, Harvard University
Sylvester Gates '73, PhD '77, Department of Physics, MLK Visiting Professor, MIT
Paula T. Hammond '84, PhD '93, Bayer Professor of Chemical Engineering, MIT
Wesley L. Harris, Charles Stark Draper Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Associate Provost for Faculty Equity


The drive to make American universities more diverse shows some success, but consistent and meaningful inclusion of under"represented minorities seems elusive, according to four academics whose own experiences help illuminate the problem. "The civil rights agenda is challenged today in many ways," says Evelyn Higginbotham, although the U.S. is a far more multiracial country than it was in the early 1960s, when civil rights laws emerged. High unemployment and foreclosure rates, and lower levels of state funding have made it especially hard for minority or poor white students to start and complete an education. Retention problems also threaten faculty diversity in higher education, says Higginbotham. Professors of color may find themselves spread too thin; asked to participate on committees and as advisors, they may not be able to pursue the research required for tenure. "Diversity is not successful when it appears as a revolving door for junior faculty," she says, and retaining these faculty is essential for recruiting and training the next generation of scholars.

Physicist Sylvester James Gates takes stock of diversity from a variety of vantage points. He notes that "nature uses diversity as a survival mechanism." As an American traveling the world, he has "found American music almost every place," and credits diversity for creating rock and roll. In physics, and other sciences, "diversity is a force multiplier for innovationYou want the most diverse group of people present asking questions." Gates also has a personal take on diversity and MIT. In 1969, he was one of 50 African American undergraduate students in a class of 1000. "Wow, talk about lack of diversity. We were it." Those were trying times, and Gates relates episodes of racism on campus, including the routine questioning of black students by campus police, "who wondered who we were." Gates ultimately decided "MIT was not a place where diversity could be lived out and was genuine," and left. Although he finds the university markedly more multiracial these days, Gates concludes, "You folks got a ways to go."

Paula Hammond was hired by MIT in the same department she matriculated in back in 1980, and says she has "huge faith in MIT and what we can do here." But she also admits to a "huge sense of reality about where we are now and how far we have to go," especially in terms of recruitment and retention of faculty of color. Hammond walks through the results of a three-year investigation into MIT's efforts around race and diversity. Some of the key findings: From 1999-2009, MIT hires saw a meaningful increase in the number of women, (10-20%), but only 3-6% increases in numbers of underrepresented minorities. Certain departments showed no minority hires at all. Worse, a significant number of minority hires left before or at the time of first promotion; tenured minority faculty felt more dissatisfaction with their jobs than their white peers. The study recommends assigning formal mentors to all junior faculty hires, and developing a consistent policy for mentoring across MIT. More efforts must also be made to extend recruitment networks beyond MIT's own graduates and peer universities, and to train faculty against "hidden bias." Hammond notes, "We're all proud we're at a university that promotes meritocracy, "but a tension exists among MIT faculty "around the concept of inclusion versus excellenceThere's an implication you can't have both."

At MIT for 50 years, Wesley Harris comes at the question of diversity with long memories of university life and of larger historical shifts. "The challenge of my generation," says Harris, was the "production of scholarship by black people." It is a challenge not fully realized. He describes two black women from Richmond, VA who in the 1940s sought higher education in the north, and then returned south, where as public school teachers they gave Harris an educational grounding in math and physics, as well as the confidence to succeed as a scholar. But he is disappointed by the slope of change since he entered academics. He does not believe MIT has invested itself in the kind of consistent effort that would lead to greater scholarship by faculty of color. Indeed, barriers still prevent acknowledgment and encouragement of the work of these faculty, and this "hurts me," says Harris, and "the place in which I have citizenship--my home."

Timeline: 2010s
School: School of EngineeringSchool of Science
Department: Aeronautics and AstronauticsChemical EngineeringPhysics
Career: Education
Object: Video
Collection: Data, Faculty, Harvard, Martin Luther King, Jr., Paula T. Hammond, Rising Voices 1995-Present, Sylvester James Gates, Jr., Women