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DA*DI offers contemporary reports and commentary on culture; its aberrations and its heroes.

By John Leo


Gender test at MIT

A faculty committee report on bias seems biased itself

Famous universities rarely issue reports pronouncing themselves guilty of serious long-term discrimination. But the Massachusetts Institute of Technology decided to do that last March, releasing a report confessing to "pervasive," perhaps "unconscious" gender bias against its female faculty. The story was Page 1 news in the New York Times and other major papers. Biology Prof. Nancy Hopkins, whose complaints provoked the bias report, was called to the White House and posed beaming with the Clintons. The Chronicle of Higher Education ran three glowing articles about the MIT confession and announced two weeks ago that "Nancy Hopkins has done for sex discrimination what Anita Hill did for sexual harassment."

What is the evidence of pervasive gender bias at MIT? It's hard to say, because the official report contains virtually no data at all. The document repeatedly lists vague feelings of "marginalization" as indicators of serious wrong. "Discrimination consists of a pattern of powerful but unrecognized assumptions. . . . Once you 'get it,' it seems almost obvious," the report says. Another section says that "interviews with women faculty revealed the tremendous toll that exclusion and marginalization take on their professional and private lives." But the interviews are not in the report and neither is evidence of exclusion and its toll.

Much of the text is devoted to the wonders of feelings-based reform, especially when accompanied by a placating shower of money.

"I was unhappy at MIT for more than a decade," one unidentified female employee says in the report. "After the committee was formed and the dean responded, my life began to change. My research blossomed, my funding tripled. Now I love every aspect of my job."

This week the Independent Women's Forum of Arlington, Va., which has little patience with grievance-based feminism, is releasing its own counterreport on MIT, written by Prof. Judith Kleinfeld of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. This study concludes that "MIT presents no objective evidence whatsoever to support claims of gender discrimination," only the personal feelings of a few senior women in three of MIT's six School of Science departments who became "judge and jury of their own complaints."

Unscientific. The new report says the university's bias document avoided standard social science techniques, an odd decision for an institution devoted to science. The study, according to Kleinfeld, should have included the wording of questions asked and a table showing the number of women expressing particular attitudes.

Though the media dutifully carried the message of widespread bias, the Independent Women's Forum noted that the MIT report itself said that up-and-coming female faculty are not complaining. Buried in the back of the MIT report is this statement: "The committee learned that untenured women faculty feel that men and women faculty are treated equally in terms of resources, salary, and other material benefits." Since the untenured women are apparently among those who don't "get it" about MIT bias, the new report says that negative feelings on the part of some senior women at MIT "might be due to any number of factors–departmental factions, personality conflicts, mistaken impressions." MIT President Charles Vest hints at this in his introduction to the bias report, saying that gender discrimination within universities is "part reality, part perception."

A few published interviews with women faculty seemed to indicate that some general unhappiness was being swept into the catch-all category of gender bias. One woman said the system had to be changed because men are bolder than women in demanding raises. Three lessons learned from MIT's bout with bias:

The authors of modern bias reports no longer feel compelled to present actual evidence. Thanks to the cooperation of the mainstream press, a vague but loud accusation is more than enough to land you on Page 1. Gender bias operates "in a stealth- like way," says Nancy Hopkins. "Stealthlike," "subtle," and "institutionalized" biases are the kinds you needn't document. They are just there.

Accusations of bias are now the third rail of campus politics. Presidents and deans of major universities would much rather cave in than investigate complaints objectively. A source close to the bias committee, who declined to be identified, said "the results of the inquiry were totally inconclusive. But there was a morale problem, so the women got more space and money." Robert Birgeneau, then dean of the MIT School of Science, said the bias report was "data driven. And that's a very MIT thing." Saying this must have been quite humiliating, since the report was data free, but it apparently paid off. Birgeneau is now president of the University of Toronto, which made a point of praising him for all he did for the women of MIT.

Science has generally considered itself immune to political correctness. Though this case is minor, MIT is now a useful model of how to apportion lab space, money, and other rewards of science by group membership rather than by achievement. Alas, it's a model that will inspire duplication.



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