Diversity challenging not just tech companies but universities too

Diversity challenging not just tech companies but universities too

Last week, MIT released a report that closely examines the state of diversity within the university.

The report considers MIT’s diversity not just in terms of students and faculty, but also looks at the Institute’s non-faculty research staff who represent approximately 28% of the institution as a whole.

Releasing the report was a brave move for the university. It provides a frank and realistic evaluation of where MIT stands in the heated debate concerning diversity and inclusion in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

As members of the MIT community who also research and advocate for diversity both within and beyond the ivory tower, we were interested in understanding how these developments ran in parallel with ongoing debates about diversity in other high-profile STEM spaces, such as the tech industry in Silicon Valley.

Given the rising concern and criticism surrounding the lack of diversity in the tech sector, how do prestigious and influential STEM establishments like MIT compare when we dig into the actual numbers?

The results

The effort was spearheaded by the newly formed office of MIT’s Institute and Community Equity Officer (ICEO), Ed Bertschinger.

Prior to taking on the role of ICEO, Professor Bertschinger served as the head of MIT’s Department of Physics, where he successfully established initiatives to increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities who graduate from the department. This latest report is the result of extensive research Bertschinger and his team conducted during his first 18 months as ICEO.

Some of the news is very good – MIT has experienced great success in diversifying the undergraduate student body in terms of including women (45%) and underrepresented minorities (24%). (MIT uses the term under-represented minorities, shortened to URMs, to refer to US citizens or permanent residents who are Black, Native American, Hispanic or Latino, and two or more races including any of these.)

However, there has been less success in diversifying faculty and graduate student populations. Racial minorities in particular remain significantly underrepresented compared to their overall proportion of the US population. The most sobering statistics concern the percentage of URMs occupying positions as postdoctoral fellows (2%) and research staff (4%), positions that often serve as critical stepping stones to promising careers in both the private and public sectors.

It is difficult to compare MIT’s numbers to other universities. The MIT ecosystem is unusual in terms of the remarkably strong presence of non-faculty research staff on campus. Lincoln Laboratories, for example, a federally funded unit focused on national security, employs around 3,400 staff and scientists.

In light of this large population of professional researchers, tech companies like Apple and Google may provide as appropriate of a point of comparison as other research universities.

How does MIT compare to Google and Apple?

Bertschinger suggests this sort of comparison in his report, describing MIT as “in some respects a conglomerate of more than 1000 business units” which averages out to…


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