Arts

Alex Beam

Stirring the pot at MIT

Professor’s account of discussing race, diversity, and inclusion sparks an impassioned response

MIT engineering professor James Williams is a disturber of the spheres. In 1991 he sat outside then-MIT president Charles Vest’s office, observing a weekly fast to protest the lack of black faculty at MIT and what he called the Institute’s “neo-colonial’’ treatment of black students. He is one of the few prominent African-Americans to publicly criticize Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip’’ Gates Jr. “Cut the buffoonery, Skip, and get to work - scholarly work, that is,’’ Williams wrote in a 1998 Boston Herald column titled “Harvard’s Fantasies.’’

Williams is stirring the pot again. An article by MIT physics professor Edmund Bertschinger that appeared in the MIT Faculty Newsletter, “Departmental Discussions of Diversity and Inclusion,’’ drove him up the wall. Williams found Bertschinger’s account of discussing diversity questions - the physics department has no African-American professors, for starters - at “catered luncheons’’ to be precious in the extreme. Secondly, Williams bridled at Bertschinger’s counterpointing the “concepts of diversity and inclusion versus excellence.’’

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“Because there are so few black faculty members in science and engineering at MIT,’’ Williams told me, “a policy of ‘diversity versus excellence’ becomes a personal attack on current and future individual black faculty.’’

Williams was ticked. He hauled off and wrote an impassioned, thousand-word philippic, “To MIT’s Racial Hucksters!: Please Stop!’’ which he hoped the newsletter would print in reply to Bertschinger’s article. It had some pretty strong language, some of it ad hominem attacks directed against Bertschinger, whom Williams likened to a “professorial troglodyte’’ and a “self-aggrandizing barker.’’ “Unfortunately,’’ Williams wrote, “MIT has more than its fair share of these individuals - black and white, male and female - who, at the drop of a hat, talk and write about race and diversity.’’

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Wait, he’s not finished. Williams, who also teaches writing at MIT, derided the “mooching white therapy’’ and “racial fun-chitchat model’’ of the diversity lunches. “Such gatherings belong more appropriately on an Oprah Winfrey special, where whites can engage in catharsis about black people, relieve their shame and guilt, feel good about themselves, and return to their comfortable offices and homes.’’

In his article, Williams unloaded on the “diversity versus excellence’’ formula. “Does [Bertschinger] not see the chutzpah and irony of such statements in a department with no black faculty?’’ Williams wrote. “Diversity versus excellence: the venomous premise whose quantification is the despiteful quota.’’

The newsletter declined to publish many of Williams’s heated comments and instead agreed to print a semi-respectful letter to the editor, with the anodyne title “Commenting on ‘Departmental Discussions of Diversity and Inclusion.’ ’’ The letter still packed plenty of punch, noting that “black faculty have every reason to feel insulted’’ by Bertschinger’s outing, which Williams said bore “overtones of a master-chattel history.’’ “I do not believe that this article represents the kind of discourse we should be engaging in at MIT,’’ he concluded.

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“My piece was submitted as a prospective article,’’ Williams told me in an e-mail. “It was reduced and edited into a letter. The editing of my piece by the Faculty Newsletter Editorial Board either distorted or destroyed the primary points I sought to communicate.’’

Bertschinger told me he hadn’t seen any earlier drafts of Williams’s attack, and when I asked him if the two men had a history of bad relations, he declined to comment. (I think the answer is: not really.) “I agree completely with Professor Williams that there is no conflict between diversity and excellence,’’ Bertschinger said. “I also agree that students must be treated equally regardless of race.’’

How does he plan to answer Williams’s attack? “I do plan to engage Professor Williams,’’ Bertschinger said. “The forum is unclear, but the topics of racial equity and the climate here are so important that they require engagement by both of us and by many others at MIT.’’

What about the core issue that Williams was complaining about in 1991? MIT data show that “underrepresented minorities,’’ which include Hispanics and Asians, constituted 20 percent of the faculty in 2009 (the latest year for which data are available), double the percentage of 1991.

MIT publishes data comparing the representation of African-Americans on its faculty with nine unnamed peer institutions, public and private. In engineering, MIT has the second-largest percentage of black faculty, still well under 5 percent. In the category of “all faculty,’’ MIT scores in the middle of the pack in the percentage of black faculty, also well under 5 percent.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.
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