Ending a segregated academic program at MIT


In the midst of all the talk about racial preferences in college admissions, it's not often mentioned that many colleges which receive federal funds have racially-exclusive programs, a clear violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Roger Clegg, in NRO, reports that his organization has notified 26 universities that their racially exclusive programs violate the law and could be the subject of a complaint to the Office of Civil Rights. In 15 cases, the university responded to the notice by dropping the racial requirements without hesitation. When my alma mater was challenged, they hesitated a bit:

MIT's story is a bit more complicated. We first wrote to its senior counsel on February 20, 2001, after receiving a complaint from a parent whose child was ineligible for its summer program, which excluded whites and Asians. MIT said it was confident that its program was consistent with federal law, and so last year we filed a complaint with OCR, which launched an investigation.

That investigation is still ongoing, but MIT has concluded that we were right after all, and that a racially exclusive program is indeed indefensible. "Our best advice was that for racially exclusive programs, our chances of winning were essentially zero," said Robert P. Redwine, MIT's dean of undergraduate education. The university's senior counsel added that its decision was based on "an analysis of what our peers were doing around the country, and what conclusion other institutions have reached. . . ." So MIT has decided to end the racial exclusivity of its summer programs, too.

MIT's program is called Project Interphase. It was designed to help "underrepresented [i.e., not Jewish or Asian] minority students" make the transition to the pace of an MIT education:

Over a quarter of a century old, the goal of the program is to enhance the academic preparation of the participants who are expected to enter MIT as undergraduates in the Fall. The program emphasizes accelerated adjustment to the rigorous MIT environment and has a dual focus: academic excellence, and the development of social and institutional support networks and skills.

The new policy still has a focus on "underrepresented minorities" but acknowledges other circumstances for which such a program might be useful:

To that end, individuals of any race or national origin may apply to these programs. MIT will take many factors into account when selecting students for these programs, such as academic qualifications, and whether the individual is the first generation in his or her family to be headed for college, comes from a high school that does not send a high percentage of students to four-year colleges, comes from a background that presents challenges for success at an elite urban institution such as MIT, or comes from a racial or ethnic minority group that is underrepresented in educational programs and careers in science and engineering.

While I understand the good intentions behind Project Interphase, it was my observation that it may have interfered with the success of minority students. The program unfairly stigmatized minority students as uniformly and uniquely unprepared by their high school education for the intensity of the MIT experience, often described as like "taking a drink from a firehose". Furthermore, by bringing racially-exclusive groups together before freshman orientation, the program encouraged the development of race-based social networks, which preempted the formation of cross-racial friendships. Our fraternity offered several bids every year to African-American freshmen based, like all our bids, on our assessment of a freshman's compatibility with the current membership. Only rarely were those bids accepted, with many of these young men choosing to join their Interphase classmates in certain dorm floors of New House, dubbed "Chocolate City" by the residents.

A Google search on "Chocolate City" turns up this interesting page by a white Ohio State alum who links to a number of similar living arrangements at school around the country. The author says that his college experience would have been diminished had his African-American roommate chosen to live in self-segregated housing.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on May 28, 2003 12:29 AM.

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