What Constitutes Merit?

Dear Students:

I recently attended the 2013 MIT Institute Diversity Summit which focused on the topic of “Meritocracy and Inclusion at MIT: Principles or Practices?” At the Summit, we were reminded that MIT has been an institution committed to the ideal of a meritocracy and inclusion from its inception. In fact, William Barton Rogers, the founder of MIT, wrote in 1862 in the original proposal to create MIT―Objects and Plan of an Institute of Technology―

“The limited and special education which our plan proposes, would, we hope, fall within the reach of a large number whom the scantiness of time, means, and opportunity would exclude from the great seats of classical and scientific education in the Commonwealth.”

Striving for the ideal of a meritocracy compels us to consider the question of what defines merit, as well as how to mitigate unintended bias in the evaluation of merit. Discussions at the Diversity Summit emphasized the importance of maintaining a multidimensional concept of merit to achieve diversity and, correspondingly, the highest possible levels of excellence and creativity. Embracing a multidimensional concept of merit is consistent with a commitment to providing a multidimensional educational experience, where students integrate discipline-specific academic rigor with innovative and enriching non-traditional learning opportunities that develop transferable skills, context and character. I recall a particularly insightful quote from the 2010 report of the Initiative for Faculty Race and Diversity, on which I had the honor to serve:

“To insist on orthodoxy [i.e. narrow, singular definition of excellence] would stifle one of the pillars of MIT which is to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship of ideas.”

When considering what constitutes merit, we might begin with the values and mission of MIT, the latter of which emphasizes the generation, dissemination, and advancement of knowledge in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century. Importantly, today we are seeing an increasingly broad array of mechanisms to create, disseminate and advance knowledge, which are often highly discipline-dependent.

For example, in addition to scholarly journal publications and citations, consider the following recent work at MIT:

The list could go on and on. Consider the diversity of these achievements and of the individuals and teams behind them. Clearly, all contribute to MITs mission and excellence, and represent our collective creativity in generating, disseminating and advancing knowledge in diverse and impactful ways. My office, the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education, aims to highlight and recognize publicly the rich diversity of achievements of MIT students; we support an array of content-rich co-curricular activities that facilitate a multidimensional educational experience; we foster inclusiveness through welcoming and dialoguing cross-cultural events and we serve as a caring resource for personal support, mentoring and advising of individual graduate students.

I encourage you to consider what you think constitutes merit at MIT and to write to me your thoughts on this matter directly (cortiz@mit.edu) or post a comment on my facebook page post at this link: http://bit.ly/ChristineOrtizMerit.

Have a great semester.
Christine Ortiz
Dean for Graduate Education
Professor of Materials Science and Engineering