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Excellence through diversity

This year I have had the privilege to meet and befriend the department chair of the MIT Physics Department, Ed Bertschinger. Ed is a theoretical cosmologist with a lengthy record of accomplishments in physics and astronomy. He started out at Caltech where he earned his B.S. and later went to Princeton where he got his Ph.D. Pretty typical stuff for a prof and department chair, right? Well, there's nothing typical about Ed. To get an idea for what I'm talking about, check out his article in the Physics@MIT Journal, entitled "Advancing Diversity and Excellence in Physics". Here's an excerpt:

How does one achieve both diversity and excellence? The short answer is by valuing people. Let me provide a contrast. When I came to MIT, the spirit among faculty and students seemed to be sink or swim; alumni from earlier years will recall speeches beginning, “Look to your left, look to your right.” This approach seemed obviously flawed to me—after investing heavily in recruiting promising individuals, MIT (and other institutions) would fail to help people achieve their best. The result was poor morale leading to difficulty recruiting and retaining talented people. After I was tenured, I determined to debunk this philosophy by investing my efforts in mentoring—first of graduate students, then of junior faculty.
This is probably not what most people would expect from a department chair at MIT, particularly not form the Physics Department. But there it is, someone at the administrative level at a top-tier institution who understands the value of diversity in science and the overall importance of valuing people over product. And for those of you who have struggled in a physics class or two, take heart:

I struggled with Physics at Caltech, earned a C in advanced electromagnetism, and was discouraged from going into theory

I have had several lengthy conversations with Ed, and most of what we've discussed has focused on the need to increase diversity in physics and astronomy, and ways to make it happen. Let me tell you, it is extremely refreshing to find a senior colleague who really gets it. Someone who doesn't require me to justify my desire to increase diversity and inclusion. Someone who not only talks the talk, but walks the walk.

Students out there who are considering grad school but are concerned about the pressure-cooker environment of most physics and astro programs should give MIT a close look. Yes, that MIT. For those of you who, like me, have grown a bit weary and pessimistic about the possibility of positive change when it comes to diversity in science, be encouraged and know that there is a highly influential physicist out there who really gets it. And fortunately, it's not just Ed. As I've traveled around over the past couple years, I've run into a number of people who not only say that they value diversity, but put their money where their mouths are. Meg Urry and Debra Fischer at Yale, Ruth Murray-Clay and Avi Loeb at Harvard, Dan Holz at Chicago, Gibor Basri at Berkeley, Scott Gaudi at OSU, Jason Wright at PSU, just to name a few.

Let's say it together: Diversity and excellence are not opposing concepts. We conduct science at the pleasure of the public, and the public comprises more than white men. The tax dollars that support our work come from a diverse collection of wallets. Further, the ideas the move our field forward benefit from the influence of a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. Sure, we can concoct notions of "excellence" that lie orthogonal to diversity and inclusion. But these notions of excellence are necessarily anemic and contrived, in my opinion. In Ed's opinion, too. As he eloquently writes:
Diversity without excellence is destituteExcellence without diversity is an orphan


kelle said…
I'm curious: could you be more specific about what those people you mentioned have done to "put their money where their mouth is?"

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