John Leo
One of my first columns dealt with a 1989 report accusing Wellesley College of racial discrimination. The report contained no evidence of anything remotely close to real bias. Instead it focused on discomfort among non-white students -- some cafeteria food was unfamiliar, posters in the bookstore featured Bavarian castles but no Third World settings. All of this was said to add up to subtle, "unconsciously white" bias that hobbled minority students.

This was my first exposure to the modern evidence-free, feelings-based bias report. Perhaps the most successful of these reports was the 1999 report on gender bias at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's School of Science. Gender bias operates in "a stealth-like way," said biology professor Nancy Hopkins, the driving force behind the report. "Stealth-like," "subtle" and "institutionalized" biases are the kinds you needn't document or even describe. They are just there.

Hopkins was allowed to form her own panel, which conducted its own inquiry and -- lo and behold -- produced the report that found her charge accurate. The committee made a stab at gathering evidence, measuring offices and counting heads, but nothing convincing was put on the table. The panel said it looked at quantitative measures of academic achievement, but refused to make its data public.

Professor Judith Kleinfeld of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, who did an analysis for the right-of-center Independent Women's Forum, said the MIT study "presents no objective evidence whatever to support claims of gender discrimination." Younger women teaching at MIT seemed to agree. Buried in the back of the report was the admission that "untenured women faculty feel that men and women faculty are treated equally."

No matter. America's diversity machine threw itself fully behind the report, shaky as it was. The New York Times gave it uncritical Page One coverage. The Ford Foundation donated a million dollars to see if other universities needed the MIT treament. Hopkins was invited to the White House. MIT capitulated, accusing itself of deep (but "subtle" and vague) gender bias.

Now the gender bias analysts at MIT are back in the news, this time with reports on the four MIT schools not mentioned before. Again, the text is awash in feelings-based prose, with "women more frequently reporting negative experiences." Women "often feel undervalued" and "expressed feelings of exclusion." The word "marginalization," mandatory in bias reports, appears relentlessly. Subtle, hard-to-get-at sexism was again found to be the culrpit: "The discrepancies in treatment of male and female faculty have much more to do with small unconscious biases than blatant sexism."

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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