A year of dialogue and collaboration

Academic year 2015-16 was a busy time for community and equity at MIT, with major efforts made to advance two of the main recommendations of the ICEO report: the MIT Compact and unconscious bias workshops. It was also a year of community conversations and of student activism leading to an unusual collaboration with the MIT senior administration. These issues were (and remain) prominent on many college campuses. Each institution has its own unique history and culture shaping the experience of community members. MIT’s story is one that deserves more visibility.

During this academic year I saw the greatest progress on matters of equity and inclusion in my more than 30 years on the faculty. That is not to say the work is done, or that everyone benefited from it. Still, two years later it feels like we approached, or even reached, a turning point in 2015. I sense an increased confidence that MIT is making progress toward the ideal of a respectful and caring community. This progress, of course, is the result of many offices and individuals, too many for me to list in this entry. Here I focus on the outcome of a few student-led and community-wide efforts involving my office.

This summary begins with the MIT Compact, a recommendation of the ICEO Report that was to be a brief statement of what we aspire to as a community and what we expect of one another as MIT community members, constructed by a representative committee spanning the MIT community. After discussions with many groups and some trial efforts, we began a series of discussions of MIT culture and values across campus. Graduate and undergraduate students working with the ICEO shaped the resulting Community Dialogue series. Attendance at the dialogues included staff, faculty, postdocs, students, and alumni, with numbers ranging from 30 to 200 people. The format included lunch and discussions in groups of about 8 people at a table, for durations of 75 to 90 minutes. For the more challenging topics, facilitation was provided at each table by trained staff and faculty. During FY2016 the ICEO hosted 9 dialogues with the following topics:

  • What are MIT’s Core Values?
  • How can we make MIT a kinder place for all community members?
  • Unpacking White Privilege
  • Vulnerability at MIT
  • How to Tell Somebody Something They’d Rather Not Hear
  • The Institute & I: If you could change one thing about MIT, what would it be?
  • Race & Reality: A Community Dialogue on Race and Diversity at MIT
  • Power in Vulnerability: A Community Dialogue on Being Human
  • Subverting the Gender Binary: Trans Rights in Today’s America

The community dialogue on race and diversity held in December 2015 was attended by about 200 people. A post-event survey showed high satisfaction with the event: 87% of respondents said the event was “satisfying” or “very satisfying.” When asked if the event empowered them to discuss race and diversity at MIT, 37% responded definitely yes, 55% said they already felt comfortable, and 8% left the event feeling uncomfortable with these discussions. More than 97% of respondents agreed that the subject matter of race was both timely and warranted at MIT.

The community dialogues acquired greater significance when student protests against racism broke out at many college campuses starting with the University of Missouri in September 2015. At MIT, student activism developed collaboratively with the senior administration. In November 2015, black student leaders met with MIT President Reif to offer a set of preliminary recommendations for improving equity and inclusion for everyone at MIT. In preparation the students had consulted with staff and with many student groups and had studied previous recommendations, including those from the 2010 Report on the Initiative for Faculty Race and Diversity and the 2015 ICEO report. On December 1, 2015, two co-leads each from the Black Students’ Union (BSU) and the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) presented their recommendations to Academic Council. I believe this was the first time in more than 30 years that students, entirely on their own initiative, presented a request in person to Academic Council, MIT’s presidential cabinet. (If anyone knows of other examples, either before or after 1970, please let me know!)

To facilitate response to the student recommendations, the Academic Council Working Group on Inclusion was formed and included two undergraduate and two graduate student representatives as well as members of Academic Council. Chaired by Vice President Kirk Kolenbrander, the group began quickly to implement several of the recommendations and to begin a process for adopting more. The AC working group also sought recommendations for improving the community from other groups. A Staff Alignment Group was formed to support the AC working group efforts. Co-led by Kolenbrander and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education DiOnetta Jones Crayton, the group includes staff members working on diversity and inclusion in many different offices as well as a representative of the Black Alumni of MIT.

In March 2016, MIT addressed one of the BSU recommendations by announcing a 10.4 percent increase in undergraduate financial aid. Progress was made on additional recommendations. By May 2016, MIT Medical had hired a psychologist who specializes in issues relating to the African diaspora and expanded its counseling capacity to assist students who are dealing with race-based traumatic stress. Initial responses to the student recommendations are summarized in a MIT News article.

One of the BGSA recommendations called for unconscious bias training for faculty, staff and students, reinforcing the second major recommendation of the ICEO report. During FY16, at least 9 workshops on unconscious bias were given at MIT reaching more than 400 people. These included a workshop for Academic Council members in April 2016 led by experts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The ICEO delivered a workshop to about 60 community members in March 2016. These were significant steps to advance equity and inclusion at MIT.

During this same academic year MIT Lincoln Laboratory moved forward on several recommendations of the ICEO report pertinent to the lab, including unconscious bias training for all lab leaders. Lincoln Lab led the rest of MIT in the establishment of employee resource groups, it published a diversity and inclusion report, and lab personnel participated in many campus activities supporting diversity and inclusion.

This year also saw the release of a major report written by two seniors, The Status of Undergraduate Women at MIT. The report was based on surveys of undergraduates along with focus groups and it summarizes ways in which male and female students experience MIT differently. The result was a major contribution to higher education, written almost twenty years after the influential Status of Women Faculty in Science report at MIT. If MIT wants to improve its success with women at all levels, then all administrators and faculty leaders should read and heed these reports, and the community should ask what steps are being taken to implement their recommendations. More needs to be done.

In addition to these major efforts, events of the year included the October 2015 event Whose Lives Matter? A Community Conversation with Rinku Sen, featuring the rescheduled MLK celebration speaker whose February trip was canceled due to inclement weather. The February 2016 MLK Celebration speaker was Freeman Hrabowski, III, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Speaking at the luncheon, President Reif noted that “this has been quite a year – an extraordinary year. On topics from race, inclusion and social justice, to climate change, this year our students have, in many ways, become our teachers.” President Hrabowski responded by challenging MIT to “be the best, not just for STEM but for humankind.” An All-MIT Diversity Forum was held in May 2016. The event included a town hall where an update was presented on MIT’s response to the BSU and BGSA recommendations. Altogether 48 events were featured during FY2016 in the ICEO events calendar.

This year MIT hosted six MLK Visiting Professors and Scholars:

  • Prof. Baratunde Cola (Georgia Tech), hosted by the Mechanical Engineering Department
  • Prof. LaShanda Korley (Case Western Reserve), hosted by the Chemistry Department
  • Prof. Israel Ncube (Alabama A&M University), hosted by the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science
  • Prof. Hakeem Oluseyi (Florida Institute of Technology), hosted by the Physics Department
  • Kenneth Reeves, hosted by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning
  • Prof. Jacquelyn Taylor (Yale), hosted by the Biology Department

In 2017, Professor Cola received the prestigious Alan T. Waterman Award of the National Science Foundation. All of the visitors made important contributions not only to their host departments, but to the broader MIT community.

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