Departmental Values Statements: Process and Relationships

The top recommendation of the ICEO Report was that MIT prepare a brief statement of what we aspire to as a community and what we expect of one another as community members. This MIT Compact was to be written by a fully representative working group and not imposed from the top.

The rationale behind the Compact was that by identifying the core values that shape MIT (“what we aspire to as a community”), and promoting them through an inclusive process that embraces diversity and empowers collaboration (“what we expect of one another as community members”), the broad community itself would provide a framework for advancing progress on those core values.

On one hand, this is what universities do all the time, for example in presidential speeches and capital campaign vision statements. On the other hand, it is a radical concept to have a fully democratic process invoked to insure both full access and engagement with the outcome.

The opportunities and challenges of such a process were demonstrated in 2014 when the Graduate Student Council, the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education, and the Committee on Graduate Programs collaborated to produce a values statement they hoped would help improve the graduate student experience, particularly with regards to student interactions with faculty and academic departments. They produced a document Common Values on the Graduate Student Experience. While the effort was inclusive of students, the outcome has not yet permeated the MIT faculty culture.

At the time the ICEO report was published in early 2015, I recognized that proceeding with the Compact process as planned would be difficult. Recognizing and managing power differences between people are an important factor in group effectiveness. Organizations need to build capacity for working across differences of power and privilege before a democratic process is possible, and key stakeholders must be included. Putting process before building relationships does not work. One major unit inside MIT volunteered to be a testing ground for the process at the same time that they were trying to build capacity for inclusive dialogue. This unit found that the very different experiences of different employees made it difficult to reach a consensus on what a Compact-like statement should say.

For these reasons, over the 2015-16 academic year we sought to prepare for collaboration across difference using facilitated discussions of MIT culture and values in a series of 9 community dialogues. Attendance at the dialogues ranged from 30 to 200 people including staff, faculty, postdocs, students, alumni, and a few friends from Cambridge, Boston, and other universities. These discussions were valuable in building trust and capacity for challenging conversations (our topics included vulnerability, mental health, race relations, transgender rights) but they reached only a subset of the community. This was not enough to achieve broad buy-in for a Compact.

MIT students led the way forward. Recommendation 10 of the Black Students’ Union (BSU) Recommendations presented to the MIT community in December 2015 focused the effort in two ways. First, it called for a separate statement from each academic department or research unit and assigned responsibility to the department head or other faculty leader. Second, the BSU provided a template for the statement. Their full recommendation was

A formal statement from the leader of each MIT Department, Lab, Center on behalf of one’s department or group affirming MIT’s commitment to students’ health, diversity, and inclusion with remarks including but not limited to:

• “We care about the mental and physical health of our students before the quality of their work.”
• “We value diversity in and inclusion of our students, faculty, and staff with regard to their backgrounds and opinions.”
• “We are still committed to MIT’s 2004 goal of doubling the percentage of URM faculty and tripling the percentage of URM graduate students within ten years.”
• Departments only: “We pledge to create and to implement an action plan to meet and exceed MIT’s 2004 goal of doubling the URM faculty and tripling the percentage of URM graduate students within ten years. This proposed action plan and its progress will be reviewed periodically together with an Institute Visiting Committee.”

BSU leaders emphasized that this was in many ways the most important recommendation of their set. As BSU co-chair Rasheed Auguste has emphasized, department culture shapes to a great extent the experience of students (particularly graduate students), postdocs, staff, and faculty. A message from a department head encourages people to reflect on diversity and inclusion where the action is really happening. A few departments heeded the BSU call and developed statements during the spring 2016 semester. But when the topic was discussed at a luncheon of department heads, there was no consensus about moving forward.

The BSU leaders persisted. Through their participation in the Academic Council Working Group process, they kept the recommendation prominent before the administration. In November 2016, the Provost and Vice President asked the academic deans to work with department heads to develop statements in response to BSU Recommendation 10. By the end of the 2016-17 academic year, all departments had complied. Their full texts are available here.

The compilation of departmental statements represents substantial progress toward the goal of a MIT Compact. How did the BSU process succeed when previous efforts made less progress? I see three main factors.

First, the process took place in fairly homogeneous groups relative to culture and power. Faculty within a department have longstanding relationships, the key stakeholders (faculty themselves) are included, and they have practice collaborating toward departmental goals, for example in preparing plans for Corporation Visiting Committees every two years. What about staff, postdocs and students? Inclusion of these groups in the process varied widely across departments. Prior experience including the whole department in planning made that easy for some departments, highlighting the key role of building capacity for inclusive culture and practices.

The second factor in the BSU success was that the request came from undergraduate students. Virtually all faculty have great respect for MIT students and the role they play in research. Most MIT faculty care deeply about undergraduate students and their success and have empathy for them. I have long observed that faculty are more solicitous of undergraduate students than of graduate students or postdocs. While it is understandable that more advanced students and researchers are given more independence, it is harder for graduate students and postdocs to influence change when it is called for.

The third factor was the role played by MIT’s senior leadership, especially the Provost and Vice President, who encouraged Deans and Department Heads to develop statements, and who provided a roadmap and valuable guidance to help. They did not specify the outcomes, but let departments develop their own statements using their own processes. At the same time, the positional authority of the Provost carried weight, ensuring that departments would engage.

Are there other ways to achieve a broad faculty participation? Certainly. For example, last fall more than 40% of MIT’s current tenure-track faculty signed A message from MIT faculty reaffirming our shared values. However, that statement lies outside of academic departments, which is where faculty and many others experience MIT. A MIT-wide statement is less likely to influence department culture than a department-led effort.

This has been an important lesson for me. In a research university, shifting the faculty culture can only happen at the department level. While leadership from the center provides guidance, ultimately faculty decide on their priorities at the department level.

The departmental statements have achieved a major goal of the MIT Compact by reaching faculty in the right place, but the overall project has more work before its intent is realized. Faculty comprise less than 5% of the MIT community. Expanding the group to include researchers, the BSU requested statements from all Departments, Labs, and Centers, which adds about 50 research institutes/labs/centers that are faculty-led but do not have degree programs. These organizations have yet to pursue this process. While some non-academic units like the MIT Libraries have produced statements, most have not.

The original vision of a single unified MIT statement of what we aspire to as a community and what we expect of one another as community members might never be achieved. But the adoption of such statements at the level of individual work units, and perhaps by the undergraduate and graduate student governments and the MIT Postdoctoral Association, would certainly help to advance a respectful and caring community. I hope that efforts to increase the coverage of such statements will continue.

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