2016-17: The new normal?

Academic year 2016-17 began in early July 2016 with a painful national outbreak of violence between police and black people including the police killing of unarmed men in Minnesota and Baton Rouge and the murder of several police in Dallas. In response to this shock and its impact on many at MIT, on July 10, MIT’s homepage was turned black, accompanied by the simple phrase We Mourn and a message from President Reif that was sent also by email to community members including alumni. Community members have come to expect to hear from President Reif when tragedy or other circumstances affect many in the MIT community; this was the first of several presidential messages during the year.

Three days later, MIT held a community dialogue responding to the recent tragedies. More than 600 people attended. The lunchtime event included appeals for racial healing, but most of the time was dedicated to facilitated conversations in groups of 10 at more than 60 tables throughout the Student Center. Participant feedback on index cards was overwhelmingly positive. The event inspired many groups including the Black Alumni of MIT who in May 2017 organized a Hackathon, Hacking Discrimination, based on ideas and connections made at the July event. The Sloan School of Management held a follow-up community dialogue in August 2016.

One of the Black Students’ Union (BSU) recommendations presented in 2014 was an expanded diversity orientation for freshman including small-group discussions. The first instance of this was held during freshman Orientation at the end of August 2016 with help from 30 trained facilitators including several faculty and members of Academic Council as well as staff from across MIT. Another recommendation was to increase the mental health support for students of color; several clinicians were hired and a new chief of Mental Health and Counseling, Karen Singleton, started in January 2017.

During this academic year, the ICEO community dialogues were organized in partnership with other groups on campus. These included MIT Libraries (events in October 2016 and March 2017) and the Employee Resource Groups (event in January 2017). Given the increase in racial and political polarization occurring nationally, these events focused on creating spaces where participants could share divergent views in a setting of mutual respect consistent with the ICEO mission to advance a respectful and caring community. In addition, the ICEO hosted a panel discussion featuring diverse political views of the national January 2017 Women’s March as part of a major one-day symposium organized by the MIT community April 18, 2017, the Day of Engagement/Day of Action. The Tech interviewed several of the panelists following the symposium.

Progress was made on several more recommendations made by students and by the ICEO in 2015. The BSU called for a formal statement from each department head or major lab director affirming MIT’s commitment to students’ health and to diversity and inclusion. This recommendation is similar to the ICEO recommendation for a MIT Compact, a brief statement of what we aspire to as a community and what we expect of one another as MIT community members, but is more specific. The BSU recommendation proved more effective in that it engaged MIT’s distributed units. Following encouragement earlier in the year from Provost Martin Schmidt, by June 2017 all of MIT’s academic departments had produced statements in response to the BSU recommendation. Many non-academic units are following their example. As a result, the goal of the MIT Compact is being met through a distributed process respecting the differences in culture of different units.

The second major ICEO recommendation, and one urged by the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA), was unconscious bias workshops. In the fall of 2016 Provost Schmidt convened a faculty committee to assess different approaches and to provide a recommendation for a training that could be offered to all faculty. Several models were considered, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison workshop experienced the previous year by Academic Council, as well as an interactive workshop developed at Google and implemented at Carnegie Mellon University. The committee saw defects in all these approaches. Despite these challenges, several schools and departments at MIT are hosting their own programs for faculty search committee chairs or members. Meanwhile, three workshops were given at MIT in the fall semester by representatives of Project Implicit, including one by Harvard Professor Mahzarin Banaji, co-developer of the Implicit Association Test, delivered to more than 200 people. The ICEO summarized the different kinds of workshops offered at MIT and elsewhere with a call for MIT to develop its in-house capacity. Such an effort is necessary to fulfill the BGSA recommendation of having unconscious bias workshops be a regular part of personnel training similar to human subjects or lab safety training.

The third major ICEO recommendation made in 2015 was for the development of a community and equity data dashboard. Progress has been made on this with the MIT Office of Institutional Research presenting a public diversity dashboard of MIT demographics. Several of the BSU recommendations highlighted student surveys including new questions that were added to the 2016 Senior Survey and the 2017 Student Quality of Life Survey. Click on the links to see the survey results.

The ICEO and other groups have analyzed the new climate data from the Faculty and Staff Quality of Life Survey (Spring 2016) and the Student Quality of Life Survey (Spring 2017). Among the major findings are overall improvement in satisfaction. The surveys show significant gender differences in experiences of faculty and other groups, revealing the potential of such survey data to inform change when broadly implemented in a future community and equity dashboard. The analysis also showed significant variation across departments and other work units, as highlighted in the ICEO report.

Another major recommendation of the ICEO report was participation in the Leading for Change Higher Education Diversity Consortium, a collaboration of higher education institutions in Massachusetts and New England committed to identifying student and employee diversity best practices through uniform and transparent use of data, institutional benchmarks, and reflective practice. During the 2016-17 academic year MIT contributed in two ways to this collaboration. First was hosting the data of all consortium members collected in the past two years to provide a baseline on our diversity data including publicly accessible student graduation rates. Consortium members share this compendium privately. The second way was by contributing to the consortium annual conference held in March 2017, at which MIT senior administration and student leaders shared the process that led to the BSU recommendations and the Academic Council Working Group on Inclusion, while senior staff members discussed MIT’s preparation of a new mechanism for handling reports of campus racial or other bias incidents.

During the 2016-17 academic year MIT hosted seven MLK Visiting Professors and Scholars:

  • Prof. Kishonna Gray (Eastern Kentucky University), hosted by the Program in Women’s and Gender Studies and the Comparative Media Studies/Writing Section
  • Prof. Ryan Hynd (University of Pennsylvania), hosted by the Math Department
  • Prof. Ryan Preston-Roedder (UNC Chapel Hill), hosted by the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy
  • Kenneth Reeves, hosted by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning
  • Prof. Steven Richardson (Howard University), hosted by the Chemistry Department
  • Prof. Jacquelyn Taylor (Yale), hosted by the Biology Department

Kisonna Gray organized a symposium in March, 2017, Diversifying Barbie & Mortal Kombat: 20 years later. Ken Reeves organized a symposium in April 2017, The Spirit of Detroit: 1950 to 2050.

The broad MIT community contributed many diversity and inclusion events in FY2017. Alumna Dr. Aprille Joy Ericsson ’86 of the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center was the MLK Luncheon speaker in February 2017 with more than 400 people in attendance. MIT Libraries and Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS) were major contributors to events throughout the year. The MIT Reads program initiated by the Libraries and supported by the Committee on Race and Diversity brought diversity and inclusion reading groups together with authors such as Ken Liu and Janet Mock. The AeroAstro Department, WGS, and the Graduate Consortium in Women’s Studies, arranged a private screening of the movie Hidden Figures and brought the book’s author, Margot Lee Shetterly, to speak in March 2017. The same month a staff group organized a workshop on white privilege. A total of 96 events were featured in the diversity events calendar. The level of community passion for diversity, equity and inclusion has been rising steadily over the past several years. Have we reached a new normal?

Additional evidence of MIT community engagement comes from the establishment of a new committee on community and a diversity officer in the Undergraduate Association modeled after the ICEO, a diversity subcommittee of the Graduate Student Council, and the appointment of several new positions related to diversity and inclusion throughout MIT. The MIT diversity website maintains an up-to-date listing of such positions and offices.

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