For the last nine months I have been working on a report about the MIT community and culture — a user’s guide and strategic plan for advancing a more respectful and caring community. The report is nearly complete, and now is a good time to begin reflection on the process.
I began my role as ICEO with some management knowledge and experience and a rough knowledge of social psychology. This was insufficient preparation to write a meaningful report on organizational culture and culture change. As I began a listening tour by meeting with hundreds, and ultimately more than a thousand people to learn about their experiences at MIT, I found that I needed basic training in cultural anthropology and sociology. I was familiar with the literature on gender and racial equity but needed a broader focus. I found help from several faculty members in the Sloan School of Management and the Anthropology Department as well as from a vast social science literature.
Several years ago I had bought the book Organizational Culture and Leadership by retired MIT professor Ed Schein. This book became my chief textbook and user’s manual for my daily practice in serving the community as well as my guide to strategic planning. I also learned a great deal from the book Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind by Hofstede, Hofstede and Minkov. I read many articles and several books on sociology, anthropology and student affairs. And I returned repeatedly to my personal favorite thinking person’s guide to planning, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey.
Being granted the time to learn more about sociology and anthropology has been an enormous privilege. I feel as though I’ve had one of the most enjoyable and productive sabbaticals of my career even while I was in full-time service to MIT. I’m sometimes asked whether I continue my research in theoretical astrophysics and cosmology. I do, but I have expanded my intellectual repertoire to include the great challenges of institutional leadership. Learning has never been more fun.
The outcome of this year-long study is a detailed investigation of MIT community and culture: what makes MIT special, which elements of the culture support the MIT mission, and what factors limit our success. It is not a traditional plan for diversity and inclusion. The scope is broader because MIT’s interests are broader. Yet the bottom line is the same: for an institution to achieve its best, its members must be empowered and supported to do their best work. This means not only giving them excellent tools and fostering their success as individuals, but maybe even more importantly, helping them to work together most effectively.
The title of the report is Advancing a Respectful and Caring Community: Learning by Doing at MIT. It could have been subtitled, “Preparing for the 22nd century.” I can’t predict what technology or pedagogy will most benefit MIT in 85 years, but I predict with confidence that empowering community members to feel respected and supported, so that the greatest possible diversity of talent and perspectives is available for problem solving, will distinguish the best from the rest.
The public release of the draft report should occur in a few weeks. I look forward to the conversations that follow.