After the Black Students’ Union (BSU) and Black Graduate Students’ Association (BGSA) each published a set of recommendations addressing racial and mental health issues on Dec. 9, the Academic Council, a group of senior administrators, formed a working group to address the points and plan their execution. They are now laying out a plan for implementing the recommendations.
Cooperation from all members of the community is a concern for the working group. Two of the recommendations apply specifically to DLCs (Departments, Laboratories, and Centers). One calls for “a formal statement from the leader … affirming MIT’s commitment to students’ health, diversity, and inclusion.”
This recommendation asks that each DLC head release a statement that mental and physical health is considered more important than quality of work; that diversity in and inclusion of students, faculty, and staff is valuable; and (for departments) that they commit to MIT’s goal of doubling underrepresented minority (URM) faculty and tripling the percentage of URM graduate students within their department.
The other recommendation calls for the “creation of a diversity representative within each department.” The representatives “must have experience with and educational background specifically in diversity and URM recruitment and retention in higher education,” and will develop and execute plans to meet the diversity goals.
The working group faces challenges in implementing DLC-specific challenges. Senior leadership is ready to pursue these recommendations, as evidenced by the fact that a working group has already been created. Despite this, most DLCs have not shown support.
Institute Community and Equity Officer Edmund Bertschinger believes that DLC reluctance to support the recommendations comes from the fact that many faculty “don’t know how to have conversations about topics outside the classroom.” Faculty don’t realize that their students would appreciate discussions beyond academics, according to Bertschinger.
MIT Vice President Kirk Kolenbrander said there needs to be “a process that allows DLCs to feel engaged.” He said he understands why the recommendations ask every DLC to make the same statement and set the same goals, but feels that DLCs should collaborate with students and the working group to write a statement rather than be told exactly what to say.
Students put forth the recommendations, but they consist of administrative changes that would require senior leadership and faculty to take action. This presents another challenge: because students want to ensure that progress is being made, they want to hold specific people accountable. Vice President Kirk Kolenbrander considers current accountability measures to be inadequate —“otherwise we wouldn’t be seeing [calls for accountability] in the recommendations,” he said.
One option is to make sure that every student group involved in the recommendations has a point person in the administration to bring concerns to. Kolenbrander considers this an “aspirational goal.”
MIT also has a history of setting precedents in efforts to correct bias and inequality in the community. In 1999, the faculty newsletter published an article titled “A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT” acknowledging and detailing discrimination and gender bias that senior women faced. As a result, a flood of women facing similar discrimination submitted their stories to the newsletter, and many institutions reviewed their own practices.
The same was seen with MIT’s 2014 Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault and 2015 Healthy Minds surveys, which Bertschinger considers “humble self study.” Both inspired other institutions to conduct similar studies.
This project must also have a strong public presence, according to Bertschinger. MIT needs to “educate people not only about STEM but also about the importance of mental wellbeing and diversity and inclusion,” he said. The efforts made here are especially relevant given that similar recommendations have recently been made at many schools.
The working group met with BSU and BGSA representatives on Dec. 1. It has had three meetings so far, and a fourth is upcoming.