UA leaders to review gov’t diversity after vote to endorse BSU recommendations fails

The Undergraduate Association Executive Board will be conducting a survey to evaluate the UA’s diversity across multiple lines of identity including race and gender. The survey is motivated in part by a vote by the outgoing UA Council to not endorse a set of recommendations made by the Black Students’ Union (BSU).

“I look forward to sharing the results with the community and understanding — structurally and culturally — how we can go about creating an even more diverse and even more inclusive student government here at MIT,” UA President Matthew J. Davis ’16 said in an interview with The Tech.

The recommendations were needed to “start to get our community addressing the tangible ways to improve diversity and inclusion on campus,” Rasheed K. Auguste ’17, Political Action co-chair of the BSU, said.

Auguste says he has also begun working with the UA Community Committee to try to “incorporate community conversations into dorm life and residence halls.”

The recommendations

The BSU presented a set of 11 recommendations to MIT’s Academic Council, a group of senior administrators, on Dec. 1. The list includes diversity training for students, increased data collection on underrepresented minorities, and the addition of a new HASS elective addressing diversity.

The list also includes recommendations to hold new-student orientation groups for underrepresented minorities and to appoint a Diversity Representative “tasked with leading the improvement of diversity and inclusion” within each department. It further calls for MIT to increase its financial aid commitments in order to keep education accessible. (Student expenses, including tuition, room, and board were estimated to be $63,250 this year; MIT allocated $103.4 million to undergraduate financial aid for the 2015-2016 school year, and about 91% of undergraduates receive financial aid).

A group of seven members of the Academic Council, including Kirk Kolenbrander, Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88, Edmund Bertschinger, along with two undergraduate students and two graduate students, have been tasked with “addressing and dealing with the recommendations,” Auguste said.

Auguste believes that the single most important recommendation is the call for “statements issued by each leader of a department, lab, or center at MIT reaffirming the commitment to student mental and physical health, diversity, and inclusion,” and would like to see that happen before the start of the spring semester.

The BSU supplies several examples of what form such a statement could take: “We care about the mental and physical health of our students before the quality of their work,” and “We value diversity in and inclusion of our students, faculty, and staff with regard to their backgrounds and opinions,” among others.

For departments in particular, the BSU recommendations suggest, “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.”

Auguste notes that work environment is crucial to most MIT students, and such statements are “just the beginning” of creating a more inclusive environment.

In the next semester, Auguste hopes to see changes to the type of survey data that MIT collects on current and incoming students. Recommendations such as installing a Diversity Representative in each department and adjusting financial aid, he sees as longer-term issues.

The recommendations provide a set of actions for MIT’s administration; they do not contain student-facing recommendations. “That’s not to say there’s not stuff to be done on the student level,” Auguste said, such as “endorsing conversation.”

“I think the way to instigate change is to approach it from a lot of different angles simultaneously,” he said.

The vote

On Dec. 9, the outgoing UA Council voted not to endorse the BSU’s recommendations.

Three of the 16 councilors voted in favor; the rest abstained. Richard Watts ’18 and Alana Papula ’17 were among the councilors who supported endorsing the recommendations. At press time, the third councilor had not been identified.

Auguste said that an endorsement would have given “a sense of sponsorship,” sending the message that “[Council stands] behind all of the ideals put forward in these recommendations.” From his perspective, the vote was not meant to be a statement of support for the specific actions put forth in the recommendations, which were still “fluid,” but rather, support for the spirit behind them.

UA President Matthew J. Davis ’16 said similarly that an endorsement would have meant “we agree with the idea of these recommendations,” but that some councilors may have had different ideas. Rather than viewing the vote as a general statement of support, he said, some councilors may have thought that the vote would indicate support for the specific mechanisms proposed in the recommendations.

“I like to think that council voted no because they weren’t sure what they were voting on,” he said.

Sticking points in the conversation were centered around Recommendation 2 — the proposed Immersion Studies HASS elective — as well as concerns around funding the Diversity Representative position outlined in Recommendation 11.

According to council meeting minutes, Auguste described the current HASS system, which entails eight courses, and said, “we want to see one of those unrestricted electives narrowed down to already existing courses which focus on intersectionality and diversity.”

Charlotte Swasey ’16, a Panhel representative, raised a concern about HASS classes “being allocated at will,” saying that “[HASS classes] shouldn’t be fluffy for students.”

Davis, in an attempt to redirect the conversation, asked, “more broadly, how can we get students involved in race diversity and inclusion in this realm?”

After an ensuing back-and-forth between Papula, Auguste, and Eric Mannes ’16, Panhel representative Taylor Rose ’16 raised concerns that a mandatory HASS class might force a high enrollment.

Swasey emphasized that “it’s not useful for students to take classes they don’t care about,” saying she “strongly recommend[s] against it because students already hate the HASS system.”

“I could make the same arguments about 8.01 and 8.02, but that doesn’t mean they have no value,” Auguste responded.

In an interview with The Tech, Davis described the questioning by councilors as “very targeted” and “very aggressive.”

“At no point was the underlying problem of diversity at MIT, or the underlying problems of the experience of students of color or students from different underrepresented backgrounds - never was that brought up as a point of discussion amongst council. But that’s why the recommendations were there,” Davis said. “Rasheed is not here to talk about the HASS requirement.”

Auguste expressed mixed feelings about the council discussion. “I actually welcome taking issue with specific aspects of the recommendations, if brought forward in a constructive way,” he said, “I just feel those kinds of things weren’t exactly what I was looking for out of that meeting.”

“I was really looking for suggestions on the spirit behind some of these things,” he said.

However, Auguste said that he felt “a general spirit of support,” and noted that a lot of council members had “a can-do attitude.”

“I feel like a lot of council members did get the big picture and broader scope,” he said.

Watts, who voted in favor of endorsing the recommendations, said in an email to The Tech, that some council members “were under the impression that some of the recommendations were too lofty or optimistic to actually achieve.”

“The recommendations are, in my general interpretation, an excellent approach to emboldening the black community on campus,” he said, and added that they would be beneficial to non-black students as well.

“It also seems to me that whenever a group is claiming they’re at a disadvantage on campus, with ample evidence to support their claim, and they present solutions to the issues, that the only reasonable response is to support them in the ways they ask,” Watts said.

Moving forward

According to Davis, it was notable that the majority of councilors chose to abstain from voting, rather than rejecting the recommendations outright. “What that tells me is, we have a lot of student leaders that are just not sure how to proceed with this conversation. They’ve been presented with something new, and they need more information.”

“Everyone in that room I strongly believe is passionate about diversity at MIT,” Davis said.

With the new council coming on in the spring, Davis said he will be “specific, intentional, and proactive” about exposing student leaders to conversations about the experiences of students of color at MIT. To start, he plans to attend MIT’s Multicultural Conference in February, and encourage other UA members to go as well.

“I think there’s diversity and there’s multiculturalism, and I don’t think MIT students have enough exposure to either one. And we have a million surveys that say this,” Davis said.

“President Reif has this quote that he says ... that MIT students show up to MIT, and MIT is like a fridge. You open up the fridge, and you choose things out of this fridge, and you can choose anything you want. And that’s great,” Davis said. “But the reality is, students come to MIT having been based on 16 to 18 years of preconditioned conceptions about the world, and will selectively choose things out of that fridge, and probably avoid things that are particularly difficult or challenging to understand or to deal with or to contend with.”

“We may like to think that MIT is this big ivory tower that exists outside the real world but it does not.”

“Data shows that … certain students are not listened to as much as other students, that students will leave MIT and be paid less than other students, not based on their ideas, but just based on who they are,” Davis said.

Says Auguste, “The kind of thing I’m pushing for here is just that the identity and the ideas aren’t mutually exclusive. You can never separate these things because of unconscious biases, and so you need to treat them with that same respect, i.e. the weighting of identities versus ideas needs to be on a spectrum and not just one or the other.”