Opinion guest column

MIT, you’ve got commitment issues

It’s time to walk the talk

MIT, we need to talk. When we first met, I thought we were perfect for each other. But even after lovely walks down the Infinite and nights under the dome, I’ve realized something that I just can’t hold inside any longer: MIT, you’ve got some commitment issues. You may not want to admit it — and at first, neither did I — but our friends have been telling me this for a while. At first, I thought they were being unfair to you and our relationship. Now, I know they were right.

That being said, I still think we could be partners for life. But we need to discuss some things before I put that Brass Rat on my finger. Because sometimes it seems like you don’t want to commit to this relationship, even though you say you do. So I need you to show me — not just tell me — that you mean it.

Let’s start with race and diversity. I know you’ve been working on it — and to your credit, undergraduate minority representation has improved recently. But that’s only one part of the problem; the diversity statistics for graduate students and faculty are awful. For most of my time at MIT, I’ve been the only African-American graduate student in my department of 170+.

I know it’s not all your fault that the numbers are so bad. But haven’t we talked about this before, and agreed this was a problem we’d work on together? After all the committees, reports, and recommendations about these issues, what have we learned, and what is our plan for follow-up? Do we yet understand why our graduate and faculty minority populations remain so low? Can we critically reevaluate the value of the diversity initiatives we do have at MIT to lay out a pathway toward increasing underrepresented graduate student and faculty numbers by a factor of two and three, respectively—as was proposed over a decade ago? And if we don’t know how to get there yet (which is okay), can we still commit to trying to figure it out together?

I’m worried because I’ve seen this behavior before. I know you mean well, MIT, but sometimes you’ll agree to tackle a problem, discover it’s not “purely” a “technical issue” (as if most problems are), and proclaim it’s beyond your control or drag your feet because it's not comfortable to deal with. To be honest, we can do much better. This place is filled with people masterfully skilled at understanding and solving complex problems; surely, we can apply similar methods toward tackling race, diversity, and equity issues at our Institute.

I will say that I know some amazing, passionate, and committed individuals on campus dedicated to this kind of work, and I applaud them. But too many times, MIT makes it so difficult for them to thrive and succeed. These passionate individuals find themselves constantly stuck in molasses made of internal politics and institutional power structures, having to fight incredibly hard just to make an inch of progress. We need to turn up the heat, give their causes some energy, and relieve this resistance to let these champions gain some much-needed momentum.

I’ve seen firsthand that climate action at MIT is another issue where individual champions carry the burdens of many, and where commitments fall through the cracks. MIT, we talked back in 2006 about “walking the talk” by incorporating more environmentally sustainable practices into the fabric of campus life. Yet a decade later, we’re still having the same old conversations — just look at MIT’s Climate Action Plan. How much more deliberation do we need before actually committing to real climate action like decarbonizing campus energy generation (which Harvard just committed to), improving food and waste systems management, and making decisions about how to leverage MIT’s relationship with fossil fuel interests? I’m committed to figuring these things out, but I want the same commitment from you. After all, we’re a team!

Truthfully, MIT, my mind, hand, and heart are all aching because I really care about and respect you. But sometimes that causes me anguish; sometimes you make me think that I'm crazy and not good enough for you. Unfortunately, there are days when my mental health really suffers as a result.

MIT still has a long way to go to be a mentally healthy place. We've done a much better job discussing this recently; that's great. I know that mental health can be a hard thing to talk about, but we all play a part in shaping this aspect of our culture. How many times have you heard someone else humble bragging (or just straight-up boasting) about how late they stayed up to work on a problem set or in lab? How many times have you bragged yourself? It’s okay to admit it; I’ve bragged in this way before, too. Perhaps the first thing we can all do is acknowledge that this “microaggression” doesn’t help us.

Can we commit to building a more nurturing environment for ourselves and each other? Some say that the stress associated with mental health issues is just “part of MIT’s culture,” as if there’s nothing we can do; as if it’s some inevitable consequence of the ambition and hardworking spirit that permeates MIT. Well, I’ve been to plenty of other places that are full of ambitious, hardworking people and don’t share this repressive quirk of MIT culture. Don’t we owe it to ourselves to commit to shaping our own culture for our own betterment? Working for “the betterment of humankind” should start with bettering ourselves.

People, institutions, and the relationships within all grow and change over time. We can’t be afraid of that; in fact, we should embrace it. Perhaps in the best relationships, partners grow alongside one another, committing to both give and take in a mutual exchange built on reciprocal trust and respect.

So are you ready to commit, MIT?

Let me close by speaking personally, as Jeremy. I'm a fifth-year PhD student. I’ve grappled with being one of very few graduate students of color in Materials Science. I’m committed to fighting climate change both inside and outside the lab. I've been learning how to manage relationships and avoid burnout in the intensified academic environment of MIT — sometimes, the hard way. And after countless conversations with friends and colleagues at MIT over the past several years, I finally felt ready to share my thoughts. Perhaps if you share yours, too, we can build the trust to commit toward solutions together.

Jeremy Poindexter is a graduate student in the department of Materials Science and Engineering.