Issues with MIT’s sexual harassment initiative
Centralized publicity and transparency, delayed start, too few students, and more
On April 1, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart and Provost Martin Schmidt announced that MIT would join the National Academies’ Action Collaborative to share best practices among institutions about preventing and responding to sexual harassment. They also announced the creation of four working groups, which will be composed of students, postdocs, faculty, and staff, each of which will report recommendations to a presidential advisory board by Sept. 15. I had hoped this initiative would move MIT towards an environment where no one feels used, abused, or forgotten.
Seven weeks later, as students finished their final exams and fled campus, I started wondering what has happened to this initiative. What I found was an effort that lacked the organizational structure and concrete commitments to transparency that are necessary to effectively combat sexual harassment on campus.
Selective student/postdoc participation
After a third of the initial lifetime of the working groups had passed, one out of 35 people on any of the working groups listed on the Chancellor’s website were students; none were postdocs. After the Chancellor responded to an email inquiring about the initiative, the number jumped to two students and one postdoc out of 37 members on June 1, two months after the original working group announcement. Why these groups are so heavily underrepresented and how these participants were chosen was not initially clear.
When I asked Barnhart about how the working groups decided which students and postdocs to invite, she responded by giving examples of groups that are being reached out to: the Undergraduate Association, Graduate Student Council, Black Students’ Union, Graduate Students of Color Advisory Council, Black Graduate Student Association, Title IX Student Advisory Board, and the Postdoctoral Association. Some of these groups were contacted after I initially sent Barnhart the question, which was over 7 weeks after the working groups were announced. While likely not intentional, the delay in contacting student groups indicates a level of neglect in fully including students and postdocs in initial working group discussions.
In addition to being neglectful, this method of choosing students and postdocs for working groups will likely not lead to the most effective input, as it seems to select for people who may already be committed to multiple other activities or know certain people. This method neglects those who have disengaged with the MIT community due to negative experiences at MIT, which might be the most insightful people to have on these working groups. A more inclusive method for student and postdoc input might be to host an open application, as is done within the GSC with Institute Committees, using a method of choosing applicants, like a lottery, which is not susceptible to bias of any administrators.
I should mention that reaching out to student leaders and organizations when determining student participation in working groups is standard practice at MIT. While this might explain why these current working groups obtained student members in sub-optimal ways, it also indicates that the standard practice MIT employs is both not transparent and susceptible to bias.
The initiative also dragged its feet at the start. For example, one of the working groups did not meet in person until eight weeks after the initial announcement, after final exams were finished and many students had already left campus.
In addition, the initial deadline for the reports of September has been pushed back. Barnhart said in an email to me that this was done “to give the groups more time to engage with students, postdocs, and other members of the MIT community when everyone is back on campus.” This delay will likely cascade and cause implementing the recommendations of the working groups to be postponed as well.
Since working groups essentially ask people who already work at least a full time job to volunteer to take on extra responsibilities, it is no surprise that the busy spring semester hindered a quick start on this initiative. Possibly another organizational structure, like hiring external consultants, might have provided the critical work-hours necessary to engage with the community in a timely and effective manner.
Central decision-making excludes students
While the existence of students and postdocs on the working groups sounds inclusive, the decision making structure does not include either group. The working groups report to a presidential advisory board, which contains neither students nor postdocs and is the final vocal point of recommendations. This means that students and postdocs are excluded from participating in drafting the final recommendations. This subtle detail could prevent solutions to issues which impact predominantly students and postdocs, like faculty power imbalance, from being considered to the extent necessary.
No concrete transparency commitment
As of press time, how the working groups’ efforts will be disseminated has not been determined, though Barnhart wrote, “We very much want the recommendations to be understood by the MIT community.” While the Chancellor’s office has said that they strive for inclusion and transparency, what the working groups have done so far seems to indicate other factors like work hour limitations, centralized decision making in the presidential advisory board, and using sub-optimal recruitment methods are also important in shaping this initiative.
Critically important to transparency is the release of the working group recommendations to the MIT community. This provides the students and postdocs on the working group committees with a more direct voice for their recommendations. According to the Chancellor’s office in an email to me, “because this effort is just getting off the ground, we are still developing the full communications plan and don’t yet know how the findings and recommendations will be shared with the community.” It is critical to decide on a communications strategy and publicize it up front so that the pressure to hide useful but unfavorable information can be adequately mitigated.
Students, postdocs and faculty volunteer to prepare these reports, and if the fruits of their labor are only selectively disseminated, some of their ideas may be overlooked by the few people on the presidential advisory board. Personally, if I volunteer my time to evaluate possible solutions to problems at MIT, I would like for my work to inspire dialogue among my peers and help spur new innovation. Selective release of my work, for reasons other than protecting confidentiality, would be disrespectful of my time and ideas.
Misusing student/postdoc involvement
I wonder sometimes whether the Institute cares more about creating an image of tackling harassment than actually helping those who are harassed. Publicizing that students and postdocs are on working groups doesn’t ensure MIT policies are effective at mitigating the harassment these groups face. Instead of spending time publicizing initiatives in ways that distract from the issues on the ground, as was recently done in a response in The Tech, MIT should use its resources to improve the effectiveness of the working group structure so that MIT can generate better ideas and implement better policies.
It has been two months since the original announcement of the initiative. While the administration has taken steps to include students and postdocs in the working groups, many details show that other priorities could hinder this effort from turning MIT into a place where everyone feels safe and respected.
In his 2017 announcement regarding sexual harassment, President L. Rafael Reif charged each of us to “strive to define what we can do to invent a better MIT community for those who are here today, and for those who will follow us tomorrow.” Without transparent and open applications for joining the working groups, and without the full release of working group recommendations, each of us is less able to evaluate and define the best actions we should take to improve the MIT community. I hope this initiative is able to fulfill its promise so that each of us can help make MIT a better place for decades to come.