Opinion open letter

Student evaluation on the progress of the 2015 BSU/BGSA Recommendations

From: Kelvin Green II (SB student in Course 8)
            Josué J. López (PhD candidate in Course 6)
            Candace Ross (PhD candidate in Course 6)
            Student Members of the Academic Council Working Group
To: President Rafael Reif
        Provost Martin Schmidt 
CC: Academic Council

On February 18, 2020 the Academic Council Working Group on Community and Inclusion (ACWG) presented the current status of the 2015 MIT Recommendations by the Black Students’ Union (BSU) and Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) to the Academic Council. During the meeting, Associate Provost Richard Lester inquired about student sentiment regarding current progress on the recommendations. Vice President and General Counsel Mark DiVincenzo suggested the question be directly addressed by ACWG student representatives. After curating student responses, we present the answer below.

In the last decade, nine reports and 177 recommendations have been posed to the Institute by students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Together, they raise concerns about inequities at MIT and present impactful solutions. These detailed evaluations of MIT highlight matters of race, gender, socioeconomic status, and the intersectional identities that contribute to diverse experiences at the Institute. In response to the 2015 BSU/BGSA Recommendations and in recognition of the need for a focused effort on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), the Office of the President established the ACWG. The positive impact of this working group on the MIT student experience is well established. There have been five years of collaboration, significant financial support, and inclusive leadership dedicated to our DEI goals. We are grateful to the leaders that play an active role in DEI and are encouraged by the new leadership of ICEO John Dozier and Associate Provost Tim Jamison. As we approach the five-year anniversary of the BSU/BGSA Recommendations, one question stands out: How is MIT planning to solve the outstanding diversity, equity and inclusion problems if we have yet to create an institute-wide strategic plan?

It is now imperative for MIT senior leadership to create, support, and establish a diversity, equity, and inclusion strategic plan that incorporates solutions to existing problems and considers future needs. This will require intentional efforts that fundamentally change how we approach DEI problems today and will ensure transparency and accountability for the future. Most of MIT's DEI work has used a decentralized approach to problem solving. Although independence can be great for innovation and can empower community members to implement change, it has obstructed high impact DEI progress. This is displayed in the lack of DEI solutions at both a School and Department level. 

Today, we call on each member of the Academic Council to actively contribute to an Institute-wide DEI strategic plan and engage in the efforts of the ICEO John Dozier and Associate Provost Tim Jamison. A strategic plan is more than a statement of values or the convening of a working group with limited resources. This plan must be an Institute-wide, multi-faceted effort that does not rely on a single office or single member of senior leadership. This means engagement from school deans and department heads during the entirety of the planning and execution process. A DEI strategic plan incorporates all pertinent stakeholders and learns from the work of ACWG. The plan will help us transition from being reactive to proactive about DEI. The plan must be readily available, clear, and inclusive. The outlined metrics for success will foster accountability and community engagement. Without an Institute-wide plan for DEI, we will not reach President Reif’s goal of OneMIT.

Ten-year Black graduate student recruitment plan:

One of the long standing challenges this strategic plan must tackle is the stagnated enrollment of underrepresented minority (URM) graduate students. From 2005-2020, MIT’s Institutional Research reports that the percentage of Hispanic/Latino graduate students has increased by only two percent. There has been zero progress for either Black or American Indian/Pacific Islander graduate students. This trend is worse at the faculty level: there has been no change recorded in the percentage of URM faculty in the past five years. Coupled with the climate survey that reports URM students feel less accepted and supported compared to other groups, this demands an Institute-wide course of action. These problems are magnified for students of intersectional identities, particularly women and queer people of color. Thus, MIT’s strategic plan must be intersectional in order to be truly effective.

Recall that five years ago, the first BGSA recommendation specifically called for a 10-year plan to increase URM graduate students, in particular Black graduate students. As one of the premier problem-solving institutions in the world, it is difficult to comprehend why MIT has no plan or solution five years later. This is disappointing and disillusioning. In the same period, MIT has accomplished other ambitious initiatives such as the MIT.nano, the largest nanotechnology university facility in the U.S., and the Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing. These initiatives required the buy-in from multiple units and hundreds of faculty. This demonstrates that when properly motivated we can address longstanding goals regardless of complexity or cost. A decentralized culture cannot be the explanation for why we lack an Institute-wide focus on DEI.

Shifting burden from students and increasing faculty engagement:

For many years, students, staff and a subset of faculty—it should not be lost on us that the Faculty Policy Committee has been raising parallel concerns and recommendations since at least 2004. See Faculty Policy Committee Statement On Representation of Minorities on the Faculty and in the Graduate Student Body—especially women and people of color, have carried the burden of leading DEI efforts. To be successful, faculty and senior leadership must lead DEI efforts and help carry the weight. Together their decisions directly influence the number of URM graduate students and faculty at the Institute. When the recommendations were made in 2015, there was an underlying expectation of Institute-wide involvement. Deans of the schools, department heads, and faculty must reflect upon the ways they have answered this call. Have deans of schools tried to integrate into the work of the ACWG? Have department heads reviewed their admissions and hiring procedures? Have tenured faculty members actively sought to engage with DEI efforts for graduate admissions? These implicitly powerful stakeholders must elevate, support, and reward DEI work. Departments must incentivize faculty to fully engage with these issues, for instance through admissions and faculty recruitment processes. Given that school deans meet weekly and department heads meet monthly, the infrastructure is already in place for senior leadership to engage in contributing to systemic shifts. If we are going to make lasting change, we need the Office of the Provost, ICEO, School Deans, and Department chairs to be on the same page and contribute their skills and insights to ensure a strategic plan is created and executed. 

Regarding COVID-19:

We also echo the same concerns shared with senior leadership by other students via a May 1st letter entitled “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at MIT in the COVID-19 Pandemic”. We wholeheartedly agree that MIT leadership and all units should prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in operating budgets. We are especially concerned that the hiring freeze could significantly delay the acquisition of DEI-focused senior staff per School and other open DEI positions in key offices such as the Office of Graduate Education. Considering that decisions are being made at the micro-level, we need to ensure that DEI positions and initiatives will not be substantially cut across the board. This requires collaboration with the relevant parties that control MIT funding.

In closing, we take note that the official role of the Academic Council is to “confer on matters of Institute policy.” This call for an Institute-wide strategic plan falls perfectly in line with the charge of the Academic Council. We therefore encourage active participation from all Academic Council members. We recognize that MIT as a whole cannot be centralized, yet coordinating the groups, committees, students and, most importantly, faculty around DEI is critical in our path forward. Coordinating these efforts and creating a strategic plan is a laborious task but it will drastically improve the culture, experiences, and outcomes for underrepresented groups at MIT. Our goal is that the next generation of students need not duplicate these sentiments in a similar letter in another five years. We call upon MIT to establish an Institute-wide body this Fall with the charge to create a long-term strategic plan, including concrete measures to increase the number of Black graduate students. To be effective this strategic plan must be backed by the purse strings of the Institute. In presenting these perspectives today as student members of ACWG, we are committed to helping you shape this strategy today and moving forward.