Opinion guest column

Our strategic plan for the strategic plan

G4HMIT, BGSA, and GSC DEI call for a campus-wide shift to fight racism and sexism

In the midst of historic uprisings against racist police terror and white supremacy, all major institutions must analyze the role they have played in supporting these systems of oppression. The status quo of tacitly accepting social hierarchies has finally been knocked out of equilibrium, but we are still far from a just society. This moment is crucial as we teeter on the balance between falling back towards the status quo or lurching forward towards progress. It is imperative that our institutions act now towards racial justice or risk seeing this opportunity slip away.

As an academic institution, MIT itself has a dual nature. We are a community of academics who often wish to build a better world for all through innovation and understanding. However, it is no secret that academia, certainly including MIT, has a long and unfortunate history of supporting systems of racism and sexism within and well beyond its walls. White supremacy is manifested as police terror and violence against Black and Brown people as well as exclusion from and marginalization within the halls of academia. MIT must critically examine both the hard facts of our history and the state of our institution today. We must dare to dream of a new and more equitable MIT, and begin to construct it immediately.

Of course it is true that there are other forms of marginalization which take place at MIT (on the basis of ability, immigration status, class, etc.), and there is plenty of work to be done in fighting against these. But because of the interrelationships between these forms of oppression, this campaign will benefit all marginalized students at MIT. More critically, the movement against police terror which has swept the country in the past two months and events at MIT over the past year have demonstrated (to those who were not already aware) the pervasiveness of racism and patriarchy in academia and at MIT in particular, and it is crucial that we seize this opportunity to aggressively combat these forms of oppression immediately.

We believe that the MIT administration cannot and should not be leading the way of this fight for racial justice. Unfortunately, they have consistently failed to rise to the challenge of creating lasting and meaningful change at MIT in the many crises which have struck our campus in just the past few years. MIT's track record has demonstrated a historical lack of political will to create bold change and a preference to deploy rhetoric and promises which do not result in action. The Academic Council Working Group's update on the progress of the 2015 BSU/BGSA recommendations highlight a recent example of MIT's failure to make meaningful change. It is long past time for leadership to move beyond statements and join us in making sweeping change.

We are a broad campus coalition led by Graduate Students for a Healthy MIT (G4HMIT), the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA), and the Graduate Student Council (GSC) Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. We have come together to build on the petition to Support Black Lives at MIT and grassroots department-level student advocacy efforts and to envision a meaningful path forward via a set of well-researched demands designed to address the systemic issues of marginalization, harassment, and discrimination at MIT, which together comprise the “Reject Injustice through Student Empowerment (RISE)” campaign. We are demanding reforms to graduate admissions and faculty hiring procedures; concrete department- and Institute-level support for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives; transparency and accountability for bad actors; and material support for all graduate students at MIT, including the social sciences which are an important source of anti-oppressive research.

We demand that MIT take a more active role to diversify our community. For too long, MIT  has maintained exclusionary barriers to entry which disadvantage marginalized people. We must work to increase representation of our graduate workers who are Black and other people of color (POC) to at least match that of the US population. Additionally, we believe that faculty serve a critical role in defining the organizational climate and culture at MIT. Thus, it is just as crucial that we increase the number of Black and POC professors by fighting bias in our current hiring practice and changing our criteria for hiring and tenure to remove roadblocks for Black and POC candidates and to give greater consideration to a candidate’s record of service and DEI work. Further, by including students in the hiring and tenure processes, we can add new, meaningful perspectives and crucial accountability to the process.

We demand stronger prioritization and support of DEI initiatives from the Institute so that we can create deeper engagement with all community members at MIT, compensate students for their work in these critical endeavors, and provide greater accountability for those in power to act on these issues. We propose to increase community engagement by facilitating training and ongoing conversations, as we develop a shared basis of expectations for behavior to be able to create a more respectful and safe environment for all. 

Accountability has been lacking in these discussions for so long precisely because the groups tasked with maintaining accountability are the ones in positions of power. We have not seen this methodology succeed. This is why we are coming forward to call out our administration and impose some real accountability, but we believe long-term and effective accountability of these issues requires dedicated staff with independence from those they are keeping accountable. These staff members will also empower students in this process, working with them to understand harassment and discrimination in their own departments and to help them fight for change. Further, allocating funds to allow for more anti-oppressive research to take place and to compensate students for their involvement in the Institute’s DEI work is a necessary step for MIT to recognize the value of this work and the students who execute it.

We demand reforms to the faculty disciplinary process to reduce harassment and discrimination at MIT, impose accountability on bad actors, and ensure that all students are protected from abuse. We believe that the system, as it stands, still remains biased towards faculty members over their subordinates. The process must be changed if we want to keep bad actors accountable and discourage misconduct. One particularly lacking area of accountability is MIT’s treatment of retaliation; this is a challenge which has left students deterred from reporting other forms of harassment, discrimination, and abuse due to the fear of short- or long-term repercussions. These weak retaliation policies that provide protection to faculty are critical both because the issue is pervasive and because it further empowers abusive professors. Finally, we must support students who need to transition labs because of faculty abuse or other reasons by providing institute-backed transitional funding for all students who need it.

We demand material support for all PhD students at MIT. Far too many of our students, especially in the humanities and social sciences, are made to live on less than a living wage and this lack of support during their time here imposes a double burden on marginalized groups. Inadequate support imposes exclusionary barriers to entry for talented applicants from poor and working-class backgrounds. Additionally, the added financial precarity of underfunding acts as a structural limitation on a student’s ability to succeed if they do not have support beyond their stipend. We must see all PhD stipends raised to full 12-months of funding, institute non-competitive internal completion fellowships for programs lacking completion funding, and a guaranteed minimum cost-of-living adjustment to our stipends. MIT has committed to funding anti-racist research. We applaud this and praise the excellent work that many of our colleagues are accomplishing on anti-oppressive research at MIT. However, if we are serious about changing the culture at MIT to value anti-oppressive research and practices then we must be willing to fully support these programs and the graduate students who are essential to making them run. 

Now, more than ever, it is essential that we push for real and meaningful change. In our society and at MIT, this present moment represents a severe disruption to business as usual. To date, top leadership at MIT has offered only token resistance to pervasive harassment and discrimination at MIT rooted in structures which uphold racism and sexism. The Institute claims once again that it is committed to change. We are presented with a fundamental question: do we take the Institute at its word and allow it to slide back towards the same status quo, or do we choose a different path, a path which takes us away from systems of inequity and marginalization and points us towards justice and safety in our classrooms and workplaces?

Reif said in a recent message to the community that “history will judge us by how well we use this moment to achieve lasting change. We start that work at home, at MIT.” We strongly agree, and demand that MIT’s leadership abandon the path of least resistance and instead begin to combat systemic oppression at MIT, not with words but with concrete and immediate action. To any members of MIT’s administration who want to join us on this new path, we welcome your support and look forward to working with you. To those who continue to oppose these long overdue reforms, we demand that you step out of the way of change and truly empower marginalized members of our community and everybody dedicated to creating a better MIT. And to all other students and employees who share our vision of classrooms and workplaces free of harassment and discrimination, we ask you to join us.

Learn more and support our demands at rise4mit.com and support our petition here.

The authors of this article are as follows:
Bianca Lepe is a PhD student in Biological Engineering and Chair of GSC DEI.
Chelsea Onyeador is a PhD student in AeroAstro and outgoing Co-President of BGSA.
Halston Lim is a PhD student in Physics and Vice Chair DCI of GSC DEI.
Kara Rodby is a PhD student in Chemical Engineering and an organizer with G4HMIT.
Ki-Jana Carter is a PhD student in Materials Science & Engineering and an organizer with G4HMIT.
Ufuoma Ovienmhada is a Master’s student in the Media, Arts, and Sciences program and Co-President of BGSA.