Opinion guest column

Every department deserves diversity

G4HMIT, BGSA, and GSC DEI call for the hiring of centrally-coordinated departmental diversity officers with an explicit timeline

MIT’s culture is made up of our collective values and beliefs. This means we have the power to shape that culture into one that is more diverse, equitable, and inclusive — but we must all do our part. This July, after years of stagnation, the MIT administration promised again to do its part by hiring a senior officer for diversity at each of its five schools and the new College of Computing. But given the sheer difficulty of addressing each department's unique culture, school-level officers are not enough: Every department deserves diversity.

The RISE campaign is a grassroots effort to fight racism and sexism co-led by Graduate Students for a Healthy MIT, the Black Graduate Student Association, and the Graduate Student Council Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee. We believe that every department should have its own DEI Officer (DO), who will be empowered to investigate department practices and climate, to meaningfully engage the community, and to push for change where problems are found. The officer position is not a silver bullet, but it is a critical component necessary to dismantle institutional systems of oppression and achieve a more equitable MIT through collaboration between students, staff, faculty, and leadership.

These goals have traditionally been addressed at MIT through DEI initiatives, developed and executed by students and staff, with occasional assistance from faculty. Although well-intentioned, these initiatives are inherently inefficient. The many responsibilities juggled by students and faculty, the high turnover rate of graduate students, and the general lack of DEI-related expertise make it impossible to meaningfully progress — and the lack of accountability mechanisms means that the administrators involved bear no consequences. Centrally-coordinated diversity professionals are needed at the department level to ease the burden on student advocates, retain institutional knowledge, engage with faculty, develop tailored solutions, and hold the administration accountable for DEI progress. DOs would fill precisely these roles.

The hiring of DOs within higher education is not a new phenomenon. Fifteen years ago, there were diversity positions at over 120 institutions around the country, usually consisting of a single institute-wide DO. More recently, universities such as UC Santa Barbara and the University of Michigan (UM) have integrated DO roles into academic departments. This shift represents a recognition of the decentralized nature of graduate school: institute-wide initiatives are no longer enough. As detailed in UM’s report on DOs, “Each academic unit has a unique culture with unique needs, histories, resources and expectations that should be accounted for when creating organizational structures.”

MIT’s Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro) department has already recognized the benefits of a departmental DO, and it is invaluable to learn from their experiences. In Fall 2019, AeroAstro hired Denise Phillips as their inaugural DO. Denise’s primary responsibilities include creating programs that engage students and faculty in novel and impactful ways: she hosts a monthly Blind Spot series where speakers facilitate DEI-related discussions, is heavily involved in recruitment, and leads events for under-represented minorities (URM) and women. She also serves as a liaison between faculty and students, facilitating challenging discussions across major power imbalances and advocating for student initiatives, including helping the student group AeroAfro secure funding to send students to conferences to recruit URMs.

In response to the national uprising against institutional racism, students across schools, departments, and programs have also begun advocating for hiring their own DEI officer. This list includes but is not limited to: Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Chemical Engineering, Biological Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology, Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Media Lab, Physics and Sloan. In all of these instances, the drive for change comes from students, and we encourage students to get involved in these efforts in their own department. 

Facing student demand, a common response from the administration has been to share DOs across multiple departments—a strategy now being repeated at the school-level. Unfortunately, experience shows that this is not enough. The Biology department shares a Director of Diversity and Outreach (DDO) with Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS). Though not equivalent to a DO, the DDO shares the goal of increasing URM enrollment. Yet, the DDO’s cross-appointment makes it structurally impossible to attend to both departments’ unique needs. While Biology enjoyed early success in increasing URM graduate enrollment from four percent in 2005 to 18% in 2012, BCS’s URM enrollment has remained stagnant. This disparity can only be addressed by discipline-specific recruitment efforts. In addition, handling multiple departments overburdens a single officer, leading important issues to fall to the wayside: Since 2012, Biology’s URM enrollment began to decrease, reaching 11% in 2018. Furthermore, in both departments, recruitment of Black students remains particularly low.

In response to these issues, the Biology department has acknowledged the need for increased DEI resources, but has not made any official commitments suggesting that such a resource allocation is a priority. BCS has recognized the issue and committed to hiring a department-specific DO, but even with broad faculty support, this DO position has yet to be approved by the administration.

We can no longer afford to wait. We demand a tangible timeline for the hiring of DOs in every department. Vague commitments of time and resources are not enough. In fact, long before MIT reiterated its promise in July to hire school-level officers, the Institute committed to hiring school-level DEI officers in 2007 for the School of Architecture and Planning, in the 2010 Hammond report, and in the February 2020 announcement in response to Epstein and NASEM. Despite these commitments, we still see no clear plan for filling these positions, only contradictory and unclear reports of funding which have yet to manifest. 

Departmental efforts to create DO positions are inherently more limited since their budgets vary widely, with some operating on thin margins even in the best of times. While we recognize the economic crisis precipitated by COVID, we still have a duty to allocate resources toward DEI. We have seen clearly that the central administration, with a $3.7 billion annual operating budget and an endowment over $17 billion, can afford to fund these positions. We believe that if MIT can raise $1 billion for the new College of Computing for the future of research and technology, then they can raise the funds needed for investing directly in building an equitable future.

For this effort to be successful, we need a centralized response facilitated by the Institute Community & Equity Office (ICEO). Otherwise, we will continue to see only the most progressive departments hire DOs. Even those departments will do so unreliably, without centralized standards or accountability to a higher body such as the ICEO. A centralized approach will allow the DOs to increase engagement within their program, make progress on climate issues, and be held accountable for doing so. 

We know that this position alone is not enough to fully address the massive challenge of increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is only a first step in what is sure to be a long, significant effort, but it's a great place to start. DOs are a critical component of a more equitable future. It's time for MIT to step up and make it a reality.

If you support this form of change on our campus, please sign our petition, reach out to us at rise4mit@gmail.com, support our campaign, and join us at a RISE event happening in your department.

Lagnajit Pattanaik is a PhD student in Chemical Engineering and organizer with RISE.
Bianca Lepe is a PhD student in Biological Engineering and organizer with RISE.