Opinion guest column

Stop telling URMs to wait for change

Four ways MIT can advance DEI without a strategic plan

The 2010 Report of the Initiative for Faculty Race and Diversity called for an Institute strategic plan to address diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) among faculty at MIT. The 2015 BGSA Recommendations called for an Institute strategic plan to address recruitment of underrepresented minorities (URMs) at MIT. At the time of this article’s publication, there is no strategic plan in place. However, the Institute Community and Equity Officer John Dozier and Associate Provost Tim Jamison are at present leading a steering team composed of students, staff, and faculty to design MIT’s first ever Institute-wide Strategic Action Plan for DEI at MIT. Amidst the repeated calls for a strategic plan by MIT community organizers and the echoed call for a strategic plan by President Reif, a critical question emerges: should MIT really be banking all of our hopes for advancing DEI on a… plan?

There is evidence, both anecdotal and factual, that supports a strategic plan as a needed vehicle for change to occur. Strategic plans help organizations define a long-term strategy, set priorities, and make decisions on allocating resources to pursue change. Strategic plans are necessary for addressing complex long-term goals. Student leaders from the Academic Council Working Group on Community and Inclusion, and many others who have tried to make progress on DEI efforts at MIT, repeatedly point to the decentralized nature of our institution as the primary barrier to meaningful change. Hence, centralized action via a strategic plan is critical for MIT’s community. Other universities — the University of Michigan, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Oregon among many others — have created strategic plans to improve the climate and opportunities for students with underrepresented identities via a long-term, comprehensive, and meaningful timeline of actions.

While there are good reasons to design an Institute-wide strategic plan (and, to be clear, the authors strongly support strategic plans as a tool for change), this type of lengthy, committee-constrained process can cater more to timelines that are comfortable for the majority, rather than prioritizing the most marginalized among us to improve their quality of life as quickly as possible. Strategic plans, and specifically the way that strategic plans assign timelines to equity and justice, ring similar to the historical and contemporary division between the moderate strategy and the liberal strategy in global civil rights politics. In the U.S. civil rights era, moderates, who disagreed with direct action and confrontation, were heavily critiqued by Martin Luther King Jr. He wrote, “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice… who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a more convenient season.’”

In the 60s and 70s in South Africa, anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko faced a similar challenge with the moderate. He wrote “their protests are directed at and appeal to white conscience, everything they do is directed at finally convincing the white electorate that the black man is also a man and that at some future date he should be given a place at the white man’s table.”

The same pattern persists today. Black community organizers who intimately know the needs of their constituents have spent centuries articulating what changes are needed to liberate Black people in America: police abolition, prison abolition, reparations, voting rights (from Part III of Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi). The arguments for these structural changes in society have been well laid out and backed by data by many historical and contemporary scholars.

The world always tells Black people and URMs to wait, and MIT’s track record is no different. MIT organizers have provided well-thought-out arguments for structural changes through a series of recommendations and reports over the years, and when MIT did not create a strategic plan in 2010 in response to the 2010 Faculty Report, MIT told URMs to wait. When MIT did not create a strategic plan in 2015 in response to the BGSA recommendations, MIT told URMs to wait. And even now, with the creation of the DEI@MIT Strategic Planning Initiative, MIT is telling URMs to wait. We are told “cultural change is slow,” and we must wait.

But what if we can’t wait? What if the student who is falling behind on research due to unpaid DEI commitments can’t wait? What if the student who is constantly confused for the only other Black person in the department can’t wait? What if the student who has never had their name pronounced correctly can’t wait? The people who should set the timeline for justice and inclusion work at MIT are the URMs whom this work is meant to uplift. Strategic plans are necessary for addressing policy changes such as Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response office procedures, major financial efforts that will require fundraising, and cultural changes in thinking. However, there are several obvious, meaningful steps that deans and department heads can take today to address DEI at MIT, without a strategic plan, that are in step with the timeline of URMs who need change now. These are drawn from the heavily researched Reject Injustice through Student Empowerment (RISE) demands. Following is a summary of four sections of the RISE Demands that can be implemented without a strategic plan:

  1. Reform graduate admissions
    Department heads and deans could immediately improve the graduate admissions process by providing fee waivers for URM applicants and removing the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), which does not provide any meaningful insight into the readiness of graduate students, from all graduate applications. Removing the GRE is a change that several departments, including the Media Lab and Aero Astro, have already taken. In addition, every department should commit to sending a representative to a diversity conference every year and allocate finances to make this happen. 

  2. Increase resources for DEI education and support
    To create an environment at MIT that actively supports URMs, people of non-binary genders, and women, school and department-level leaders should also require annual anti-bias training for members of admissions committees and live (as opposed to pre-recorded) anti-bias and diversity training for all faculty who will serve as student mentors. There is ample research demonstrating how to make these trainings effective, and department heads and deans should leverage this research and implement these requirements.

  3. Increase student participation in faculty hiring and tenure decisions
    Because faculty spend so much of their time directly interacting with students, it is crucial that student input be involved in the hiring and tenure processes for departmental faculty members. To facilitate this, departments should invite student-elected representatives to sit in on the interview panel and participate in the discussion of new faculty hires and include student letters in tenure application packages (~20). These letters will come from currently and/or formerly mentored students, students taught by the candidate, and student representatives from departmental DEI student groups.

  4. Provide financial support for DEI labor
    Students are at MIT to be students, but some minority students suffer from a phenomenon known as the Minority Tax in which URM students and allies disproportionately devote time away from their research towards greater DEI advocacy efforts, often putting them in academically and professionally challenging positions without any protections. Furthermore, while students are expected to serve on DEI committees unpaid, MIT pays Diversity and Inclusion Consultants hourly rates starting at hundreds of dollars per hour. MIT must take action to value the labor of students engaged in the ideation and execution of DEI efforts either through hourly pay or partial graduate fellowships. The institute-wide DEI@MIT Strategic Planning Initiative has set a precedent for this need by committing to pay all students serving on the steering committee.

These changes are straightforward to implement and should be adopted across the board immediately. MIT can and should proceed with the DEI@MIT Strategic Planning Initiative and their timelines. Student organizers can and should continue to interact with that initiative and hold Institute leaders accountable to their timelines. But URM students are suffering today. We shouldn’t bank all of our hopes for a just MIT on a multi-year process when there are many simple changes that can be implemented immediately. Furthermore, we need to move faster, not just for the sake of moving faster, but to mitigate the harm that marginalized people at MIT are experiencing. Those in positions of power who resist adopting these easy, evidence-based approaches to increasing diversity and inclusion are comfortable with the status quo that repeatedly oppresses certain members of our MIT community. Department heads and deans must take the above recommended actions now to demonstrate that they are not in the business of policing the timeline for underrepresented minorities and genders to receive equitable, inclusive, and just treatment at MIT.

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.
Ufuoma Ovienmhada is a PhD student in AeroAstro, a co-president of the BGSA, and an organizer with RISE.
Bianca Lepe is a PhD student in Biological Engineering and an organizer with RISE.
Ki-Jana Carter is a PhD student in Materials Science and an organizer with RISE.