MIT departments launch DEI initiatives

MIT to release inaugural DEI plan in February or March 2021

MIT is drafting its first diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) plan and intends to release a final version by February or March 2021, Institute Community and Equity Officer John Dozier said in an interview with The Tech.

Dozier said that MIT has had a long history with keeping DEI in mind at all levels of decision making.

The plan, in effect for the next five years, focuses on many aspects of DEI, including research into the various identities of students, staff, postdocs, and faculty; addressing challenges of equity and disparities in outcome; and engagement with the wider community to help everyone understand each other’s differences, Dozier said. Community feedback can be submitted through the plan’s website.

Melissa Nobles, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), wrote in an email to The Tech that DEI “has always been a priority for the School, both with internal decisions and efforts to share expertise.” Each academic unit is asked to ensure that diversity plays a key role in its overall strategy.

MIT is “fortunate” to have faculty who are “some of the leading scholars on these subjects,” Nobles wrote, adding that these faculty members guide students by teaching and contributing to public discourse through their research and writing.

Nobles wrote that “given recent events,” several SHASS departments have “initiated both critical examinations of current curriculum and explorations of new research projects in order to broaden and deepen the study of these subjects.”

Lori LoTurco, director of communications for the School of Engineering (SoE), wrote in an email to The Tech that an SoE DEI Committee, formed in September and led by Professor Dan Hastings PhD ’80, “will report out annually to the Engineering Council and will work closely with Departmental DEI officers” to ensure continued progress on a welcoming environment at all levels of the SoE. The School has also collaborated with the Institute Community and Equity Office (ICEO) to expand access to unconscious bias training. 

Several departments across MIT have launched DEI initiatives over the summer and fall. Many of these departments have created DEI committees and plan to hire a diversity and equity officer.

The Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) department created a DEI committee, chaired by the newly-appointed faculty equity officers Fredo Durand and Leslie Kolodziejski. 

Durand and Kolodziejski wrote in an email to The Tech that EECS is hiring a full-time diversity officer, reforming the department’s faculty search “to include known best practices (focusing in particular on rubric scoring),” sponsoring students to “attend conferences that promote diversity in EECS,” and running “optional in-person training programs” for faculty and students. Additionally, MIT Tools for Honing Resilience and Inspiring Voices of Empowerment’s Graduate Application Assistance Program pairs graduate school applicants from underrepresented groups with current EECS graduate students.

The mechanical engineering department and EECS departments both participate in existing DEI initiatives such as the Rising Stars workshop for women graduate students and the Women’s Technology Program for high school students. MechE created a DEI task force this summer and is hiring a departmental Community and Equity Officer. 

Biological engineering (BE) department head Angela Belcher wrote in a department-wide email Oct. 16 that BE created a DEI task force, is hiring a diversity and equity officer, and is “working with IDHR and MindHandHeart to create resources and trainings.”

The BE, chemical engineering, and materials science and engineering departments launched a DEI speaker series this fall, with activist and scholar Angela Davis as the inaugural speaker. Over 2,000 members of the MIT community attended the Oct. 21 webcast Q&A with Davis.

The School of Science’s DEI webpage includes links to the community value statements for each department in the school. The page also promotes departmental affinity groups, including Biology Diversity Community, Women in Chemistry, Chemistry Alliance for Diversity and Inclusion, Women in Course 12, EAPS Diversity Council, Women in Math, African American Mathematicians, and Women in Physics.

In June, the math department faced criticisms for its perceived lack of diversity and inclusion. The department has since launched a website for students to find problem set partners in math classes, as well as a student-led math Discord server, as efforts to promote inclusivity.

David Spicer ’23, chair of the Undergraduate Association (UA) Community and Diversity group, said in an interview with The Tech that over the summer,  many departments put forth diversity statements and assigned teams for specific DEI initiatives. He said that while these actions are a step in the right direction, he “would like to see [departments] use the current events-oriented approach to guide the discussion toward more structural change.”

The UA Community and Diversity group is currently focusing on expanding the idea of diversity: “When one talks about diversity, the biggest two are ethnicity and race. But there are so many more areas to cover. Diversity is a very broad term and includes a lot of communities,” Spicer said. Spicer’s work, specifically, focuses on the intersection of students with disabilities and race; he hopes that prioritizing an intersectional viewpoint puts “all the layers of one’s identity together to really advocate on their behalf.”

Spicer said that the work for MIT is far from over. He gives credit to the Institute for recognizing issues, but is hesitant to give credit to MIT for actually addressing the issues. He said that “it’s not so much that [administrators] listened to students, and more that it’s a checkbox for them. I would like to see more accountability when it comes to listening to student input and taking action. Admin should give more credit to students in general.”

Moving forward, Dozier said that he wants the community to be more engaged. MIT community members need to “continue to challenge ourselves in both the formal and informal ways we’re interacting. Who is sitting around our lunch tables, and who is not? We need to ask ourselves the critical questions. Are we doing good work if we aren’t listening to the voices we need to be listening to?”

Dozier said that ”we want to make sure we are honoring our commitments and that relies on transparency.” He adds that students should “continue to help us as an administration on how to best serve MIT. The work that we’ve been doing needs to continue to be done. These are important issues that require all of our attention constantly.”