Faculty discuss climate action, credit limit, and underrepresented minority recruitment at March meeting

Data on percentage of URMs and women shows growth

Faculty members heard and discussed presentations describing recruitment and retention of underrepresented minority faculty and students, proposed changes to the first-year credit limit, MIT’s climate action activities, and nominations for faculty committees at the March 17 faculty meeting held over Zoom.

Underrepresented minority faculty and students

Provost Martin Schmidt PhD ’88 presented a report on MIT’s progress toward “increased diversity in the faculty and graduate student population.” This report has been presented each year since 2004. Schmidt mentioned that Institute Community and Equity Officer John Dozier and Associate Provost Tim Jamison are developing an Institute strategic action plan as part of MIT’s larger efforts surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

Schmidt presented data on the percentage of underrepresented minority (URM) undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty at MIT from 1997 to 2021. Schmidt said that there has been a “slow increase in the percentage of our community that are underrepresented in the faculty,” a “greater” increase in percentage of graduate students, and “even more” of an increase for undergraduates. 

Schmidt also presented data on graduate student recruiting for entry year 2020. Of 30,699 applicants, 1,932 were URMs (including Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander applicants), 11,422 were not URMs (including Asian, white, and unknown applicants), and 17,345 were international student applicants. 

26.4% of URM applicants were admitted and 48.3% enrolled, compared to an overall admissions rate of 14.5% and enrollment rate of 51.3%. Schmidt added that there was a 10 point decline in overall yield for graduate programs for entry year 2020, which seemed “to have been a trend across much of” higher education, so “normally, these yield rates would be about 10 points higher.”

Schmidt presented data on graduate student recruiting for entry year 2020 with respect to gender. Of 30,699 total applicants, 34.8% were women, of 4,448 admitted, 41.6% were women, and of 2,284 enrolled, 38.8% were women.

Schmidt additionally presented the percentage of women in undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty, from 1962 to 2021. Like the URM percentages, the percentages increased over time, and the highest increase in percentage was for undergraduates, the next highest was for graduate students, and the lowest for faculty members.

The percentages were lower than 50% for all groups. The percentage of all faculty that are women is approximately 25%, and the percentage of science and engineering faculty that are women is approximately 20%. 

Schmidt presented data on faculty hiring from fiscal year 2011 to 2020. Between those years, MIT hired 453 faculty members, of which 151 (33%) are women and 48 (11%) are from URM. Among current faculty, 8.5% are from URM, and 24% are women.

In addition to increasing the diversity of student and faculty populations at MIT, Schmidt said that it was also important to “make sure that the communities” that new members are joining “are welcoming and inclusive.”

Schmidt described challenges MIT faces in addressing its DEI goals. “One is that the ownership of the decisions around faculty hiring and graduate student recruiting admission” is distributed, so as an institution, MIT needs “to figure out how to make sure that best practices and approaches to improving diversity are being broadly adopted and shared.”

Another challenge is having “robust assessments of the effectiveness” of programs created to focus on DEI to ensure that MIT invests in programs with “the largest leverage on the things that are most critical” in achieving its goals.

A third challenge is supporting MIT’s “distributed faculty leadership” because some skills for increasing diversity and creating welcoming communities “are not necessarily skills that the faculty have been able to develop in their time at MIT.”

The final challenge is accountability and making sure that goals are set and worked toward.

Schmidt also summarized MIT’s recent efforts for DEI, including adding senior staff at the Academic Council level, created a department support project to work with department leadership, making commitments to adding distributed staffing with expertise in DEI for each school, and working on the strategic action plan.

Proposals for first-year credit limit

Chair of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program (CUP) Professor Arthur Bahr presented a proposal for changes to the first-year credit limit and to Early Sophomore Standing (ESS).

Bahr described three organizing goals of the CUP which are to create more opportunities for first years to discover intellectual passions, maintain appropriate guardrails for first years transitioning to MIT, and reduce complexity to improve advising and minimize unintended consequences.

The credit limit policies currently described in the rules and regulations of the faculty state that first-year undergraduates can register for a maximum of 54 credit units in the fall term and 57 credit units in the spring term. Additionally, “any undergraduate who has successfully completed one semester at MIT and has accrued at least 96 total units including an appropriate Communication Intensive subject would be eligible for Early Sophomore Standing.”

The CUP’s experiments in academic years 2020 and 2021 allowed first years to take 48 regular units plus nine discovery units in the fall and 60 regular units plus nine discovery units in the spring. ESS was not offered in either year.

The CUP’s provisional recommendations for academic year 2022 are to make the fall credit 54 regular units plus six discovery units (including first-year advising seminars and approved first-year discovery subjects), to make the spring credit 60 regular units plus six discovery units, and to permanently end the practice of offering ESS.

A student forum was held on the provisional recommendations March 15.

The 48-unit fall credit limit recommendation was informed by observation that with 54 units, half-term subjects, “most prominently 6.0001 [Introduction to Computer Science and Programming in Python],” were becoming more popular, resulting in students taking five classes for part of the semester and four classes for the other half, when the original intention was for students to take four classes and one advising seminar. 

However, the lower credit limit resulted in “pressure” for discovery focused classes to “include worthy activities that might get crowded out of a 48-unit course load but weren’t obviously oriented toward discovery.” This resulted in the recommendations suggesting a return to the previous 54-unit limit.

Bahr also described reasoning for ending ESS. He presented historical data indicating that the number of students accepting ESS has “ballooned in recent years,” from less than one percent in 1985 (when ESS began) to nearly 25% in 2019 (the most recent year ESS was offered). 

Students with ESS are able to declare a major as first years and usually have access to a faculty advisor in the major. Additionally, the credit limit is removed for students with ESS, and they are graded under regular grading as opposed to A/B/C/NR.  

Bahr said that surveyed ESS students “overwhelmingly” wanted to exceed the credit limit. Data from academic years 2018 and 2019 showed that over one third of ESS students took exactly 60 units, and around one third took more than 60 units. 

Bahr said that in Spring 2020, without ESS, about as many students chose to take 48 units as those who took 60, and that there was “no significant difference between students who would have been eligible for ESS versus those who would not have.”

Bahr added that while increasing the credit limit to 60 could result in additional stress, first years will be able to use A/B/C/NR and flexible P/NR as safety nets. Additionally, “most MIT students sign up for 60 or more units at some point,” so being able to test the limits with the first-year safety nets in place “makes sense.”

Additionally, for students who would have wanted to take more than 60 units through ESS, “MIT offers a lot of great ways of spending one’s time outside the formal classroom,” including research, clubs, and athletics. Bahr said that having a 60-unit limit “make spaces” for students to “seek out some of those opportunities that they might not have gravitated toward under ESS.”

Member of the CUP Professor Steven Leeb disagreed with the increase in units for the credit limits, saying that the increase to 54 units would “encourage departments to create new six unit classes that will become de facto GIR and major requirements,” even once the experiment is over. Additionally, Leeb said that taking a full 60 units could become a “de facto requirement for students” and that eliminating ESS is not “a rational response” to students being unprepared to use ESS units wisely.

Leeb urged faculty to consider the proposal carefully before its formal presentation at the April faculty meeting and vote at the May faculty meeting.

Faculty attendees raised questions in the Zoom chat about ESS, with emphasis placed on the importance of advising alongside policies. 

Plans for climate change efforts

Vice President for Research Maria Zuber, Associate Provost Richard Lester, Dean of the School of Engineering Anantha Chandrakasan, Head of the Materials Science and Engineering Department Jeffrey Grossman, and Professor Elsa Olibetti PhD ’07 described MIT’s work toward its new Climate Action Plan (CAP) and other climate efforts.

Zuber said that the Climate Action Advisory Committee (CAAC) has collected community input through various channels, including climate action symposia, faculty engagement sessions, and student forums. 

From this community input, the CAAC has “overwhelmingly” heard two things: first, that MIT needs to accelerate progress, and second, that MIT needs to better integrate different ongoing activities associated with climate and clean energy.

Zuber said that MIT can make the biggest impact through research, innovation, and education. In addition to low carbon energy centers and startups within The Engine from MIT’s previous CAP, the new CAP will include the Climate Grand Challenges and the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium (MCSC).

Zuber described additional opportunities for MIT to participate in climate efforts. She listed targeting faculty hiring and incorporating climate and sustainability topics in curriculum for education, achieving a carbon-neutral MIT by 2026, creating a more sustainable portfolio by committing to net-zero carbon investments by 2050 and participating in Climate Action 100+, and engaging with more receptive governments.

She also expressed an intention to create a climate nucleus that brings together MIT’s climate efforts.

Lester gave a presentation on the Climate Grand Challenges, launched July 2020. The Climate Grand Challenges involve the implementation of research proposals at MIT to develop or improve technologies to adapt to climate-related changes.

The challenges received 94 letters of interest from 385 researchers during its first phase in late 2020. Of these letters, 28 projects were selected for the next phase, which will be worked on for the next six months to develop detailed plans with budgets, timelines, estimates of potential impact, and identification of external partners.

At the end of the year, some of the projects will be selected for additional development and fundraising, “with the anticipation that they’ll become flagship multi-year grand challenge projects.”

Chandrakasan, Grossman, and Olivetti presented information about MCSC, which “brings together an influential group of industry leaders, with the goal of accelerating the most impactful ideas to practical solutions” for addressing climate change.

The consortium was announced in late January 2020 with 13 inaugural members from sectors including transportation, manufacturing, food and agriculture, construction, communications, textiles, consumer electronics, and computing.

Chandrakasan said the list of companies would continue to be expanded and that the member companies “are not only deeply committed to changes within their organization but also influencing change across the industries.

MCSC member companies pay a consortium fee to support activities such as industry pathways, UROPs, postdoctoral associates, entrepreneurship activities, workshops, and education activities.

Grossman added that the work of the companies will take a “cross industry sector approach” that will maximize MIT’s ability to “coalesce insights across disciplines and put together teams with the right expertise.”

Olivetti outlined the pathways to accelerate implementation of the MCSC’s work. She said that the goal is to “get to the smallest manifestation of a problem [so] that we can make progress fast” as well as to consider the context of the solutions and how they will be used.

Olivetti described engagement among students, including a climate superUROP intended to launch Fall 2021, the development of a climate.009 analogous to existing capstone courses, and a postdoctoral fellows program.

Nominations for faculty committee positions

Chair of the Committee on Nominations Professor Tomás Palacios also presented the slate of nominations for Associate Chair and Secretary of the Faculty, as well as for standing committees of the faculty. 

Palacios said that the nominations include faculty members from 16 different academic students and all five schools. The slate is “approximately 37%” women.

Additional nominees can be added at the April faculty meeting, where the final slate will be decided upon. The nominations will be voted on at the May faculty meeting.