Opinion guest column

Blurred vision

A critique of MIT’s strategic plan for diversity, equity, and inclusion (2021–2026) on the eve of MIT’s 160th founding day

In America, being a place that welcomes justice has proven to be a challenge. I do not discount the community-led spaces of justice that exist within the borders of the United States now, nor do I discredit those who are excellent in advancing the cause for justice by meeting the physical, spiritual, social, and political needs of the oppressed, who give us evidence that justice is attainable if we fight for it. I merely remark that the last time justice knew this land and vice versa was before Europeans arrived here. Despite so much national rhetoric about justice, justice itself seems to be a slick baby ungraspable by America and slipping through the hands of MIT, too.

What the senior leadership of MIT admit in their recent “strategic plan” are three key pieces of information: MIT is not a place adequately composed nor commensurate with national racial and gender data; MIT is not a place where students feel comfortable to thrive and develop safely as a person; MIT is not a place of equity, which is to say that MIT is a place with inequities that directly stifle the achievement of its students and other groups affiliated with MIT. This “strategic plan” also outlines commitments and efforts to correct the aforementioned deficiencies.

In reflection of MIT’s 160th birthday approaching this Saturday, I have been pondering what has become of the school founded by a slaveholder in 1861. Thus, I have been pondering this plan. My first thoughts are of all the students and staff and faculty and friends of past decades who worked tirelessly to influence the Institute’s senior leadership and raise the community understanding of justice, these trailblazers who gave us a language for describing this goal for MIT — the petitions signed, the recommendations given, the demands made, the ultimatums stated, the righteous anger sustained, the strikes executed, the activism practiced, the community engaged, and the hurt endured.

I think secondly about the language used in the plan purposing to guide MIT through 2026. In the first nine words I find three which deserve critical consideration —  “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” or DEI. Like “hello” or “bye,” these words and letters show up in all rooms for folks to engage without saying “justice.” It is a complexifying metonym that America commonly practices to distort meaning. Out of 4,000 words in this plan, “justice” shows up twice. This only works to show that “DEI” is a perversion to justice, despite its attractiveness and lexical palatability. The very language of the strategic plan reveals that the Institute has succumbed ultimately to distraction on the order of 99.995% from justice. Instead we are left to look at the dancing shadows of diversity, equity, and inclusion, which provide clues to justice yet forfeit the right to tell more and to be proactive, rather than disappointingly reactive, to our current problems of inequity, exclusivity, and striking homogeneity.

I think thirdly of a question rather than a thought — where is MIT looking to go? The nature of a “strategic plan” elucidates that strategy provides direction and the plan dictates arrival, yet both together are designed to bring success. This wisdom is ancestral. Sun Tzu said, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” If working for justice can be described as a “fight” (which it has been), then the field of justice is a field of war. I will first assess the strategy of the “strategic plan,” then I will attempt to comment on its tactics.

The strategy for the plan is clearly outlined along three “strategic points” — composition (diversity), belonging (inclusion), and achievement (equity). Based on my previous analyses of DEI, I will take the liberty to only remind you of how this serves as a distraction. However, it may not be so clear as to why. One can better understand my assertion by transforming the three strategic points into a line of questioning. If MIT increased the number of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people at the Institute, and created a welcoming environment for all community members, and ensured the achievement of all community members, then will MIT have done enough? Although I feel I might have given the strategic plan more confidence than it boasts, I also think it is important to entertain this question. Will MIT have done enough? A quick yes or a quick no would be ignorant. A delayed yes or a delayed no would be a quitted thought. Silence, a question, or a thoughtful answer are most likely the responses that can approximate truth.

Is it enough? Enough for what? Where are we going? How will we know we’ve gotten there and what is enough in what context? All these questions naturally present themselves in the scope of assessing a strategy or vision. I do not believe the “strategic plan” adequately answers these questions. I refer to the plan as a plan rather than a “strategic plan” (as it is written), because I struggle to find its strategy. If anything, at best it is a plan and at worst it is a to-do list. Because of this, I hypothesize we will be writing another plan later and later and later. Without a clear strategy that utilizes diversity, equity, and inclusion as its conduits for success and not its aim, then we will continue to return to the drawing board and delay justice.

As Sun Tzu has stated, without substantive strategy guiding proposed tactics, the result is “noise” that precedes defeat. I do not mean that if MIT were to accomplish what it has stated in the plan that it would not be a more equitable, more diverse, more inclusive place. If MIT does all it is committing to do in this plan, it will be a better place. However, this assessment is relative to our current condition. More is better, but not necessarily complete or enough. Without any strategy provided in the plan to outline this distinction, I am concerned that we will remain trapped in the cycle of our own undoing, despite our focused energy and efforts. And yet the tactics offered in the plan delay our path to justice, in a time where there has been decades of literature which would tell us we do not have infinite time to get this right. We must be intentional now, and one way to check ourselves is to ask if we are satisfied with slow movement not toward diversity, equity, and inclusion, but toward justice. I am not.

It is good to see MIT dedicate time (though I believe it needed much more) to crafting a plan focused on efforts of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Coming on the eve of its 160th birthday, this plan is a testament to the moral distance traveled since MIT’s racist founding. However, I think this plan has missed an opportunity, unless we use our voices and opportunity as members of the MIT community to speak up and out about what we believe is missing in the plan, what we believe is important to the plan, and what change we want to see in the implementation of this plan. The Institute Community & Equity Office is not solely responsible for this plan. The 34 people privileged to sit on the steering committee are not solely responsible, either. We are all responsible for this plan, and it will only go forth if we say so. If this plan has blurred vision, then it is on all of us to be a prescriptive lens.

Kelvin Green II ’22 is a member of Chocolate City and the Rho Nu Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and is the Assistant Officer on Diversity for the Undergraduate Association.