Opinion guest column

Towards a substantive and meaningful DEI strategic action plan

Citing ‘difficulty’ and ‘decentralization,’ senior leadership fail to create an actionable and antiracist strategic plan

On July 1, 2020, in light of the national reckoning sparked by the wrongful killings of Black Americans and the massive movement of brand activism, President L. Rafael Reif wrote a letter regarding efforts to address systemic racism at MIT. The main offering of this letter was the promise of a “comprehensive, Institute-wide Strategic Action Plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)” which would “establish clear, coordinated Institute-wide objectives.” Less than one year later, MIT senior leadership’s process of overseeing the strategic plan has failed its promise. 

In September 2020, the strategic action plan steering team, on which we serve as the undergraduate and graduate student representatives, was tasked with developing the plan. Concurrently, student activists across the Institute tried to leverage the perceived momentum for antiracist action, but senior and faculty leadership repeatedly told students that their concerns would be addressed by the strategic plan (and ignored immediate actions that could be taken to address systemic racism). With this hyperfocus on the strategic plan, much of our time on the committee was spent crafting the overarching strategic priorities and their corresponding commitments. The draft of the strategic plan released in March 2021 indicates that it “attempt[s] to deliver an explicit, directional, and aspirational set of actions for MIT.” However, we witnessed firsthand how the initial drafts we worked on for seven months were, upon being vetted by senior administrators, purged of several meaningful actions. Many recommendations were changed in their underlying mechanisms from “there are existing inequities and here are recommendations to solve them” to “reviewing, evaluating, and assessing if inequities exist.”

These changes in language were even more jarring because of the lack of transparency in how and why they were made. Steering team leadership (John Dozier, Tim Jamison, and Maryanne Kirkbride) were the only members who communicated with MIT’s senior administration directly. Our concerns with the plan unraveling were met with deflections — senior and steering team leadership blaming the current structure of decentralization; senior leadership's preference for setting low-level goals so the plan is “fully achievable in five years”; and senior leadership’s fear of upsetting faculty and financial donors. 

If we — student members of the steering committee who have spent countless hours every week in meetings and on phone calls to push for change — are not listened to, how can we trust that further feedback from the broader community via the engagement sessions will be incorporated? In fact, our queries about incorporating engagement session feedback were met with a non-committal response on making any major changes. When senior leadership privately recalibrates the plan while simultaneously, and publicly, calling for Institute standards, they endanger the trust that the MIT community places in them and, by extension, threaten the success of the strategic plan.

In understanding this threat, we must first define what it might look like to successfully address systemic racism in an academic institution’s strategic plan. We synthesize anti-racist scholarship [1] with our own experiences to define four dimensions.

The first dimension is to shift power dynamics to reduce the negative impact of hierarchy. Academia is built on hierarchical processes that are prone to the effects of racism, sexism, and other forms of bias. A strategic plan that shifts power dynamics would align these processes with Institute-wide standards for equity that better democratize decision-making. These standards must apply to any and all procedures where power imbalances or bias can sway an outcome (e.g., graduate admissions, qualifying exams, faculty hiring, and tenure).

The second dimension is to amplify and prioritize the needs of the most marginalized groups. Different communities will have unique sets of lived experiences and needs. Any plan to address oppression that does not actively center the voices and priorities of marginalized and underrepresented peoples may include positive ideas but will inevitably be incomplete.

The third dimension is to enact justice by holding individuals who perpetuate oppression accountable. Justice cannot exist without accountability. Accountability is about people taking responsibility for harmful behavior and taking action to repair that harm. The strategic plan must create strong accountability and support mechanisms at every administrative level (not just the Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response office) to condemn abusive, prejudiced, and/or racist behavior. 

The fourth dimension is to celebrate and incentivize anti-oppressive allyship and advocacy. We must better value the contributions and labor from faculty, staff, and students who advance DEI initiatives. This means incorporating DEI leadership as a factor in hiring, promotion, and fellowships; giving awards to staff and students; and compensating students who participate in Institute-level DEI initiatives.

Senior leadership, whether intentionally or not, have taken actions that are antithetical to the four dimensions we think constitute a successful plan:

Coming off the cusp of grassroots community-wide advocacy and departmental organizing (e.g., RISE and departmental student coalitions), senior leadership has shifted power back to themselves, tilting the scales on our commitments to reinforce the de-centralized and hierarchical systems that pervade MIT. Students on the steering committee repeatedly asked for centralized standards and saw that language replaced with “work with department heads” and “convene a working group,” stalling any tangible actions.

By prioritizing the whispers of discontent from large conservative donors and faculty (and maybe even themselves), senior leadership has amplified the wants of the most privileged groups and actively disregarded the needs of current community members who are hurting the most. This is best illustrated by senior leadership refusing to fund DEI officers for departments that need but cannot afford them and dodging community space requests from identity groups who feel that they do not have a home on campus. These are actions that are asked for by almost every minority group that this plan claims to serve.

And by watering down the plan in closed-door meetings, they have dismantled mechanisms to hold them accountable for change and insulated themselves (and us) from authentic dialogue about what it will take to improve MIT.

The commitments in the strategic plan that are strong have focused largely on the fourth dimension — to celebrate and incentivize allyship and advocacy — but this by itself only overburdens individuals, rather than iterating on systemic solutions. The students, staff, and faculty, generally women and people of color, who are already doing that work, do not just deserve awards; we deserve change.

We ask, where do senior leadership see themselves in this plan, other than taking credit for its creation? And will that plan materially improve the lives of those at MIT whom this plan was supposed to serve?

As students on the steering committee, we desired a plan with commitments that extend beyond its (and our) time at MIT. We have been honored to work alongside all those on the steering team, especially John Dozier, to draft this plan. But the onus for its impact on the MIT community lies squarely on the senior leadership, who have in one hand beckoned for sweeping change and in the other held up stop signs.

We have proposed changes to the strategic plan several times over on issues that directly impact students, which are detailed here. We request that by May 7, the Academic Council respond to our proposed changes with clear answers of what they will commit to adopt from our changes and provide written rationales for any changes they do not want to accept, something that we have repeatedly asked for from senior leadership

MIT leadership has, in the name of “practicality” and “efficiency,” acted without transparency or accountability. If they fail to provide us with a clear response to our proposed changes, it will be another point of evidence that their definition of success for the strategic plan is predicated on its toothlessness, and is in direct conflict with ours. We have no interest in putting our names behind a plan that is mostly performative. We joined the committee to work towards a meaningful vision for a better MIT, and we will reassess our future participation if senior leadership continues to hinder that vision.

If you support this article, please email Provost Martin Schmidt (schmidt@mit.edu), ICEO John Dozier (jdozier@mit.edu), and cc steercomm-students@mit.edu, saying “I support the student call for Institute-wide standards.”

[1] Corneau, S., & Stergiopoulos, V. (2012). More than being against it: Anti-racism and anti-oppression in mental health services. Transcultural Psychiatry, 49(2), 261-282.

The authors of this article are student members of the MIT Strategic Action Plan Steering Committee.
Ufuoma Ovienmhada is a PhD student in Aerospace Engineering, co-president of the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA), and a member of the MIT Strategic Action Plan Steering Committee.
Bianca Lepe is a PhD student in Biological Engineering, chair of the Graduate Student Council (GSC) DEI committee, and a member of the MIT Strategic Action Plan Steering Committee.
EeShan Bhatt is a PhD student in Mechanical Engineering and the MIT-WHOI Joint Program, a Graduate Resident Advisor, and a member of the MIT Strategic Action Plan Steering Committee.
Kayla Storme is a PhD student in Chemistry, in the interdisciplinary Program in Polymers and Soft Matter (PPSM), and a member of the MIT Strategic Action Plan Steering Committee.
Catherine Wong is a PhD student in Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a member of the MIT Strategic Action Plan Steering Committee.
Zaina Moussa is an undergraduate student in Biological Engineering and a member of the MIT Strategic Action Plan Steering Committee.
Orisa Coombs is an undergraduate student in Mechanical Engineering and a member of the MIT Strategic Action Plan Steering Committee.
Yu Jing Chen is an undergraduate student in Urban Studies and Planning, vice president of the Undergraduate Association, and a member of the MIT Strategic Action Plan Steering Committee.