MIT Values Statement Committee introduces first draft of values statement
Continued community engagement for statement to take place this school year
The MIT Values Statement Committee completed its initial research for and prepared a first draft of a values statement for the Institute.
The values statement committee was charged by then-Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 and Provost Martin Schmidt PhD ’88 in December 2020.
The committee is co-chaired by Tracy Gabridge ’88, deputy director of MIT Libraries, and Daniel E. Hastings PhD ’80, head of the department of aeronautics and astronautics. The committee membership includes Institute staff, undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and alumni.
To create the values statement, the committee analyzed documents and artifacts from MIT’s history, and sought community feedback through meetings, surveys, and direct input.
The committee held a community conversation on the values statement Oct. 20 through a live webcast and released a draft report on the statement.
According to the report, the values statement is meant to “build a shared sense of purpose, expectations, and responsibility.”
At the community conversation, Hastings said that multiple Institute committees, including the ad hoc committee to review MIT gift processes, had called for a value statement to guide decision-making.
Ceasar McDowell, values statement committee member and professor of urban studies and planning, said that an expression of values would help “in those situations where we may have to make a choice between two things that seem equally important.”
Gabridge added that the values statement may “empower community members to be able to initiate a discussion if it appears that values are being disregarded.”
The report states that while MIT’s mission statement helps MIT decide “what is worthwhile to pursue,” a values statement “will define how we behave and treat each other in doing so.”
The draft of the values statement begins with the statement, “We begin where MIT began, with a belief in human potential.”
The draft emphasizes diversity, collaboration, and innovation, stating “We strive to make our community a welcoming place where people from a diverse set of backgrounds can grow and thrive,” “We celebrate collaboration as the best path to fresh answers,” and “We strive for the highest standards of intellectual and creative excellence.”
The draft also makes note of MIT’s unique hacking culture by writing, “We prize originality, curiosity, ingenuity and creative irreverence — and we treasure quirkiness, nerdiness and hacking, as fruits of the same tree.”
The draft additionally discusses responsibility and warns against arrogance. It writes, “we are willing to face difficult facts, admit our mistakes, speak plainly about failings in our systems,” and “we must take special care that exceptional talent does not become an excuse for bad behavior and disrespect.”
The draft report also listed recommendations for implementing the value statement. These recommendations include updating MIT’s motto from “mens et manus” to “Mind, Hand, Heart”; calling on “visible commitment and action” throughout MIT and from the MIT Corporation, senior leaders, and faculty; growing awareness of the values throughout MIT; and making the values statement “an ongoing and living endeavor.”
While the statement was initially meant to be completed July 31, 2021, the committee recommended an “extended engagement process” during the 2021–22 academic year to allow community members time to consider the draft and provide feedback.
The values statement committee will hold staff town hall meetings in November, a series of in-person and hybrid meetings with students and postdocs in the fall, and a series of RealTalk@MIT community conversations in the spring.
The report calls the statement “deliberately aspirational” and acknowledges that some of the values in the statement “sometimes exist in tension or even in competition with one another.”
During the community conversation, Hastings responded to a question about the value of freedom of speech with respect to the recent cancellation of the Carlson Lecture, citing two sentences from the draft values statement: “On a campus without gates, we champion the open sharing of information and ideas” and “We strive to make our community a welcoming place where people from a diverse set of backgrounds can grow and thrive.”
Hastings said that the two sentences “may at times come into tension,” and a decision-maker guided by the values statement would have “to make a decision that weights” the two values.
Sally Haslanger, values statement committee member and professor of philosophy, responded that it should be taken in account that while the “value of expressing views might be undeniable,” “it might not be the right, time, place, or role for someone to express their views.”
Haslanger said that taking this could result in recognizing consequences of expressing certain views and that “our values tell us how to weigh those consequences,” making it possible to find a resolution despite tension.
Haslanger added that unrestricted freedom of speech “does not promote open inquiry” because “when the powerful take up all the airtime or use their speech to discredit the less powerful, they effectively silence others and block inquiry.”
The report specifically mentions that the committee “confronted the tension between the value and recognition of individual merit and the systemic meaning and practice of meritocracy” when discussing merit, a value the committee “spent more time on” discussing “than any other single topic.”
The report writes that the committee “often heard references, particularly from alumni and faculty, to MIT being a ‘meritocracy,’” and that those who saw MIT this way usually felt that “peers and colleagues judged [their] effectiveness based on what [they] could do, not on where [they] came from.”
On the other hand, the report notes that staff members were “much more likely to point out that, even at MIT, those born into advantages of class, race and gender are overrepresented in positions of influence,” and merit “rarely came up in discussions” with students and postdoctoral scholars.
The report lists MIT’s need-blind admissions process and absence of honorary degrees as examples of merit-based valuation distinguishing MIT from institutions that consider legacy admissions and financial worth in determining community membership.
However, the committee found that the term “meritocracy” had limitations, due to evidence “showing that organizations that profess meritocracy as a value tend to spawn systemic discriminatory practices” arising from differences in background, experience, and opportunity.
Amy Glasmeier, values statement committee member and professor of urban studies and planning, addressed the question of merit at the community conversation, saying that “meritocracy, as it was originally formed, really meant who had access to what and by what means were they judged to have access” and that “for younger members of MIT and members of MIT from around the world, meritocracy wasn’t always open.”
Thus, the committee decided against explicitly mentioning merit in the draft statement and instead chose to “think more broadly about terms that would allow us to be more fully inclusive about MIT today.”
Another question raised at the community conversation asked how staff at MIT were taken into account in the creation of the values statement.
Ann Warner-Harvey, values statement committee member and director of administrative services and operations in the office of the vice president for finance, responded that the membership of the committee included staff and that the committee met with individuals and groups across campus.
Peter Fisher, values statement committee member and head of the department of physics, added that, having served on many Institute committees that worked with staff, staff “voices are particularly important in this moment, in this values statement, because I don’t think their dedication is widely understood.”
Glasmeier also responded that the committee “focused a lot on staff” after hearing of issues relating to the circumstances and feelings of staff, which guided the committee in thinking about how the statement “actually” applied to “everyone.”
Natasha Hirt ’22 and Cadence Payne G, undergraduate and graduate student representatives to the committee, also addressed student feedback on the statement.
Payne said that at a town hall discussing Institute values, “a lot of students, in the face of power dynamics when interacting with faculty and staff” expressed hope that their voices be represented “more broadly” and that there be “a platform to hold people accountable” when values are not being upheld.
Payne also said that students wanted more transparency and to know more about decision-making happening “behind the scenes” at MIT.
Hirt added that it was important that the statement “is not only written and then posted somewhere … but that the whole question of accountability is regularly engaged with by faculty and staff and that students are continually being brought into the discussion.”
Community members can send feedback on the values statement through a survey or idea bank on the values statement website or request a meeting by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.