On civility: in search of the path forward
When we disagree, we can still embody our community values
I write today to share some personal reflections and concerns about the way our community is currently interacting.
I have had the honor of serving graduate students and the broader MIT community for nearly 25 years. I have often found my experiences deeply rewarding, and I have enormous respect and love for graduate students and the broader MIT community.
As I have said before, our grad students are the spirit and the energy of MIT, the mind, hand, and heart. They have been my thought partners, helping to create a better Institute for all its people, on initiatives such as the Graduate Community Fellows program and the annual Path of Professorship workshop. I count former grad students as my chosen family. They are my reason for being at MIT.
Similarly, it has been my great pleasure to work with faculty members to mitigate student crises, to provide individual funding for those in need, to think through intricate issues of policy, and to build programs that increase diversity and improve the climate at MIT. My staff colleagues have been my staunchest teammates, eternally ready to advance MIT’s goals for the good of the community with vision, heart, and dedication.
We students, faculty, and staff have done outstanding work together.
Through these years of working with the MIT community, you can well imagine that there were some fundamental disagreements between various parties on any number of topics. Participants have disagreed on exactly what change was needed, whether it was needed at all, and how fast we should change. Opinions diverged widely about the school of thought on which we should base our decisions and about logistical details large and small.
But it is only in recent times that I have become deeply troubled by the way we disagree. There has been a marked decline in the civility of our discourse.
I do not write to point fingers; I will refrain from sharing names or specific events. It is also important to point out that this is broader than any single issue — I am not just talking about any decision by the administration, or conversations around masking, or staffing issues, or unionization.
With that being said, I have been privy to communications that have been disrespectful in the extreme. I have seen combative emails and vulgar language. I have heard reports of individuals crowding others in dining areas or testing drop-off locations in order to force them to listen. Members of our community have described “constant harassment” on a particular issue. I sometimes witness accusations instead of active listening. These days, the dissatisfaction with our exchanges seems to be pervasive.
Members of our community — from every segment — are feeling wounded. You are weary. You feel unheard and dismissed. You are frustrated.
I understand. Over the course of my career in higher education, I remember times when my own voice was made small, or ignored altogether. I have fought long and hard only to have to keep fighting over and over for vital resources or for injustices to be acknowledged and addressed or made right. I know what it is to feel devalued.
It can get to a point where quelling the anger, the weariness, becomes a gargantuan effort. I have been there too.
But before you let your feelings tumble out, have a care. Are you about to yell? Curse? Deliver insults? Treat someone with hostility? Even if you think the vitriol is deserved, pause for just a moment. Consider what you’re trying to achieve. Consider how you want to be treated and heard.
This month, the MIT Values Statement was finalized, which synthesized input from dozens of meetings with over 600 students, faculty, staff, and alumni. It reads, in part:
"We know that attending to our own and each other’s wellbeing in mind, body, and spirit is essential. We believe that decency, kindness, respect, and compassion for each other as human beings are a sign of strength."
We have all chosen to be part of the MIT community. It is hugely complex and diverse. It is imperfect. It will, in fact, never be perfect. But imperfection has never been our cue to concede defeat. If this values statement speaks to you, I call upon you now to do your part to make it real.
Of course, we will struggle and disagree. Sometimes change feels too slow for no apparent reason. Other times, it must be slow in order for us to get buy-in and investment from key stakeholders so we can successfully achieve our goal. A slower pace doesn’t necessarily mean that others don’t care.
Do you feel the need to apply pressure? Understandable. Just remember that one can press and advocate vigorously without becoming adversarial. Brutal and demeaning words will not get us closer to resolution. Give each other grace and space. Allow your heart to call to the common humanity that unites us. Ask questions instead of presuming. In our studies, we are trained to present compelling arguments and to use data that supports our thesis. But don’t sacrifice your integrity. Be accurate in referencing data or the views of others.
Let’s all choose actions that affirm our best vision of ourselves and our community. Let us treat others as we expect and desire to be treated.
No matter where we stand today, or how our vital conversations proceed, we will remain members of the same community. We will continue to disagree. We will continue to strive for progress despite imperfection. Each of us will bring something to the table. Each of us can make a difference.
Let’s make space to struggle forward together, without deepening the wounds we all carry.
Blanche Staton is Senior Associate Dean and Director of the Office of Graduate Education at MIT.