Opinion guest column

MIT Reflections: Does MIT fulfill the values it claims?

BSU/BGSA Call For Sincere Fulfillment of MIT Values and Public Safety Reform

On February 8th at 11:40 AM, during the 49th annual MLK Luncheon, 40 Black students mobilized and entered Walker Memorial despite the event being at capacity.

While Dr. Angela Davis’ activism and scholarship brings great inspiration, Black students did not mobilize to see her. Nor did they stand in the room because they were dying to have lunch with administration.

Black students entered the event to demonstrate that we will not be silenced and to ensure our experiences are not sanitized for the comfort of others.

This effort was organized in response to malicious events that occurred during the first week of classes, but Black people on campus deal with nearly constant affronts that spur our organizing including daily racial aggressions, traumatizing encounters with MIT police, and years-long deferrals on meaningful action to address our needs. What happened the first week of classes, detailed below, is both symbolic and symptomatic of larger issues of anti-Blackness within the Institute.

Black Hack Summary

Each year during Black History Month, the Black Student Union (BSU) and Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) take over MIT’s Lobby 7 for “Black Hack,” an installation and/or demonstration often used to celebrate Black scholars or amplify issues that affect Black people on campus.

In preparation for this year’s Black Hack, the BSU received permission for an installation in Lobby 7. On Monday, February 6, students hung posters that posed two key questions: “What actually are MIT’s values?” and “What makes a welcoming community?” Black students answered these questions with chalked replies on the poster that revealed a stark contrast between the lived experiences of Black students, and MIT's official values portrayed by the five brightly-colored, billboard-scale banners that run floor to ceiling in Lobby 7. The lived experiences of Black students do not reflect an environment of “Belonging and Community,” “Openness and Respect,” or “Excellence and Curiosity,” as purported by the MIT Values statement. Less than 12 hours after being displayed, the Black Hack installation was defaced. 

Concerns written by Black students from the BSU, like the persistence of "ignorance", "optics over action", “covering up problems”, and "gentrification", were crossed out and rewritten by unknown actors as "knowledge", "action", “problem solving”, and "development," respectively.

The perspectives and experiences of Black students were crossed out, sanitized, and editorialized

Monday night, Black students went out again to display flyers explaining what happened. Flyers were placed all through Lobby 7, down the infinite, and surrounding the original posters. The vandalized poster was left up purposely as it was exemplary evidence of the lived experience of Black students at MIT; when we raise concerns, speak out, or challenge systems that harm us, members of the MIT community do not believe us.

By Tuesday morning, all of these flyers had been taken down. All that remained was the vandalized banner. This is what spurred students to mobilize and disrupt the MLK Luncheon on February 8th.

The Larger Problem

Does MIT fulfill the values it claims? 

In April 2022, President Rafael Reif, Provost Cynthia Barnhart and Chancellor Melissa Nobles shared the values statement with the community. 

However, releasing a statement does not materially change the environment at MIT. In order to “face difficult facts, speak plainly about failings in our systems, and work to overcome them” (as proclaimed in the values statement), the Institute must follow through on its commitments. We are tired of nice words and drawn-out committee processes; we demand that MIT take action to promote student public safety and DEI efforts in concrete ways. We demand transparency.

The Black Hack demonstration is yet another example of a lack of fulfillment on behalf of the Institute. Although MIT administration has attempted to display that they are listening to the voices of Black students, their actions have been inadequate and superficial. 

For example, The MIT Strategic Action Plan for Belonging, Achievement, & Composition, released earlier last semester, features many optional diversity initiatives — such as training that is ‘encouraged’ but not required for faculty and supervisors, and overall lacks any clear structures regarding accountability for instances of racial discrimination and bias, despite repeated protests from students on the Strategic Planning Committee. Similar to this plan, many DEI initiatives at MIT take years to complete but don’t tangibly improve the culture at MIT, and we are left with a similar set of optional recommendations with minimal action. 

This is not a standalone incident; there is a longstanding history of MIT administration making empty promises to students and not using the entirety of their many resources to see them through sincerely. 

In 2015, administration committed to execute demands made by the Black Students’ Union and Black Graduate Student Association. However, the implementation of these demands falls short. One of the things the Institute committed to was creating a Diversity representative in each department. And although many academic departments have hired diversity officers, they face a large financial burden, as MIT doesn’t provide them with allocated funding to follow through on DEI initiatives. 

Another demand centered on increasing accountability for departmental performance, specifically on the data for the matriculation and graduation rates of underrepresented graduate students. In response to this demand, a Diversity Dashboard was created to give more details about demographics across the institute, which explores gender and race/ethnicity of the MIT community by school, degree, and gives graduation rates by race for the past few years. In contrast, the leadership of each department receives a curated report on “demographic comparisons”; this includes important information on representation within majors, flux between majors, and graduation rates for each department and lab that is not available to everyone else. 

With this, the administration is still refusing Black students the full transparency of information that we are demanding. Instead, we have been left with a familiar sidelining and lack of tangible action, or thorough plan to act: “The strategic action plan for diversity, equity and inclusion will further address this recommendation.”

Public Safety

We see a similar lack of transparency and meaningful change in the Institute’s hollow improvements to public safety on campus. Three years ago, after the “national reckoning” following the murder of George Floyd by police, and after concerns of police bias arose on campus, over 5,000 MIT community members organized to demand substantive changes to policing and public safety. The need to reimagine public safety predates George Floyd and still persists. Just in January, 29 year old Tyre Nichols was beaten by Memphis police during a traffic stop and later died in the hospital. After the release of footage from a body camera and a nearby street camera, it was found that the footage contradicted the story of the officers on duty. 

Issues with the modern policing system have also touched us locally with the fatal shooting of UMass student Arif Sayed Faisal by Cambridge PD when he was having a mental health crisis, a mere block away from Pika, an independent living group at MIT. And yet MIT has not made a statement, much less having a conversation on public safety and police reform. The fact that MIT PD’s policies are “very similar” to those of Cambridge PD is especially alarming and evidence that the change is overdue. MIT’s approach to public safety must evolve in response to this persistent inadequacy of policing seen over hundreds of years of American history, and in our own backyard with Faisal.

To address issues regarding public safety at MIT, the Working Group on Reimagining Public Safety at MIT was formed in 2020. After two years, the administration published a condensed summary of the recommendations that proposed several changes that would begin to transform public safety on campus including having unarmed community service officers (CSOs) and/or clinicians respond to routine calls and mental health calls, instead of police. However, these recommendations have not been committed to. Although MIT has acknowledged that many Boston-area schools have implemented unarmed CSOs, MIT still hasn’t adopted similar measures, which already have existing models that are ready for implementation. In fact, former President Reif called these solutions “far-reaching,” and instead, the administration has planned to consider how to enact these changes. Following a working group drawing upon undergraduate and graduate students devoting their labor to this serious issue, no substantive changes have been explicitly committed to. Further, MIT has withheld the full, data-driven report that was created during the working group, another salient example of non-transparency. 

We are tired of the constant cycle of issues that impact us being shuttled to working groups and committees that end up going nowhere and result in no concrete implementation of solutions. It feels as if the Institute waits for us to exhaust our energy for change, until the issue fades into the background, unattended to until it happens again, and then we’re back at square one. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whom the Institute celebrated this month, is famous for the quote “Justice delayed, is justice denied.” Following these words, we say enough is enough and we won’t let this issue of public safety be delayed any longer.

Demand 1:

We demand that MIT, in the name of full transparency regarding public safety, release the full report created by the Reimagining Public Safety working group. As a school dedicated to shaping the next generation of engineers, scientists and problem solvers, we deserve to see these findings to ensure that a sound, data-driven approach is being pursued for the protection of the MIT community. 

Demand 2:

We demand that MIT swiftly implements an alternative, unarmed response to routine calls and mental health crises. Other campuses have implemented such solutions already. The need is apparent and requires action now.

We hope President Sally Kornbluth will chart a new path for MIT where the concerns of Black students are listened to and acted upon, rather than silenced and sidelined as they have been in the past.

If MIT truly wishes to live up to its own values of belonging and being a welcoming community to all of its members, these demands are only the first step. Until we see substantive changes, we will not be silent. 

Ayantu Tamene is a 1st year undergraduate student in Computer Science and Molecular Biology and a member of the MIT Black Students’ Union.

Brianna Roundtree is a 1st year undergraduate student in Computer Science and a member of the MIT Black Students’ Union.

Nicole Harris is a 3rd year undergraduate student in Biological Engineering and the Co-chair of the MIT Black Students’ Union.

Tamea Cobb is a 3rd year undergraduate student in Chemical Engineering and the Secretary of the MIT Black Students’ Union.