The Initiative on Faculty Race and DIversity:
A Personal View
When asked to provide my reflections on the work of the Race Initiative for the Faculty Newsletter, one of the first things that came to mind were my colleagues. The minority faculty at MIT encompass a very broad and diverse group of scholars, practicing in a multitude of fields: from music and dance to physics and electrical engineering. I have been impressed often by the phenomenal accomplishments of many of our minority faculty colleagues. They represent a wide range of experiences as faculty at MIT, and it is a significant task to convey both the specific challenges and sometime shared frustrations of the minority faculty, as well as their positive experiences, reflections, and hopes. To begin to address diversity of race at MIT, it was essential that we got at the core of minority faculty experiences – to learn what MIT has done right or wrong – to essentially learn from our own history, and I greatly appreciate the large numbers of faculty who contributed to this effort.
On setting about this task, I thought about my faculty colleagues of all race and ethnic backgrounds, both those in leadership positions and the many who lead in more subtle and less visible ways by putting careful thought into the issues of how to increase diversity among our faculty, as well as in our graduate school and undergraduate program. Ultimately, it is the entire MIT community that benefits from thoughtful and open self-reflection on how the Institute is faring with regard to diversity, and how we can move forward from here.
MIT initiated this effort because it, like many other colleges and institutions of higher learning in our nation, has faced very low numbers and only small growth in minority faculty, particularly in science and engineering. We as a faculty body voted in 2004 to address these issues and increase the numbers. To accomplish this, MIT decided to approach the problem by understanding not only recruitment and retention issues, but aspects of the entire minority faculty experience at the Institute. In doing such an in-depth study, it was possible to find opportunities and to determine specific challenges and their potential solutions. As was the case in addressing issues around gender in the sciences and engineering, now MIT has the opportunity to take a leadership role in addressing faculty diversity issues, with the hope of meaningful and long-standing progress.
In addressing these issues, our committee is emphasizing strategic action rather than simply numbers. We are asking departments to examine their search practices, to look for and track promising talent (starting even from the undergraduate years) and, most importantly, to take an active role and invest in the academic pipeline, with focused programs or efforts that increase the numbers of highly competitive minority candidates in our fields.
Retention is equally critical, and we are also asking for needed attention with regard to the career paths of current minority faculty, particularly, but not exclusively, in the early years. An interesting aspect of our recommendations is that many of them will strengthen the MIT environment for all faculty members, by providing: a stronger, more defined mentoring policy and clarity around promotion processes that will benefit all junior faculty; broader and more extensive search processes that can expand on MIT’s breadth and depth; and greater engagement in the academic pipeline and the opportunity to guide young scholars toward academia.
It is clear from engaging in this work that there are some unique differences in the way MIT is experienced generally by minority faculty; a number of these differences presented in the findings include key areas such as mentoring. As a member of the minority faculty myself, I can attest to the fact that I have had many positive and rewarding experiences at MIT, and I feel very fortunate to be able to have the perspective of one who has had significant support. That said, I think we can look at the findings of the research report and get a greater understanding of some of the complexities involved in life at MIT when one is a member of an underrepresented group, regardless of their general experience or level of support. These complexities include a level of frustration regarding climate, a sense of silence and awkwardness on issues of race in general, and perceptions that issues around increased diversity with respect to minorities are either thought to be relatively less important, or considered impossible to address (and thus ignored).
Although there are many findings outlined in the report that I believe are telling and significant, there is one that I wish to bring to the faculty that we must address and discuss in order to make progress.
There is a notion that, by actively seeking a more diverse faculty, we risk decreasing its quality. This misconception is one that has consistently hampered our ability to move ahead collectively; we need to embrace the idea that diversity and excellence can coexist, and that MIT is the place where this can be demonstrated.
I remain convinced that MIT is a great place with regard to its general good will and its ability to implement change on some of the most difficult problems. We saw many signs of this ability and genuine spirit among our Schools, departments, and individual faculty members with regard to ongoing programs and efforts. By discussing the different approaches that some of our Schools and units have taken, we learned a great deal about opportunities to address some of the issues highlighted in the report. We also observed the development of new ideas and efforts generated even during the timeframe of our two-and-a-half-year study, and are greatly encouraged by the positive efforts of our community. For these reasons, I look forward to the next stage – implementation of the recommendations – and the challenge we all face as fellow faculty on this mission-critical issue for the Institute.