MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXVI No. 1
September / October 2013
Not Blameless, But Not to Blame
Report to the President, MIT and the Prosecution of Aaron Swartz
Regretted Omission
Newsletter Editorial Board Elections
Initial Thoughts
The MIT Physics Department's
Experience with edX
My Experience Teaching 3.091x
Pauline Maier
Students and Institute Governance
Creating a Culture of Caring: MIT's First Institute Community and Equity Officer
Resolution for Presentation to the MIT Faculty: "Establish a Campus Planning Committee"
The HASS Exploration (HEX) Program
Request for Preliminary Proposals
for Innovative Projects
Nominate a Colleague for the MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program
Teaching this fall? You should know . . .
Disturbed by Abelson Report
Praising America's Public Libraries
Class of 2017 Enrolled Students: Admissions Statistics
U.S. News & World Report: Ranking the Top 10 Engineering Graduate Schools
U.S. News & World Report: Ranking the Top 10 Business Graduate Schools
Printable Version

Creating a Culture of Caring: MIT's First Institute Community and Equity Officer

Edmund Bertschinger

“Today, I can tell you for certain that the world will respect you for what you know. And for what you know how to do. But I also want the family of MIT to be famous for how we treat people: Famous for sympathy, humility, decency, respect and kindness.” President Rafael Reif gave this problem set to the MIT community in his Charge to the Graduates during Commencement in June 2013. The assignment followed his letter to the MIT community in April 2013, which stated “One of my goals as president is to cultivate a caring community focused on MIT's shared values of excellence, meritocracy, openness, integrity and mutual respect. I also want to help the entire MIT community to draw strength and energy from our extraordinary diversity of experiences and backgrounds.”

I have the privilege and the daunting task, as MIT’s first Institute Community and Equity Officer (ICEO), to help us reach this goal. The role expands the responsibilities held previously by Associate Provosts for Faculty Equity Wesley Harris and Barbara Liskov, whose efforts drove important progress on faculty recruiting, retention, and mentorship. In addition to supporting the success of women and minority faculty at MIT, my office will facilitate and support efforts to enhance the life of everyone at MIT – faculty, students, postdocs, and staff – with the aim of making MIT the best place to work and study for everyone.

At MIT we love to innovate and we love challenges. We will have to innovate to create a new office that has few precedents at other universities. And while the challenge is awesome, so is the thrill of working to make a difference.

I bring to this position nearly six years’ experience as Physics Department head, where my own charge came from women graduate students who urged me to create a culture of caring. They gave me the encouragement and confidence to undertake this challenge by building on the existing culture of educational innovation and collegiality. I quickly linked up with others working to strengthen diversity and inclusion at MIT and elsewhere, which led to collaboration on such efforts as the MIT150 Symposium “Leaders in Science and Engineering: The Women of MIT” and the annual Institute Diversity Summits. I believe strongly that such efforts – at the department level as well as MIT-wide – make a real difference and are an important part of institutional self-improvement.

In no way does creating a culture of caring mean lowering the standards; during my 27 years on the faculty, the Physics Department has never been more successful in recruiting and retaining top faculty and students than it is today. On the contrary, people do better when they feel valued and supported. We can be the best university only by helping everyone to do their best. When we do, diversity and excellence go hand in hand.
MIT has made good progress in building community and equity over the years. We’re famous for our critical self-evaluations of the status of women (1999, 2002) and underrepresented minority faculty (2010). In 2004, MIT faculty committed “to taking a leadership position among our peer institutions in the recruiting and success of underrepresented minority faculty and graduate students.” Colleagues elsewhere are amazed when I tell them that there is no majority ethnicity in our undergraduate student body. Last spring, faculty responded enthusiastically to the call for increased advising and mentoring of freshmen, and this fall the number of faculty freshman advisors has doubled from recent years. This is a perfect time to reinforce our efforts by providing facilitation and communication of best practices through the new office of the ICEO.

Since beginning in this position in July, I’ve been on a listening tour to learn as much as I can about the MIT community. One of my initial impressions is that MIT has not yet resolved the paradox of individualism and community.

On one hand, MIT prides itself as a meritocracy, a place where advancement is based on individual achievement. This ideal underlies our tenure system and it is essential for ensuring the highest quality faculty. Individual achievement in itself is a good thing but, taken to extreme, individualism can promote isolation and a sense of being overwhelmed. For example, as a new faculty member, I felt the same shock and self-doubt that afflicts many new students, namely the Impostor Syndrome. The Impostor Syndrome is the feeling that, despite evidence of competence, one is not as capable as others think, and will be revealed to be a fraud. It is rampant at MIT and even afflicts faculty members. The resulting stress can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy and to a self-induced erosion of meritocracy.

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On the other hand, MIT prides itself as a caring community. After an undergraduate student described her struggles with depression in 2012 and many MIT students shared their struggles with stress, an MIT faculty member shared his own struggles with depression, showing that one can overcome mental health problems to thrive. His caring story swept aside a stigma that, like the Impostor Syndrome, prevents us from doing our best. Our community similarly showed its strength following the tragic shooting of Officer Sean Collier last spring, when the world saw an unprecedented outpouring of empathy, respect, and gratitude at MIT.

We resolve the paradox of individualism and community by strengthening our culture of caring, empathy, and respect – by valuing and supporting individual accomplishments while helping everyone to do their best.

We do this by expanding the circle of caring to include not only the self-selected devotees of community, but to include everyone: Every staff member, including those who work the midnight shift. Every student, including those who challenge authority. Every postdoc, including those who struggle with childcare. Every faculty member, including those who are denied tenure. We resolve the paradox with sympathy, humility, decency, respect, and kindness.

My role is to be a facilitator, a resource for the many people already providing support to community and equity across MIT, a focal point for organizing MIT’s related activities and conversations, a practitioner and champion for best practices in equity, inclusion, and diversity.

Working under Provost Chris Kaiser, this fall I will lead a strategic planning process in consultation with, and reflecting the needs of, the entire MIT community. The deliverable outcome will be an ICEO mission statement reflecting two objectives: deepening the sense of inclusion based on MIT’s shared values, and helping all members of the MIT community to appreciate and leverage its diversity of experiences and backgrounds. This strategic planning process will also articulate a set of achievable goals and the means for assessing progress toward these goals.

I need your help. Please contact me with your ideas, concerns, and dreams. The strategic planning process can only succeed if we leverage our diversity to gather the best ideas. I’m on a listening tour and seek to meet with interested individuals and groups. Some of the questions I seek your thoughts about are:

  1. How do you define community and equity at MIT? What do they mean to you?
  2. What should be the top priorities for strengthening community, equity, and inclusion, and why?
  3. What are the potential roadblocks to reaching the goal of a stronger MIT community?
  4. What advice do you have for me?

Please send your thoughts and requests for appointments to I look forward to hearing from you.

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