MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXIII No. 4
March / April 2011
Protecting Education in America
The Contributions of Institutions Such As
MIT to a Knowledge-Based Economy
Reinventing and Sustaining the
Faculty of the Future
Departmental Discussions of Diversity
and Inclusion
Practical Considerations for the Involvement of Graduate Students in MIT’s International Engagements
The Roadmap to the Future of MIT’s
Student Information System
Free Market Apocalypse: Safeguarding the World from Large Disasters
About DSpace@MIT
Disappointed in NRC Rankings Prominence
MIT 3rd in World University Rankings
U.S. News & World Report:
Top 10 Graduate Engineering Schools
U.S. News & World Report:
Top 10 Graduate Business Schools
Printable Version

Departmental Discussions of Diversity and Inclusion

Edmund Bertschinger

The MIT Department of Physics is committed to increasing the diversity of its faculty and student populations to improve our excellence and to better serve the society that supports our work. This mission statement appears on our departmental Website; as Department Head, I promote it to the faculty. It is consistent with MIT’s own mission statement, which refers to “a diverse campus community” and says, “We seek to develop in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind.” Mission statements encapsulate our institutional core values and provide a compass for navigating change. By themselves, however, such statements accomplish little. Accomplishing the mission requires a strategy and its implementation.

This article discusses one element of our strategy to improve diversity and inclusion at the department level: monthly facilitated discussions at a catered luncheon.

Faculty, staff (administrative, support, and research scientists), postdocs, and graduate students are invited. Each month, between 15 and 25 people attend and many are repeat visitors. The model is easily copied and I encourage other departments, labs, centers, and institutes at MIT to do so.

I began this luncheon series one year ago with three purposes in mind: to build and support the community interested in improving diversity and inclusion in my department, to share with my colleagues information about diversity and inclusion that would help them in their work, and to recharge myself and others leading change. All three goals have been met. Attendees regularly tell me how much they enjoy and look forward to these lunchtime discussions.

As MIT faculty we are generally not trained in discussing topics like racial climate, gender inequity, implicit bias, and work-life balance, yet they surround us. How does one begin a luncheon series focusing on such issues? In our case, we did so with small group discussions of what diversity and inclusion means to each member of the community. This method takes advantage of the distributed intelligence at MIT and helps us see a more personal side of each other. At the first luncheon, after briefly welcoming attendees and discussing the purpose of the lunches, I encouraged respectful conversation within tables of six-to-eight people, during which time everyone had a chance to speak. Afterwards, faculty members told me it was the first time they had heard about the background and experiences of some graduate students whom they had taught, while staff members told me they appreciated hearing about the work-life balance concerns of some of our (mostly male) young faculty. The group – richly diverse and balanced by age, race, gender, student or employee status, and perceived power – wanted more.

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At the outset I was unsure about how to select topics for discussion and how much of my role could be delegated. Both concerns evaporated quickly. In the following I will summarize several of the monthly topics of broad interest.

After leading two lunches, I had no difficulty getting volunteers to facilitate subsequent discussions and even to gather or prepare background materials for the group. I request each participant to do a small amount of reading or reflection before each luncheon. This preparation helps focus the discussions and gives the attendees resources they can share with others.

The luncheon that attracted the most faculty members to date was devoted to the Report on the Initiative for Faculty Race and Diversity that was released in January 2010. Faculty members were interested in learning about the report’s conclusions and how the report’s recommendations would be implemented by MIT.

Parallel discussions were taking place at the level of the School deans, so this discussion was timely. Everyone was concerned that underrepresented minority faculty members were being promoted with lower probability overall than majority faculty, and there was discussion about the tension at MIT around the concepts of diversity and inclusion versus excellence. Not all faculty members agree that MIT has yet to achieve the ideal of a meritocracy and that further improvements are needed to achieve the excellence we proclaim. Senior faculty members sometimes forget how unforgiving and even cold the system can be for junior faculty, and sometimes they assume that because it worked for them, change is not needed. Listening to junior faculty – and to the staff and students who see their occasional distress – is a good way to broaden one’s perspective.

At another luncheon we discussed implicit bias, a topic that most faculty members might understandably prefer to avoid. Fortunately, academic psychologists Tony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji have made it fun and easy to reveal hidden bias by creating an Implicit Association Test that is available online at Play it like a short video game and you will discover how hard it is to prevent implicit bias – whether about obesity, wealth, politics, gender, or many other topics – from affecting your judgment. Having attendees take the test before coming to lunch prepared the group well for discussion and for understanding why implicit bias is a concern in faculty search procedures and letters of recommendation.

Two lunches so far have been devoted to the subject of work-life balance. This is one of the most important concerns at MIT, and those who attended the discussions were thoroughly engaged. In the first, staff members presented research on the challenges faced by working couples and told their own stories. The discussion that followed was animated and eye opening for graduate students. In the second luncheon, staff and junior faculty shared tips on how to balance time, which were distributed in a handout to attendees. One measure of change is that the majority of junior faculty members in my department now have children, something unthinkable in my day. In most cases both partners work. Family and parental leave, access to affordable quality day care, and family-friendly policies are essential for universities wanting to recruit and advance the best faculty. However, we must not forget that the same concerns are held by staff, post-docs, and graduate students. I believe that MIT can and should do more, especially with regards to childcare.

For me, the most valuable luncheon was one that broached the topic of race relations by viewing and discussion of segments of the Intuitively Obvious videos produced in the 1990s by the Committee on Campus Race Relations.

These videos are available at I strongly encourage all faculty to view them, especially video 5. Although campus race relations are a little better now than they were 15 years ago, the concerns remain and may be even more visible given the much higher percentage of black and Hispanic undergraduate students now than in the past. Some faculty members participating in this discussion recognized for the first time that their own efforts to help students could be interpreted very differently by students who face discrimination. A sympathetic remark like “It’s okay to get a B” can be interpreted as “You don’t think I’m capable of earning an A because of my race.” If this seems unwarranted, note that most MIT students – and many faculty members – have at least occasional doubts that they belong among such brilliant peers.

Lunchtime participants were also struck by the problems students and others faced by being stereotyped. Whether they are Asian students who are not offered help because they are members of the “model minority” or women faculty members who are expected to have soft and sweet personalities, we damage others with stereotypes. (An ironic exception is the male faculty member who gives equal time to child care.) This lunchtime discussion scratched the surface of MIT social dynamics enough to reveal some gleaming insights.

MIT faculty members are very busy and they rightly cherish and protect time for research and professional activities. Why then should they create and attend such discussions? My experience says that by doing so they will help themselves and their group members to be more effective and happier in their work. Understanding implicit bias and the damaging effects of stereotypes helps us to make wiser decisions that ultimately provide a leadership advantage – they help us recruit a stronger faculty and to have more successful students. Discussing work-life balance with postdocs helps prepare the next generation of faculty members. Even those with aggressive personalities benefit from learning techniques to help their students overcome imposter syndrome and achieve their full potential. As President Hockfield recently noted in her cover letter to the 2011 Report on the Status of Women Faculty in the Schools of Science and Engineering at MIT, we must “reinforce the importance of our efforts to strengthen MIT’s culture of inclusion, so that everyone at MIT can do his or her best work.”

Community-building discussions centered within department-sized units are an excellent way to strengthen the culture of inclusion. I would be glad to discuss implementation issues with any unit interested in starting their own series.

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