MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXVII No. 4
March / April 2015
Global Issues Confront Us All
Campus Conversation on Climate Change
Why MIT Faculty Should NOT Sign the Petition to Divest from Fossil Fuels
Review Conference on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons to take Center Stage
A Guide to Proposing, Revising, and Terminating Curricula
Advancing a Respectful and
Caring Community
In Support of the ICEO Mission Statement
Let's Get to Work in "Advancing a Respectful and Caring Community"
The Faculty Role in Building and
Sustaining Community
Supporting the ICEO Report
Advancing a Caring Community Through Enhanced Student-Faculty Interaction
Graduate Student Perspective
on the ICEO Report
ORCID Researcher Identifiers to be Integrated into MIT Systems Beginning this Summer
Humanities and the Future of MIT Education
MIT Campus Research Expenditures
Printable Version

Advancing a Respectful and Caring Community

Edmund Bertschinger

Editor’s Note: This article and the following six are in response to the ICEO report "Advancing a Respectful and Caring Community: Learning by Doing at MIT.”

In 2013, I shifted roles from Physics Department head to the Institute Community and Equity Officer (ICEO) at MIT. This new position includes oversight of MIT’s efforts to promote diversity and inclusion for faculty and staff, and much more. The breadth of the role is reflected by its title: the community includes over 23,000 students, staff, postdocs, visitors, and faculty in Cambridge, more than 3,400 Lincoln Laboratory employees in Lexington, and the MIT Corporation members, alumni, and many others affiliated with MIT.

The first 18 months in this role provided a unique opportunity to study MIT’s community, culture, and values. Numerous faculty reports were reviewed, including the 1999 and 2002 reports on women faculty and the 2010 Report on the Initiative for Faculty Race and Diversity as well as the 1998 Report of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning. Scores of other reports, articles, and books were read, and hundreds of community members were interviewed. Crucial ideas came from students, staff, and alumni.

The product of this study was a lengthy report released in February 2015 that addressed three questions. What makes MIT special? Which elements of the MIT culture support its mission and which ones hinder it? How can we do better as individuals and as a community? Most MIT reports present ideas to change the world. This one presented ideas to change MIT in our grand tradition of learning by doing.

The overall goal of this effort is summarized by the ICEO mission statement – “to advance a respectful and caring community that embraces diversity and empowers everyone to learn and do their best at MIT.”

After exploring MIT’s community, culture, and values, the report weaves together recommendations and data providing the means and ends for shifting the culture. The first recommendation is to establish a process leading to an MIT Compact.

MIT Compact process

Assemble a representative working group to write a brief statement of what we aspire to as a community and what we expect of one another as MIT community members.
Properly understood, this recommendation is radical: it removes the labels and privileges of our positions and asks us to hold honest conversations about our values and community standards. Although the deliverable outcome is a one-page document, the most important part of this recommendation is the process of engaging in deep, community-wide conversations about core values, aspirations, and norms. These conversations will launch our mission of advancing a respectful and caring community into orbit.

Two questions come to mind: why do we need this, and are we ready for it?

We need a Compact process because graduate students have called for fair treatment in a document, “Common Values on the Graduate Student Experience,” intended for their faculty advisors. We need it because support staff have advanced an initiative for “Civility and Respect at MIT.” We need it because our undergraduates organized an event: “We Are One: Building a Better MIT Through Conversation.” We need it because, all across MIT, people are coming to realize that there are unhealthy aspects of the MIT culture.

We are not, however, ready for the full-scale process of an MIT Compact. We try to do too much and, in the process, become less. An example comes from how we manage stress on ourselves and others. According to conversations with students, many faculty did not take time during classes the week following two student suicides to offer students the chance to talk about how they’re feeling and to make clear that we are there for them, despite receiving a request from the Chancellor, Provost, and Chair of the Faculty on March 9, 2015 that they do so. As reported in the March, 2015 issues of The Tech, and in the Boston Globe on March 17, a few faculty reached out to students in thoughtful, inspiring ways. Let us strive together to advance a respectful and caring community .

If holding these conversations is important and we are not sufficiently ready, what should we do? This being MIT, let us practice learning by doing. Start the conversations in your research group. Ask your administrative assistant how she or he is coping with stress. Then listen humbly. Prototype the MIT Compact process in your department, lab, or center. Be sure you include students, postdocs, and staff – and if you don’t know where to begin, ask them. After some initial discomfort, you will likely find the process inspiring and energizing. With your help, perhaps by 2016 MIT will be ready for scaling up of these conversations community-wide.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” While this is not easy at MIT, we do things here not because they are easy, but because we love to solve important problems. Showing that you care will help to solve problems.

Quantifying diversity, equity, and inclusion

MIT faculty thrive on data. The ICEO report samples data from institutional surveys as well as qualitative data from interviews to show where the mission is succeeding and where we are lagging. Encouragingly, overall satisfaction has increased markedly over the last decade, by 19% for staff and 13% for faculty, whose satisfaction exceeds that of faculty at our major peers. However, if one subdivides the data by different groups, one finds that White and Asian undergraduates are significantly more satisfied than Black, Hispanic, and Native American undergraduates, and similarly for heterosexual undergraduates compared with lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, and queer undergraduates.

Data from the Quality of Life surveys reveals chilly climates for staff, students, postdocs, and/or faculty in several departments, labs, and centers. Usually, students or employees of these work units have called out for help in dealing with abrasive conduct, and sometimes the remedies are unsuccessful. Alarmingly, in every category of student and employee, women are significantly more likely to report feeling overwhelmed by all they have to do than men, although their overall satisfaction was the same.

The report shows the community challenges facing us and provides a set of “community” recommendations intended to address the challenges and exploit the opportunities for moving MIT into a leadership role in how we treat people, as called for by President Reif.

The ICEO report also provides data concerning equitable treatment (rank, salary, etc. as functions of gender, race/ethnicity, etc.) and on progress towards diversity goals called for in previous reports and in a 2004 Faculty Resolution. Although the doubling of underrepresented minority faculty and the tripling of underrepresented minority graduate students called for in 2004 has not quite been achieved, significant progress has been made as a result of proactive recruitment efforts described in the report. The greatest disappointment was the discovery that MIT seriously lags both the technology industry (Facebook, Google, Apple, etc.) and our own faculty itself in the presence of underrepresented minorities among postdocs, academic staff, research staff, and Lincoln Laboratory technical staff – even if one excludes international scholars.

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Filling in our blind spots

The persistent underrepresentation of women and minorities in faculty positions and in leadership roles of many kinds remains a blot on universities purporting to be meritocracies. It is appropriate to ask whether aspects of faculty culture diminish our return on investment by making it harder for people to succeed who are different.
The answer to this question is universally affirmative, and has nothing to do with faculty status or privilege, but with human nature. Each of us has a limited perspective shaped by our own experience, resulting in blind spots. For example, the ICEO report says almost nothing about how MIT can improve the experience of students and employees with disabilities, an oversight that will be corrected in the final version. This neglect was unconscious, a bias arising from my lack of experience with issues of accessibility.
Seven years ago, MIT female full professors earned, on average, 94% of what male full professors did, comparable to the ratio at our peer institutions. This difference could not be accounted for by accomplishments, experience, or other factors, but was due to gender bias. The bias was identified and systematically corrected with the result that for the last three years, female and male full professors earned as much, on average, at MIT – but not at our peers, who did not identify and correct unconscious bias.

Google has undertaken impressive efforts to educate all its employees about unconscious bias and steps to correct it. One of the report’s major recommendations calls on MIT to do the same by hiring a social scientist to implement a community-wide training and assessment program. Success will require faculty being willing to learn and, perhaps, to change some habits.


The ICEO report cannot be implemented by the ICEO or by the Provost. It is too far-ranging for anything but MIT’s distributed leadership to effect, working with HR, with student leaders, with all of Academic Council, and with many others. The report contains 17 major recommendations (of which only two have been mentioned above) and numerous “minor” recommendations, which are often lesser only in that their implementation is less cross-cutting.

For example, one recommendation calls on every head of a department, lab, or center and every administrative officer or equivalent to attend a leadership workshop and take an online course on leadership. It also calls for the development of an MITx course, Introduction to the MIT Community, for new community members to take during orientation. It also calls for facilitated conversations about community standards in each department, lab, or center for all faculty and supervisory staff, using video skits created in a Bystander Intervention Video Competition. Should this broad recommendation be accepted, it will be important for the senior administration to explain why it is important. The report contains a great deal of background information in Sections 1 through 6. The large scope of this recommendation means that it would take several years to fully implement, with oversight being provided by the deans, vice presidents, and directors on Academic Council.

Some faculty have asked me what has happened with previous faculty equity reports. Good progress has been made on the recommendations of the reports for women faculty in science and engineering, but less so for minority faculty. That is why a recommendation calls on deans and department heads to review and implement the recommendations of the Race Initiative report and other reports, and for the provost to review progress every five years. In addition, another recommendation calls for each dean, vice president, and director on Academic Council to appoint an Equity Committee to advise and work on improving equity. Most of the committees already exist. Finally, the Corporation Visiting Committees have an important role in reviewing the success of many MIT units, and their work will be aided by a dashboard summarizing community and equity data for their unit. Visiting Committees should also seek candid input from students and staff, who are often more aware than faculty are of challenges to equity and inclusion.

What can one do, given the heavy demands of academic life? We are all busy and many will not have the time to read the full ICEO report. As a first small step, I urge you to read Section 1, which shows some ways that you can make a difference and why it matters. If you have a little more time, join me for dinner with students excited about MIT yet feeling trapped in “the bubble,” or organize your own extracurricular events. They will appreciate your humanity and be inspired by your stories. Finally, discuss with colleagues how you can advance a respectful and caring community in your department, lab, or center. Learn by doing.

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