Global Issues Confront Us All
Our lead articles in this Newsletter tackle squarely issues of enormous global concern – the threat from global climate change, and the threat of the use of nuclear weapons. The articles by both Maria Zuber and Aron Bernstein tackle the issues head-on.
Similarly, we should be explicit over the increasing danger from the continuing deployment of thousands of nuclear weapons, with hundreds on hair trigger alert. We should make clear that the actual federal budget mechanism which allows our nation to plan to spend a trillion dollars on modernizing our nuclear weapons and delivery systems depends upon cutting investment in domestic programs – including housing, public transit, higher education, health care, NIH and NSF funded research, food stamps, environmental protection, and infrastructure repair.
We hope these articles, as well as the ones described below on MIT’s internal culture, will pave the way for continued critical discussion and analysis within MIT of issues upon which our futures depend.
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The ICEO Report
Professor Edmund Bertschinger, who was appointed head of the Institute Community and Equity Office in 2013, released his report, “Advancing a Respectful and Caring Community: Learning by Doing at MIT,” in February of this year. The report focuses on MIT’s “community and culture,” and includes a wealth of insights about the current MIT environment, and a range of recommendations on how to change it.
The report states three specific goals. The first is to develop a plan for the MIT community to deepen the sense of inclusion based on shared values and to help community members benefit from diversity. The second is to present specific achievable goals for advancing community and equity along with means for assessing progress toward these goals. The third is to define the role of the ICEO. The report presents a specific plan for fostering change in community, equity, and structural areas.
Professor Bertschinger writes in this issue to summarize the research, findings, and recommendations of the report. Also included are letters from faculty strongly supporting the report, as well as comments by student leaders.
Bertschinger’s bold and thoughtful endeavor can play a transformative role in shaping MIT’s culture. A clear strength of the report is its comprehensive approach. It reflects the understanding that the entire community: faculty, staff, administration, and students, must be engaged, and that change must be fostered in the various realms of Institute life. However, he has been charged with examining and proposing solutions to quite a range of tough problems. Section 7 of the report, for example, lists five challenges of the ICEO’s mission and vision: unconscious bias and micro-inequities; discrimination and harassment based on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.; abrasive conduct; sexual assault; and excessive stress. Each one of these challenges is informed by a distinct and complex history, and by a web of root causes, incentives, and cultural dynamics. Each one requires a unique approach.
Shifting the culture of stress at MIT may be difficult, but it is certainly more straightforward than transforming the forces that lead to discrimination and sexual assault. Humanity and kindness are critical values that should be embodied in our community, but the problems of unconscious bias, and of disparate opportunity, access, representation, and resources, will require different and more complicated policies and practices.
Clearly, there is much work to be done in the area of equity. Too often we still hear the issue of diversity framed in terms of a choice between excellence and inclusion. Too often we fail to question the myth that our society and our Institute operate as meritocracies, despite clear evidence of disparate advantages, opportunities, and resources, and despite demonstrations to the contrary by studies on the workings of bias, both conscious and unconscious. And MIT’s survey of students on sexual assault was dismaying in its revelation of the prevalence of violence towards women and the persistence of ignorance and misunderstanding. Inequality and sexual violence cannot be tackled without addressing issues of privilege and power.
The ICEO’s support of the Black Lives Matter forum and silent protest were important steps in demonstrating an institutional commitment to student activism and racial justice. These events, in concert with a burgeoning and largely youth-led protest movement that has taken shape across the country, have provoked attention to and discussions about race at MIT. Often missing from these conversations, however, has been an analytical framework regarding the historical, political, social, and economic contexts that produce and sustain inequity and injustice. While interacting in caring and respectful ways is integral to the process of change, much of the work involved in dismantling discrimination, bias, sexual assault, intimidation, and harassment involves the discomfort of and pain of self-interrogation, of wrestling with inheritance and privilege, of confronting institutional and structural obstacles to access and justice. The most challenging work before us is to convey to those who are not troubled by the realities presented in the report why it is in their interest, indeed, in our common interest, to shift the social order of our academic community and our society.
The ICEO report is an important step in naming the problems before us, and in beginning to foster meaningful change on our campus. We should also be committed to preparing and inspiring our students to take their expanded understanding and commitment regarding equity, respect, and caring into their work, community, and family lives once they leave MIT, and to engage with the issues raised in the ICEO report as socially involved citizens. The report states: “Most MIT reports present ideas to change the world. This one presents ideas to change MIT.” This is a worthy goal. Ultimately, though, we must deliver the message that changing the world is also the responsibility of our MIT community, and that this mantle pertains not only to creating scientific and technical innovation, but to enacting social change.