Let’s Get to Work in “Advancing a
Respectful and Caring Community”
Institute Community and Equity Officer Ed Bertschinger’s report serves as a made-to-order blueprint for implementing the mission of his office: “to advance a respectful and carrying community . . . at MIT.” The report itself is classic MIT – a thorough piece of research that builds on a host of social science research findings, provides new data from a year of interviewing and listening to members of our community, and distills the evidence into a plan of action.
But wisely Ed notes in his column in this Newsletter that he is not proposing a top down strategy for changing the MIT culture. Instead he proposes we start locally – where the real power and levers for change lie.
So he needs our help. How might we do this? Let me give you a couple of examples that I hope will move you to action.
My home department, the Sloan School, writes our Mission on the wall for all to see: “To develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world . . . .” These are nice pious words, but are we living the mission? We have a golden opportunity to test whether we really mean it. The Sloan faculty just voted to revise our undergraduate programs to expand and deepen our course and degree options, largely along technical (data analytics and finance) lines. These will serve our students well but how will we ensure they produce principled leaders? Our own research tells us that leadership is best learned through a three step ”action learning” approach: First we teach theories of leadership, then students put them to work in their team projects in other courses, extracurricular activities, and living groups, and finally they return to the classroom to reflect on lessons learned through written and oral presentations. Our curriculum revisions open up opportunities for students to apply these leadership and action learning principles in these new classes. If we take advantage of these new opportunities, we can help our undergraduates hone their leadership skills in their chosen field of interest while on campus as a prelude to becoming principled, innovative leaders who improve the world after graduation.
One key recommendation in Ed’s report is to produce a new set of Bystander videos that help us all deal with inappropriate comments and behaviors or aspects of our culture that increase stress. I am happy to say that five student teams in my undergraduate People and Organizations course are taking up this call and will produce new Bystander videos that can be used across campus to deal with things such as the “imposter” syndrome and other stresses students have identified are part of the MIT culture. I hope these inspire others to enter the competition Ed plans to host for more such videos.
Another opportunity being proposed by several Sloan faculty colleagues is to use randomized experiments to test new approaches to freshman orientation, dorm assignments, or assistance provided to students experiencing academic or other difficulties. By using carefully designed controlled experiments such as these we could put our research and data driven traditions to work in solving known, longstanding problems affecting our students.
These are just some ways we can put the Bertschinger blueprint to work in ways consistent with MIT’s culture. Multiplying these examples with others like it across campus might go a long way toward realizing our goal of building a “respectful and caring community” for all.