Inclusive Community Faculty Dinners
As Institute Community and Equity Officer I am charged with cultivating a caring community, with the aim of helping everyone here feel that MIT is home. After focusing on staff and students for several years, this year’s emphasis turned to faculty. Early in the fall semester, I wrote individually to every tenured and tenure-track MIT faculty member inviting them to participate in a reception and dinner at the MIT Samberg Conference Center. The purpose was to share experiences and ideas about what inclusive community means and how to strengthen it at MIT. The invitation referred to the statements all academic departments made last year valuing students’ well-being and diversity and also to concerns about the ability of some students and faculty to remain at MIT to study or to work in light of executive orders related to immigration. The invitation stated, “I need your ideas on how MIT can respond to these challenges and opportunities to strengthen our community. As a faculty member, you are central to the mind, hand, and heart of our university. Early this fall, before academics get too intense, is a good time to reflect on what it means to be an inclusive community, so that we can plan together ways to reduce the stress and improve the well-being of us all.” When asked why he accepted the invitation, one faculty member replied that the invitation seemed so personal.
The dinners were made possible by the outstanding contributions of the staff who supported them: ICEO Program Director Beatriz Cantada, Diversity and Inclusion Officer JJ Jackson, and the staff of the Samberg Conference Center.
We hoped that 15% of faculty would reply and that 10% would attend one of the two scheduled dinners. The response was much better: about 30% replied and more than 15% signed up for the dinners.
Each dinner was attended by about 70 faculty members. The attendance rate was remarkably uniform across gender, race/ethnicity, and School. Two factors were associated with a significantly higher attendance rate: (1) untenured faculty were about twice as likely as tenured faculty to attend a dinner, and (2) about half of the attendees at one of the dinners reported being freshman advisors (compared with less than 10% of faculty overall), a volunteer role that cultivates community. Many other faculty wanted to attend but could not for scheduling reasons.
Many faculty have attended the Random Faculty Dinners started in 1986 by then Associate Provost S. Jay Keyser. The two dinners held last September were similar in spirit but differed in three ways. First was the specification in advance of a focus on “the challenges and opportunities to strengthen our community.” Second was a structured program, described below. Third was the relatively large size of each group, which was a pleasant surprise to most attendees. This was due simply to the large number of invitations sent; in 2010, Prof. Keyser reported that the acceptance rate for invitations to his dinners was 20%, which he noted was about the percentage of faculty who belong to committees outside their departments. The relatively large percentage of junior faculty at the dinners last fall shows that this correlation is not causal.
Dinner 1: The key elements of inclusive community
For the first dinner, faculty were presented a set of four discussion questions:
Discussion during and after the dinner suggests that sharing meals together is more valuable as a catalyst than these numbers indicate. Several faculty recalled the “blue room,” as Pritchett dining hall in Walker Memorial was called in the 1990s, as a place where faculty routinely came together outside their departments. The long tables encouraged one to meet new people in a way that the R&D Pub in Stata does not.
Responses to the second question (“the greatest challenges”) were not simply the mirror image of responses to the first. Many faculty showed that they cared deeply about increasing the value of inclusion at MIT and felt frustrated that it was not given a higher priority within the dominant culture.
Most responses referred either to challenges of navigating social identity (e.g., “Negative assumptions about some groups of people at MIT”) or the inertia of academic culture (e.g., “We feel that this is not a scientific question” and “We see inclusiveness as hostile to excellence”). Surprisingly few faculty identified time or stress as key barriers, perhaps because the group was self-selected to make time for community by attending the dinner.
Instead of utilizing the polling system for the final two questions, we asked participants to further discuss the key elements of inclusive community and to report out suggestions table by table. In summary, the key elements identified in the group discussion were:
Suggestions included holding random “MIT people” dinners to allow everyone to mix, not just faculty; providing training on implicit bias; and helping departments manage the excessive informal advising some faculty members experience because they are viewed as being more approachable by students. This is a regular occurrence for female faculty and faculty of color.
Dinner 2: Major issues of our time
After receiving feedback from attendees, we decided to provide more structure for the second dinner held eight days later. Faculty were assigned to tables with the aim of reducing isolation of members of underrepresented groups. The 10 tables received individual assignments at the beginning of the dinner (with five distinct assignments, two tables reported out on each theme). The anonymous feedback system was not used, providing more time for discussion at the tables. The feedback received afterwards was almost entirely positive.
Because the five topics are of broad interest and the discussion is of value to the entire MIT community, I summarize each topic and the discussion from the second faculty dinner.
Climate data at MIT
Responses to the Quality of Life Surveys taken by faculty, staff, and postdocs in 2016 and students in 2017 were summarized for a specific item (“I have to work harder than some of my peers/colleagues to be taken seriously”) from selected groups (faculty, staff, postdocs, undergraduate and graduate students, subdivided by several demographic measures). The survey results show some striking differences in responses for underrepresented groups (LGBTQ, underrepresented people of color, and female faculty and graduate students) compared with those for men. Specifically, respondents from the underrepresented groups were much more likely to agree that they have to work harder to be taken seriously than men did – female faculty are three times more likely than male faculty to agree. The differences are strikingly large and cannot be statistical flukes. Faculty were asked to discuss whether the differences arise from inequitable experience or treatment of different groups, to consider how this might be tested, and to suggest measures to improve our understanding and reduce any inequities.
Many faculty were puzzled by the data and wondered about effects of response bias, e.g., perhaps respondents who felt equitably treated responded at lower rates. (There is no evidence of this; in fact, the results for faculty themselves are especially striking and supported by numerous individual stories.) Attendees focused on students, not on faculty or staff. Two faculty members discussed MIT’s reputation as a “praise-free zone,” with one noting that this was a decades-long problem. The other said that after he sent emails congratulating students who performed well on an exam, a student responded with gratitude saying that it was the first time someone at MIT told her she was doing something right. Attendees took note of this; perhaps more students will now hear praise from faculty.
Google has been studying what makes some teams more effective than others. Given MIT’s broad culture of collaboration and use of team-based learning, it seems worthwhile to examine the research. Google found that for their employees, psychological safety, measured for example by how comfortable team members feel taking risks, is the most important factor determining how effective a team can be. At the dinner, faculty were asked how important teams are in student and faculty success, whether they think Google identified the right factors, and what promising practices exist to help MIT teams be effective. This was a challenging problem set!
Faculty shared examples of students feeling excluded in teams and noted that the use of teams varies across disciplines. They noted that tenure is granted to individuals and not teams, and some felt that the team concept was more corporate than academic.
They recognized the importance of building a sense of belonging and cited freshman learning communities as a good example. One faculty member asked whether academic advising could be made more team-oriented, as it is in some freshman advising seminars. However, there was little if any discussion about whether faculty themselves felt welcomed in their communities and how this might depend on group identity. The subject of teams at MIT is ripe for further exploration.
Inclusiveness and diversity in a meritocracy
Faculty were given a short letter of personal reflection about MIT meritocracy written by a faculty member who attended the first dinner. The letter pointed out that student culture creates a hierarchy by discipline and subdiscipline and suggests that MIT’s value of meritocracy (or perhaps its closely-related focus on excellence) is largely responsible for this. It notes that admissions processes seek individual stars, not empathetic, supportive, and highly collaborative people. We asked faculty whether they agreed with these concerns, what are the appropriate venues for such discussions, and whether they thought MIT should describe itself as a meritocracy.
Faculty said they are not ready to give up on meritocracy, but it needs to be redefined. Comments such as “you got here because [of your gender or race]” reinforce exceptionalism and distort meritocracy. In practice, the concept of meritocracy is most strongly espoused by the dominant group, who tend to be white males. When women faculty are three times more likely to feel they have to work harder than men to be taken seriously, and when faculty of color are treated differently than white faculty, as some have shared with me privately, meritocracy has not been achieved.
Free speech, civil rights, and political discourse
Faculty were given the text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; a statement of MIT tradition to maximize freedom of speech and expression as foundations for scholarly inquiry; and a note that some universities have made formal statements on the place of free speech within their university communities (notably Chicago and Princeton). During the last two years, free speech has come into tension with civil rights on many college campuses, in some cases erupting into violence. Faculty were asked what MIT could contribute to the national debate about freedom of speech and whether they thought different academic disciplines offered distinct perspectives.
Faculty members broadly advocated pluralism while recognizing that MIT may be most effective when its statements focus in areas of domain expertise such as climate change and energy policy. They expressed concerns about use of social media for propaganda and the loss of civility in society. However, faculty had more questions than answers about this topic. After the dinner, we shared with attendees an excellent, thoughtful, and balanced analysis of the tension between free speech and civil rights on college campuses, the PEN America Principles on Campus Free Speech. Like the others, this topic merits further conversation.
Civic engagement: What is the faculty role?
MIT’s mission statement calls for us “to develop in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind.” Currently, national political decisions and debates on topics like the status of undocumented students, travel from some countries, funding for basic research, and the declining respect for higher education, create concern on college campuses. For some community members, these issues are deeply personal. Many of us are concerned whether people can be heard and valued at MIT regardless where they fall on the political spectrum. Faculty were given a note from a student requesting MIT’s senior leadership to accept her help to enhance civic engagement at MIT. This student had attended an event in Washington, DC about the need for civic education especially for STEM students. Faculty were asked to draft a response to the student.
Faculty pointed out some ways in which MIT currently engages in these issues. Examples were shared from the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS). Also, last spring, MIT faculty and others organized a Day of Engagement/Day of Action event April 18 devoted to civic engagement. Some faculty have participated in protests and many attended the March for Science and the Women’s Marches of 2017. They struggled with how to respond to disinformation (“fake news”) and anti-science political rhetoric. Many faculty agreed that this topic was a responsibility for all of MIT and not only SHASS.
Conclusions, concerns, and two invitations
The dinners had several goals. First was to share experiences and ideas about what inclusive community means and how to strengthen it at MIT. Additionally we hoped to identify faculty who care about community and who might contribute ideas and action in the future. This was a beginning, not an end. Did we succeed?
Feedback suggests that we did. We received dozens of inspiring emails about the dinners and their topics, including many from faculty who could not attend. Faculty and students in one department were inspired to try a similar approach in their departmental community. Many faculty members shared their experience with colleagues. All of us present at the dinners made connections with wonderful colleagues we had not met before. Our sense of community was enhanced by these gatherings. This feels like a good beginning.
Conversations with faculty afterwards helped clarify the disappointment, as two groups stood out in their reactions: women and faculty from SHASS. Even if no one intended to exclude others, many of us, myself included, can be blind to behaviors such as talking over women or devaluing certain disciplines in ways that have exclusionary effect. These effects can be subtle but they are still with us at MIT in 2018.
In fact, there are elements of MIT culture that promote unequal treatment (see the discussions of climate data and meritocracy above). It is not only students who can feel excluded from teams. The numbers of underrepresented people of color attending the dinners were too small (due to their underrepresentation at MIT) to provide statistical significance, but other studies such as the 2010 Hammond Report show concerns about exclusion.
We made some adjustments in the second dinner to try to reduce these effects of unconscious bias. Table assignments were made with the aim of having more gender balance, even though this meant that one table was all male. We highlighted the role of humanities and social sciences for each of the topics we discussed. While I believe these helped, they did not create a fully equitable experience for all faculty, not even in the carefully organized dinner. The challenges of equity and inclusion are MIT-hard problems!
In response, this spring we are starting a discussion group for male faculty and staff members who want to promote gender equity at MIT and would like to learn together to be better allies for women. We plan to meet monthly for 90 minutes and will share experiences in a safe and supportive environment. If you are interested or curious, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many more faculty expressed interest in these dinners than could attend. Additionally, the first dinner group recommended broadening participation to include staff and students. In response, we held an Inclusive Community Luncheon February 12, which was modeled after the second faculty dinner. Faculty, staff, postdocs, and students were invited.