An Open Letter to MIT Department Heads
Hi, I’m Kimberly, an MIT grad student who attended the Epstein Forum tonight. Though we didn’t say it tonight, we students value and appreciate you for working tirelessly and thanklessly every day for students and the greater good, some of you for decades. You take care of us and are our mentors and leaders. Thank you for showing up to the Epstein forum tonight when you have children and spouses to go home to. We appreciate you.
I had hoped not to see most of you running out of the room but instead start engaging some of the student voices. There is palpable energy and you are the ones to harness it towards a meaningful, change-enacting conversation. If you don’t engage it, it goes in a direction you don’t want it to go.
Leaders can lead only when the population can trust them and know they can keep accountability. How do you build that trust?
My opinion is that it is taking way too long for any proper response from our leaders, our President, you and me. We cannot wait for President Reif to tell us what to do. This is our chance to show the world what MIT is made of and how we respond, like Roosevelt’s man in the arena. You are the Department Head for a reason, and it’s not just paperwork.
You are responsible for everything your organization does or fails to do, even when you are not there. You are responsible for the moral and cultural development of your students and faculty; otherwise, when the hammer falls unexpectedly, it’s egg on all of our faces. If you thought your job was just to facilitate great research and win awards for your department, then you may be living in a bubble.
Now is the time to bring your students in, to have a talk with your professors, to enact process mechanisms on 1) how to receive funding honorably; 2) how to properly treat students; 3) why we never seem to have time to do anything but win awards and accomplish research at a frenetic pace. For some reason, we assume the status quo is fine. But when’s the last time you had a real sit down with a group of students or professors to understand them, to ask them how they’re doing and get feedback on the department, to make sure they’re on the same page?
At the end of the day, this isn’t about you or me. It’s about ideas worth fighting for, change that’s worth enacting not because you or I said it, but because they are the right things to do. If there’s no change to be had, then we still want to hear from you. We want to spread culture throughout our organizations, and that’s the main job of leaders. They propagate the right values and ideas and make sure everyone propagates them too. That’s why the best organizations are the ones that run like butter even when their leader is absent.
If we don’t have time, then the solution is that we need to make more time. MIT gets so lost in the daily grind that we can’t even make moral decisions, let alone take care of our own. Let’s make time to take care of ourselves.
1) Get in touch with your populace and see if there are problems or not. Do a survey, take the initiative to invite students to chat, listen, and be sure to make sure students and professors feel listened to and valued. Saying “My door is always open . . .” or “Email this address if you have problems . . .” is not leading. Leaders go to where their people work, play, live, do things side-by-side, talk to them, earn their trust. Encourage the leaders below you to do the same.
2) Carve out time to reflect and have conversations. The professors should be leading their students in these intimate forums. It keeps everyone thinking about the right things. We actually probably only need to do this once a year, honestly, in the future, but perhaps a little more frequently now.
3) Have real-world case studies (because the world is not black and white) to discuss complicated situations so even the quiet students can voice their thoughts and exercise their moral muscles and decision-making abilities, as they are the future leaders of the world, as you are the current leaders.
4) Make public statements by leadership for supporting victims of sexual abuse and strong support/$ towards programs to support them.
5) I had hoped for an “All-Stop” from President Reif within 1-2 weeks of the news and a presidential address on Killian Court followed by circles of talking students and professors on the lawn. What a great visual response for the outside world, too!
Many of you are taking great strides to do the right thing and enact change within your level. I'm glad we have a group of folks who care and take the mantle of leadership seriously. Thank you all for your hard work as faculty and Department Heads; you are all truly outstanding.