Learning from our community
To the members of the MIT community,
Over the past two months, in large public forums, in smaller private meetings and through hundreds of emails and comment cards, I have heard the unfiltered views of many students, staff, post-docs, faculty, trustees, parents and alumni.
Some of this feedback has been very difficult to hear – difficult, but necessary. Much of it must have taken great courage to deliver. All of it has been illuminating and helpful.
I will never forget the voices of students, staff and faculty who spoke about the painful impact on our community of MIT’s engagement with Epstein, including the intense effects on survivors of sexual assault. (If you would benefit from MIT’s resources for survivors, you can find them here.)
This MIT News story offers an update on steps directly related to the Epstein issue.
More broadly, many have also highlighted – with searing clarity – misalignments and fractures that go to the very foundation of our community and that demand our shared attention.
I have learned much more than I could convey here. But several themes stand out.
Disrespect for women
Since September, I have heard from or met with more than a third of MIT’s 265 women faculty. Many shared troubling accounts of persistent inequities for women at MIT, from belittlement to marginalization, experiences that echo the National Academies’ landmark report on how gender harassment harms women’s wellbeing and their careers.
Other recent evidence – including powerful personal statements at the student forum – only magnifies these concerns. For example, the AAU campus climate survey indicates that at MIT, of the 2,035 female students who completed the survey, 189 experienced sexual harassment severe enough that it “interfered with [their] academic or professional performance.” And 211 female MIT graduate students responding to the survey reported experiencing harassing behavior from a member of our faculty or other instructional staff. For 65 of them, the harassment came from their advisor.
My recent conversations have centered on the treatment of women. Yet we also know, with extensive evidence, that other groups at MIT, from people of color to members of our LGBTQ community, confront similar obstacles and harms that also demand our empathy and attention.
When – on top of the hard work they came here to do – many in our community contend with disrespect, exclusion, stereotyping, harassment and a structural lack of representation, it is clear we still have a long way to go to achieve our ideal of “One MIT.”
Disrespect for staff
This section centers on staff, and its content is vital for those of us on the faculty.
At MIT, speaking freely on important subjects is a crucial way we get closer to the truth and make each other smarter and wiser. So it was sobering, at our forum for administrative and support staff, to hear so many members of our community report that they or their colleagues were afraid to speak – afraid in that setting, and afraid in their daily work.
Speaker after speaker expressed a profound sense that as staff at MIT, they feel invisible, dispensable, isolated and last in line. They feel their work is not valued, their judgment discounted or ignored. Many spoke about the challenges of working under sharp imbalances of power, especially with senior faculty. Some described their powerlessness to stop harsh, bullying or abusive behavior from faculty stars, both men and women. Others expressed admiration for whistleblowers in the Epstein case, former staff members who courageously spoke up.
In a separate forum for post-docs and research staff, they raised many of the same themes, especially around invisibility and imbalances of power. They also expressed feelings of isolation and their lack of any unifying home at MIT.
It was dismaying to hear of these ways that we do not treat each other as we should. We need to come together, attend to this frustration and pain, and optimize MIT so everyone here can feel respected, feel supported and thrive.
Charting a path forward
This is a time for confronting difficult truths. Yet, within these intense individual responses, I also heard passionate commitments to our community and many compelling ideas to create a better MIT – especially the need to include a much wider range of student, staff and faculty voices, and to increase transparency and accountability.
I have also heard very clearly that cultural change needs to be championed and supported by those in leadership, but that it cannot be dictated; to succeed, it requires that units across MIT define their own specific priorities and solutions. And there must be room for initiative, ideas, engagement and energy from the whole community.
A number of people have expressed the sense that MIT also needs to pause, to reconsider its values, its goals and its role in the world, and to correct any misalignment.
This moment presents an opportunity. It is a profound collective assignment.
As a start, I have asked MIT’s senior leaders to create a “library” of the most promising current efforts to improve our community climate and culture. We want to hear directly from you: If your school, department, lab, center, institute, office, sports team, residence hall, alumni group or any other unit has ideas you have not already shared that could inspire others, please let us know.
With help from experts inside and outside the Institute, we are also exploring how to engage the community to design a process for examining values and culture that is tuned for the people of MIT; we will keep you updated on progress. During this early research phase, if you have ideas for how we should structure it, or for topics and exercises it should include, please let us know that too. I am certain that the wisdom of our community will soon crystallize into the plan we need.
* * *
We all know that discrimination, marginalization and power imbalances exist throughout society and are rampant in academia and in tech. But that is no defense, and in fact at MIT we have never settled for being like others. We are leaders, charged with educating the next generation of leaders. If we expect our students to invent a better future, then we must focus deliberately together on ways to improve the present at MIT.
Fortunately, we are a community of thinkers and builders. We can examine these fractures together, reaffirm the best of our shared MIT values and rebuild with greater strength to make a better MIT. We need to work to get it right; persevering together through difficulty is something we understand at MIT. We work hard here, and the fundamentals of how we treat one another, and how we model that for the next generation of leaders, are as important as any other work we do. Let's not rest until we create an MIT where every member of our community is treated with dignity and respect.
L. Rafael Reif