Fostering a Culture of Inclusion: MIT Takes a Hard Look at Itself

I get the impression that the majority of people here see that having a diverse environment is important to being a place that is excellent. Most people would argue that those two things are reasonably, strongly connected.”
“Diversity is not incompatible with excellence, and homogeneity is not synonymous with excellence. ... the way I see it, diversity and excellence go together.”
“Whenever we talk about diversity, the conversation immediately goes to ‘we have to maintain excellence.’ ... people see a tension ... can’t say ‘diversity’ and assume excellence is included.”
Dr. Paula T. Hammond, Bayer Professor of Chemical Engineering

Dr. Paula T. Hammond, Bayer Professor of Chemical Engineering

These comments – contained deep within a report issued last year by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – speak to the heart of a debate over achieving excellence while seeking inclusion in the ranks for underrepresented minority faculty ranks.
“We really focused on trying to give an even picture of what MIT looks like right now,” said Dr. Paula T. Hammond, who led the report’s nine-member research team, “and that this is the reality, this is the climate, and this is what can we do about it.”
Nearly all American universities are trying to boost the presence of minority faculty and students on campuses to not only improve their envi-ronments but also reflect the country’s changing ethnic landscape. While MIT has endeavored for some time to increase diversity involving Hispanics, African-Americans and Native Americans, the institute didn’t necessarily reap success. And last year’s much-anticipated report exposed a number of fundamental causes and mapped out strategies to achieve solutions that heretofore had eluded the institution.
After two and a half years of research and analysis, the Initiative on Faculty Race and Diversity report described how race has affected the recruitment, retention, professional opportunities and collegial experi-ences of underrepresented minority (URM) faculty at MIT. The report urged MIT to bolster efforts to recruit and retain such underrepresented faculty and strongly encouraged MIT to work with similar higher education institutions to generate a pipeline of URM talent.
“It is actually key for MIT, which wants to maintain its leadership posi-tion in engineering and science, to be able to take the lead in increasing diversity, and that is what is going to keep us at the top,” said Hammond, a Bayer Professor of Chemical Engineering. “The idea was essentially that if we expect to have the top talent at MIT, we should be able to draw top tal-ent from every part of our country.
The report was a warts-and-all assessment, particularly striking for its candor about flaws in administrative measures, recruitment and mentor-ing. While other institutions might opt to gloss over negative assessments and trumpet strides and even minimal improvements in URM faculty increases, MIT instead described in enlightening detail its weaknesses, and then recommended short- and long-term strategies to yield improvements.
“It was an unbelievably candid report and showed there was nothing to be gained by trying to finesse the issues,” said Shirley Malcom, the director of the Education and Human Resources program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It said, “if there are problems, then we need to talk about them. Many institutions have the same kinds of problems but don’t necessarily want to confront them.”
MIT’s efforts to hire and retain URM faculty produced some gains in recent years, but the report noted uneven reported results across MIT and called for more effective policies and practices. Additionally, the experi-ence of URM faculty at its five schools was different from that of their non-URM peers – a disparity that led researchers to urge MIT to do more to foster a culture of inclusion.
“As an institution that prides itself on the ability to address some of the world’s most difficult problems, MIT can and should lead the nation in the important challenge of increasing the numbers of minority faculty via a strong institute-wide policy that facilitates advancement in the area of fac-ulty diversity,” the report read.
Its research team, conducting statistical analyses and interviews with faculty members and administrators, found that conversation about race and diversity on campus was generated even before the report was issued. In fact, it discovered an awkwardness to broach the topic of race and diversity, as well as recurring sentiments about the careful balance to seek diversity and excellence.
That research stage was going on even as then-presidential candidate Barack Obama delivered a landmark speech on race in America, touching on many of the same sentiments expressed during MIT’s interviews.

“As we moved forward with the report, we used the way the nation responded to [now-] President Obama’s speech as a helpful gauge of where our country is, as well as where our institution was. It was helpful to see what kinds of things people could respond to positively,” Hammond said.

Shirley Malcom, Director of Education and Human Resources Program, American Association for the Advancement of Science

Shirley Malcom, Director of Education and Human Resources Program, American Association for the Advancement of Science

The report drew praise for its candor and recommendations. MIT Provost L. Rafael Reif, who launched the initiative in 2007, said, “the report highlights important issues of race and diversity on our MIT campus, and supports our ongoing commitment to integrating a culture of inclusion into the fabric of the institute.” And MIT President Susan Hockfield noted that “We draw most of our faculty, students and staff from America, and we must make full use of the talent this country has to offer if we hope to continue to invent the future. We share this challenge with our peer institutions; only by working together with them can we effectively increase the pipeline of academic talent, the central resource in meeting our diversity and inclusion goals.”
The origins of the report date back seven years ago, to 2004, when MIT faculty resolved to address the issue of diversity, particularly the underrepre-sentation of minority faculty members. The problem was particularly acute –not just at MIT, but nationally – in what are known as STEM fields, areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Hammond said the report drew on MIT’s earlier experi-ence developing the Women in Science Report, a 1999 study that examined equity among women faculty.
In early 2007, Reif impaneled the new committee, with representatives from each school, to probe whether and how race and ethnic identity affected MIT’s ability to recruit and retain underrepresented minority fac-ulty. The committee additionally was charged with examining what aspects of MIT’s culture, procedures or envi-ronment might have influenced URM faculty, causing them to leave before receiving tenure, for instance. 

In 2008, the committee conducted
a quality-of-life survey of the entire MIT faculty and conducted thorough interviews of all URM faculty and a small comparison group of White and Asian-American faculty. It also looked into salaries to determine whether URM faculty was paid comparably to non-URM faculty, and compared pro-motion and tenure rates and other hiring data by department and school.

What it discovered was at turns troubling or inspiring.

The country’s population demographics have dramatically changed, with Hispanics representing 15 percent of the population and minority groups over-all representing about 30 percent, numbers that continue to climb. However, the number of minority faculty at MIT had increased much more slowly.
The report pointed out that underrepresented minority faculty was at 6 percent in 2009, an increase from 4.5 percent in 2000. It is clear, the report states, that talent within the United States was not tapped at the high-est levels of the education system: the faculty.

A substantial number of underrepresented minority faculty were of international origin. The report estimated that the percentage of U.S. minority faculty appeared to be 3.5 percent to 4 percent, which is equiva-lent to about one-tenth of the percentage of such URM groups in the gener-al population. Such numbers reflected little to no growth in the numbers of U.S. underrepresented minority groups at MIT. Many more had come to the U.S. from other countries.
Among Hispanic faculty respondents, 40 percent indicated they were U.S.-born, 35 percent were from South America, 15 percent were from Mexico, and 5 percent each were from the West Indies and Europe.

“One of our challenges with Hispanics was not only the uneven male-female gender ratio, which was marked, but that we needed to find a way to not only recruit,” Hammond said. “A number of existing Hispanic faculty were* coming from other countries, which is wonderful, but if you parse the numbers, we were not doing a very good job find-ing Hispanic talent that is in our schools right now in the United States, and get-ting them into an academic field.”
If MIT can accomplish that, she said, “then we will really benefit from what is a growing cohort of young people who intend to contribute a lot but move to the private sector. We’d like to see them in academia as well and as the head of the class and lead-ing research. We need to do a better job with our talent at home. We haven’t found a way to be effective at reaching that group, and there’s no excuse for that, given the increasing number of Hispanics in this country.”
The report additionally found that MIT heavily recruited from its own and a few peer institutions. For instance, from the minority faculty who were interviewed, 36 percent had an MIT graduate or undergraduate degree, while 60 percent received their doc-toral degree from either MIT, Stanford or Harvard. This news was bittersweet: MIT made good use of itself as a pipeline to faculty hiring, but an increase in breadth of recruitment
could garner larger numbers of underrepresented faculty.
Underrepresented minority faculty reported more active recruitment than nonminority counterparts. This found that the dominant route for nonminority faculty began with a generally unsolicited decision to apply while minority fac-ulty more often than not were approached and actively encouraged to apply.
Hiring by school and department showed patterns in which minorities were consistently not hired in certain departments. However, there were hiring patterns that were apparent in other departments and disciplines. For example, MIT’s Whitaker School had a 22 percent underrepresented minority hiring rate, and MIT’s Sloan School had a 13.3 percent rate. The School of Architecture and Planning had a 6.3 percent rate, and the School of Science had a 3.4 percent rate.
When drilling down the numbers by departments within each school, the research team found that some had not hired any Hispanic, African-American or Native American faculty in the last two decades.

A snapshot of the 2009-10 academic year found that seven departments at the five schools had no underrepresented minority faculty members at that time. Researchers found that some units had relatively no success in such hiring.
Furthermore, a disproportionately significant number of minority faculty left within the first three to five years before the potential to promotion to asso-ciate professor without tenure. For 14 Hispanic faculty studied, for instance, the percentages were even, with 50 percent promoted to associate professor without tenure and the other 50 percent leaving between 1991 and 2004.
Mentoring proved to have a lack of consistency as well. The report noted that such endeavors lacked a level of commitment and a defined role for mentors. Many underrepresented faculty, particularly at three schools, worked in research areas that were different than a majority of their peers. This was noteworthy because, authors explained, there was concern about the appropriate choice of referees for promotion.
The climate around race and inclusion was a significant element, too. MIT’s nonminority faculty saw diversity as less critical to MIT’s core value of excellence, and discussion of race-related issues was avoided at MIT, to the detriment of many minority faculty who might have faced but could not confront such issues directly, the report read.
Overall, underrepresented minority faculty reported greater dissatisfac-tion than their nonminority peers.
The research committee described several examples within its own borders, and from other institutions, that achieved success, hoping these models could be replicated to advance its overarching goals.
For instance, MIT’s Department of Biology intentionally focused on addressing graduate student enrollment and, in particular, student diversity.
Biology instructor Mandana Sassanfar, who coordinated many of the department’s new outreach programs, facilitated that progress. As a result, from 2004 to 2009, the percentage of underrepresented minorities in its graduate program rose from 5.2 percent to 14.4 percent.
The department, for example, offered summer research opportunities to minority students and participated in a number of conferences such as the Society Advancing Hispanics/Chicanos.
“I visit minority-serving institutions, meet with interested students and establish long-term relationships with faculty and program directors at those schools,” Sassanfar said. “I introduce students to the culture of the biology department at MIT and make sure they are not intimidated by MIT’s rankings and reputation.”
Sassanfar added, “Many students have no idea what kind of starting salary and career options are opened to them after graduate school. Being a profes-sor or a teacher is not appealing to everyone, and having a Ph.D. in a biology-related field opens so many doors. I try to make sure that they are aware of it.”
The summer biology program has proved to be an attractive endeavor, and usually about 50 percent of the participants are Hispanic. The payoff has been clear, Sassanfar said, because at least 10 of the department’s cur-rent Hispanic graduate students spend a summer or longer at MIT before entering its Ph.D. program.
The research committee delivered a set of recommendations to increase and promote diversity among MIT faculty, by strengthening many of the core elements of MIT’s hiring, mentoring and promotion processes. It created a framework for greater oversight and self-evaluation at all lev-els, from departments to labs to school and administration.
Structurally, it recommended that each departmental unit, lab and cen-ter should work with its academic dean and associate provost of faculty equity to establish realistic but meaningful goals with timelines.
Administration and school deans should provide better resources and support for recruitment and retention of underrepresented minority faculty. Additionally, MIT administration should endeavor to appoint leaders such as deans and department heads who are committed to diversifying faculty.
When it came to recruiting, researchers recommended that department heads and faculty search chairs be held accountable for minority recruit-ing, and faculty chairs should be better trained and informed on issues including hidden biases and existing resources.
The report recommended that MIT should build strong pipelines on campus and network with top peer institutions, and searches need to be broadened to other carefully selected institutions to boost the numbers of qualified URM candidates.
As well, faculty searches that involve hiring in small groups or clusters, as opposed to single hires, be pursued so that final top candidates are grouped and not ranked. Ranking often led to the exclusion of qualified candidates based on arguments about need or specific “fits” to an open position.
Carlos Castillo-Chávez, one of the initiative’s advisory board members, said this process, occurring at higher education institutions across the nation, often could shut the door on many qualified Hispanic and African-American candidates.
“Often, even though they are incredibly qualified, they don’t fit in at institutions that are based on disciplinary borders, where everything is in a silo,” Castillo-Chávez said. “They need to recognize that the world has changed and that should be good for science, and good for engineering and good for diversity.”
MIT likewise could take steps to improve its mentoring. Formal men-tors should be assigned to junior faculty hires, and mentors and mentees should be informed about expectations, and mentors should receive train-ing and be held accountable to the department in their role.
The departure of minority faculty early during their MIT experience prompted researchers to recommend a general oversight process for all tenure cases from the dean and provost level that could take place early on. Beginning with first annual reviews, there should be careful discussion of potential referees, including their competency levels. And all junior faculty should be given guidelines on promotion and tenure when they first arrive.
Finally, MIT from the highest levels must introduce, create and maintain a climate of inclusion, should hold forums where race and cross-cultural interac-tions are openly discussed, and should harness its top and most highly respect-ed scholars, scientists and engineers to act as spokespeople in diversity issues.
Hammond said that since the report was unveiled, MIT has launched strategic steps. Much of the first year was spent in discussions with each school to devise implementation plans.
Consequently, several short-term recommendations presented by the initiative were already implemented, such as including a new template for collecting information on recruiting efforts for minorities and women, and meetings by the associate provosts for faculty equity with each department head to discuss the mentorship progress.
“Across the nation, all of us can do a better job of recruiting underrep-resented minority faculty into the field in undergraduate years, as well as in graduate years,” Hammond said.
Castillo-Chávez, recognized as one of the most prominent mathemati-cians in the country, has spent much of his career trying to enhance the participation and opportunities for underrepresented minorities. He was warmed by MIT’s welcoming reaction to the findings, warts and all.
“Personally, it was a very welcome response from MIT,” Castillo-Chávez said. “Most significant is that MIT took this initiative because a lot of less elite institutions don’t take this very seriously, and it is welcome when institutions that have such high standards in terms of faculty think diversity is important.
“I expected that MIT would be very positive and come up with all sorts of ways to adopting the recommendations. It was a recognition that there are issues that have limited progress and that they face serious challenges ahead.”