Ufuoma Ovienmhada, SM ’20, who began a PhD program at the Institute this fall, has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford and a master’s degree from the MIT Media Lab. But even with those credentials, she says, she’s experienced implicit racial bias on campus. In a recent engineering class, she says, fellow students questioned her ability to keep up and were dismissive of her opinions: when it came time to collaborate on a project, one “joked that I should just make the fliers.” Ovienmhada, who is co-president of the Black Graduate Student Association, finds that experiences like this have undermined her confidence and mental health. “I’ve felt a burden related to my race and gender,” she says. “It takes a toll.”
In July, President L. Rafael Reif announced plans to address systemic racism at the Institute, acknowledging that multiple previous initiatives haven’t done enough. Those efforts, which have proceeded in fits and starts since at least the 1960s, aimed to create a more inclusive environment on campus and to increase the number of students and faculty from underrepresented minority groups. But the work has involved “great heartache and frustration,” Reif noted, and created an “invisible, uncompensated burden” for minority members of the MIT community. It also remains unfinished.
He argued, however, that the Institute and the country at large are now at a turning point, catalyzed by the covid-19 pandemic, the police killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans, and widespread attention to issues of racial justice. This moment “feels precarious,” he wrote. “It is extraordinary, therefore, that it also feels hopeful.”
Among Black students and faculty members, there is a sense, albeit a cautious one, that the moment is ripe for change. “I am certainly encouraged by the recent new commitments that have been made at MIT and believe they are promising early steps,” says Paula Hammond ’84, PhD ’93, the David H. Koch ’62 Professor in Engineering and head of the Department of Chemical Engineering.
Ten years ago, Hammond oversaw a report on diversity, which made recommendations on faculty hiring, retention, and mentoring. These “did not take root,” she says. In 2010, Black professors made up 3% of MIT’s faculty; in 2020, that figure remains at 3%. (While Black representation among full professors increased from 2% to 3%, among assistant professors it declined from 5% to 3%, and among associate professors from 5% to 4%. See chart.) Now, however, the promise of an Institute-wide strategic plan, to be released in February 2021, suggests that MIT may be ready to do more. “Real systemic change can only happen in a sustained fashion,” Hammond says.
Danielle Wood ’04, SM ’08, PhD ’12, an assistant professor in the Media Lab, says she is “thankful that MIT and the broader US society are having a discussion about racial injustice.” Still, she’s concerned that interest will wane if the issue fades from the news. “I’m eager to talk to anyone who wants to talk about this, but I am also waiting to see how long it will last,” she says.
Since 1892, when Robert R. Taylor became the first Black student to graduate from the Institute, making him the nation’s first accredited Black architect, progress toward improving diversity and inclusion at MIT has been slow and fraught. By the mid-’60s, only a handful of African-Americans were enrolling each year, representing less than 1% of the student body. It wasn’t until the civil rights movement finally began to spur national change in the late 1960s that MIT took deliberate action, establishing a Task Force on Educational Opportunity in 1968 and directing a new assistant director of admissions to attract more minority students to MIT. Also in 1968, students founded the Black Students’ Union.
In 1970, Frank Sidney Jones, an expert in urban planning, became the first Black professor to receive tenure. In 1975, MIT had five Black faculty members with tenure; in 1980, it had six; and in 1981, it had nine. But the numbers declined during the 1980s—and the number of non-tenured Black faculty members dropped from 15 in 1975 to just seven in 1985. In 1988, President Paul Gray ’54, SM ’55, ScD ’60, who had committed publicly to increasing faculty diversity, expressed disappointment at the results. By 1990, members of underrepresented minority groups accounted for 14% of incoming undergraduates but less than 3% of professors.
In 1999, Clarence Williams, HM ’09, an adjunct professor of urban studies (now emeritus) who served as special assistant to the president for minority affairs, told Technology Review: “It is ludicrous to say that we cannot increase the number of people of color on the faculty when we get the best in the country as freshmen.” (Two years later, MIT Press would publish Technology and the Dream: Reflections on the Black Experience at MIT, 1941–1999, his candid 1,000-page book of oral histories that did not shy away from chronicling the frustrations of Black students, faculty, and staff.)
In several high-profile cases, Black faculty staged protests or left MIT, either because they were dissatisfied with the climate at the Institute or because they did not receive tenure. Theoretical physicist Sylvester James Gates ’73, PhD ’77, who became an assistant professor in 1982, resigned in 1984, citing MIT’s failure to follow through on its promised goals of attracting and retaining more underrepresented minorities. “I have always felt there is a reciprocity in a relationship with any institution that would hold me to its standards,” he later said. “MIT simply failed mine.”
In 1991, mechanical engineering professor James Henry Williams ’67, SM ’68, exasperated with the lack of faculty diversity, initiated a series of weekly sit-ins outside President Charles Vest’s office and explained in the faculty newsletter, “At MIT my twoness, a professor and a Black professor, has been honed into antagonistic strivings rather than complementary ideals; each appearing at odds with the other, each imposing major risks of invisibility upon the other. It didn’t have to be so.” Perhaps the most well-known conflict came in 2007, when biological engineering professor James Sherley, who had been denied tenure, conducted a hunger strike that received national attention before he left MIT. The case led Frank L. Douglas, a professor of the practice and executive director of the MIT Center for Biomedical Innovation, to resign in protest.
A landmark report
In the wake of Sherley’s departure and extensive discussions about racial equity on campus, Reif, who was then the Institute’s provost, asked Hammond to lead the study on faculty diversity, with representatives from each of MIT’s schools. For two and a half years, she and her team conducted surveys, interviews, and cohort analyses with underrepresented minorities at MIT, and in 2010 they released their landmark report. This report found that a large percentage of minority faculty were drawn from a narrow pool: 36% had received an undergraduate or graduate degree from MIT, and 60% had received their PhDs from either MIT, Harvard, or Stanford. “That was surprising,” says Hammond. Her group also found that compared with white colleagues, a disproportionate number of minority faculty members left the Institute without promotion. “We did a survival curve,” she says. The results were sobering: they found that minority faculty were half as likely to be promoted at the assistant professor and associate professor levels. For those who did receive tenure, dissatisfaction seemed to run high, even though among white faculty, “the cohort that’s tenured is the most satisfied,” Hammond says. In fact, the further minority faculty got in their careers, the less satisfied they were compared with non-minority colleagues. “We thought this had to do with the wear of always fighting for diversity, always fighting to be who you are in a world that keeps leaving little suggestions that who you are is not really the norm at MIT,” Hammond says. “They just get tired.”
The Hammond group’s recommendations for structural and cultural change included broadening the range of high-quality schools from which departments recruited faculty and holding departments accountable for goals related to minority hiring. “It should be part of what we talk about when we talk about how well a department is doing,” says Hammond. “If we don’t reward faculty involved in diversity—if it’s not part of our reward system, part of our metric—it’s not going to change.” This point in particular generated pushback from some quarters, she recalls, with some faculty members objecting to the erroneous idea that this would mean “quotas” for minority hiring. Hammond’s response, she says, was that “excellence comes from inclusion, and MIT will not be excellent if it doesn’t advance its diversity.”
Hammond and her colleagues also suggested ways to create a more welcoming atmosphere. They recommended investing in anti-bias training; allocating money for programs to bring in more minority grad students, postdocs, and early-career professors; and having departments assign formal mentors to junior faculty members. Minority faculty need to feel “that they are part of the group and that those who surround them are invested in them and want to see them succeed,” she says. “Indifference can be just as bad as someone making negative comments.”
As Black faculty members have frequently pointed out, effective mentoring involves not only a welcoming tone but specific actions and offers of inclusion as well. Danielle Wood of the Media Lab says that as an undergraduate at MIT with “middle-of-the-road grades,” she received “a mix of useful and not-useful mentorship.” One advisor openly discouraged her from pursuing a career in science. But when she worked as a teaching assistant for aero-astro professor Olivier de Weck, SM ’99, PhD ’01, she received what she now considers some of the most crucial guidance of her career.
During an hourlong drive to New Hampshire for a project they were working on, de Weck gave her advice on what it would take to apply to graduate school. Until then, she hadn’t truly understood the requirements. “I didn’t understand the importance of showing that you’ve done some research and that you know how to write about your work professionally,” she recalls. “And maybe I never would have known if not for that road trip.” Wood also credits de Weck with helping her publish her first paper and inviting her to attend a conference where she met several Black graduate students, who offered further encouragement. In 2018, Wood became the first Black female professor hired by the MIT Media Lab.
Ovienmhada, who is one of Wood’s graduate students, says that sensitive mentorship from another Black woman has been a valuable part of her MIT experience. At the same time, she notes that the work of mentoring Black students and serving on diversity committees can place a burden on Black faculty members, especially if those efforts aren’t rewarded in tenure decisions. Meanwhile, the proportion of underrepresented minority students on campus has remained largely unchanged since 2005. Although the US population is 13.4% Black, according to 2019 US Census estimates, Black students at MIT account for just 6% of undergraduates and only 2% of graduate students (see chart, page 19).
Eager to see more diversity and inclusion at the Institute, Ovienmhada recently helped spearhead a petition in support of Black lives at MIT, which echoes many of the recommendations of the Hammond report. It also harks back to similar calls in 2015 from the Black Students’ Union and the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA).
Some recommendations from the Hammond report and those student initiatives have gained traction, particularly those having to do with mentoring. Still, many have not. In 2018, the Institute Community and Equity Office (ICEO) posted scorecards quantifying the Institute’s progress: only 30% of the recommendations in the Hammond report, 29% of those presented by the BGSA, and 57% of those offered by the Black Students’ Union turned out to have been implemented. “Little progress has been made because there weren’t accountability mechanisms between the Institute, the administrators, and the students, who know what they need,” says Ovienmhada. “The Institute should be trying to earn our trust. They should be trying to make MIT better for us. It shouldn’t have to be my job to make MIT better for myself.”
Recently, however, there have been signs that the Institute is taking a more strategic and quantifiable approach. As Reif announced, MIT plans to raise money for new graduate fellowships for students from underrepresented groups. It has promised to invest in antiracism research and foster learning about racial injustice on campus. Perhaps most important, it is creating an Institute-wide action plan to establish centralized goals and lay out a transparent process for achieving them. This work will be led by associate provost Tim Jamison and community and equity officer John Dozier, who was hired this spring.
At an Institute-wide Day of Dialogue in August, Dozier and Jamison publicly discussed the development of the plan, which will be presented to the MIT community in February 2021. Implementation will then take place over a period of three to five years. Dozier, who reports to Provost Martin Schmidt and meets regularly with President Reif, acknowledged that MIT has received over 170 recommendations on diversity, equity, and inclusion, the Hammond Report among them, in the last decade. The current effort will honor that work, he said, but will be different in part because it will provide a framework for defining clear goals while holding specific program and activity leaders accountable for meeting them. He also said that MIT’s decentralized style of organization, which has helped keep it nimble and innovative in research, has led to a wide range of inclusion efforts, with varying results. The strategic plan aims to achieve more consistent results with a coordinated approach. The idea, he says, is to make sure that all students, postdocs, staff, and faculty experience a sense of value and belonging that nurtures creativity and innovation.
Dozier also made it clear that the plan to be announced in February will zero in on the most important goals. “This cannot be a kitchen-sink plan where we include everything,” he said. “We have to make some priorities over the next three to five years.”
Meaningful results will mean, in part, far more Black faculty. “We should put tremendous emphasis on recruiting African-American faculty—picking up the phone and convincing them that MIT is a place where their opportunities will be boundless,” says Emery Brown, the Edward Hood Taplin Professor of Medical Engineering and Computational Neuroscience, who contributed to the 2010 Hammond report. “Up until now, that hasn’t been done to the extent it needs to be.”
Brown—who is also director of the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology Program, associate director of MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, and an investigator at the Picower Center for Learning and Memory—adds that while MIT has created great professional opportunities for him, he has also experienced microaggressions on campus. “I was going up in an elevator one time and someone asked me, ‘Whose lab do you work in?’ Another time I was coming upstairs after having taught, and my hands were full, and one of the research scientists from one of the other laboratories came up to me and said very aggressively, ‘What are you looking for?’ I just ignored it, but it was very clear what was up.” Such encounters, he says, are part of the reality you live in if you’re a Black person in the US.
As a new faculty member, Brown saw very senior Black professors “who were quite jaded about the prospects of improving diversity,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s interesting,’ because when I got here I was psyched to make it happen for myself and others. Over time, I’ve come to understand why they feel that way.”
“We’re having a serious conversation about race in the United States that we haven’t seen since maybe the civil rights movement,” he adds. However, “good intentions and memories can fade fast. It is incumbent upon us not to drop the ball this time, and channel all these fervent sentiments into real action and change.”
A timeline of diversity at MIT
Robert R. Taylor, MIT’s first Black graduate, is the nation’s first accredited Black architect.
Shirley Ann Jackson ’68, PhD ’73 (physics), and Jennifer N. Rudd ’68 (biology) become the first Black women to earn degrees from MIT. In 1973, Jackson becomes the first Black woman to earn a PhD from MIT and the second in the US to earn a doctorate in physics.
Students found the Black Students’ Union (BSU), with the goals of supporting each other and bringing more Black students to campus.
“Project Interphase was the singular most important academic experience I ever had in my life.”
Sylvester James Gates Jr., ’73, PhD ’77, director of the Theoretical Physics Center at Brown University, on MIT’s scholar enrichment program launched in 1969 for incoming minority freshmen
Frank Sidney Jones, director of the MIT Urban Systems Laboratory, is named the Jones Ford Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning, becoming MIT’s first tenured African-American professor.
Clarence G. Williams is named assistant dean of the graduate school, charged with leading the effort to recruit and retain minority graduate students. Within a year and a half, he doubles their number.
Labor expert Phyllis Ann Wallace, a Black professor whose research helped the federal government win a precedent-setting sex and race discrimination lawsuit against AT&T, becomes the first woman to earn tenure at Sloan.
AFFIRMATIVE ACTION GOALS
With 18 Black faculty members and 216 minority office/clerical workers, MIT falls short of its goal: 31 faculty, 279 office staff.
The Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) is founded to “encourage minority entrants and help shape a community of Black graduate students at MIT.”
FEWER BLACK FRESHMEN
Only 3.8% percent of MIT’s freshman class is Black—the lowest percentage in 10 years.
Philip L. Clay, PhD ’75, becomes head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, the first Black professor to chair a department at MIT. Clay goes on to serve as MIT chancellor from 2001 to 2011.
After being denied tenure in 2005 and staging a hunger strike to protest a decision he contended was driven by racism, James L. Sherley, associate professor of biological engineering, leaves MIT.
A committee led by Professor Paula Hammond ’84, PhD ’93, releases the Report on the Initiative for Faculty Race and Diversity on how race affects recruitment, retention, professional opportunities, and collegial experiences for minority professors at MIT.
With her appointment as head of the Department of Chemical Engineering, Paula Hammond becomes the first MIT graduate, first woman, and first person of color to chair an academic department in MIT’s School of Engineering.
Melissa Nobles is named Kenan Sahin Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), making her the first Black dean of one of MIT’s five academic schools.
The BSU and the BGSA present recommendations to MIT’s Academic Council to cultivate and support a racially diverse MIT community.
The BGSA and BSU launch a petition to support Black lives at MIT. President Reif announces the development of a comprehensive, Institute-wide action plan for diversity, equity, and inclusion, slated to be announced in February 2021 and implemented over three to five years.
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