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Putting ideas into action

MIT’s new chancellor laid a foundation for leadership through her groundbreaking research on politics and racial justice.

December 17, 2021
Melissa Nobles
Leah Fasten

When Melissa Nobles was appointed MIT’s new chancellor in June, she brought more than a quarter-century of experience at the Institute, including six years as dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS). President L. Rafael Reif’s announcement cited her “exceptional judgment and sense of fairness paired with her incisive intellect, humane wisdom, careful listening, unfailing eloquence, and charismatic wit.” But an especially influential part of her journey to the chancellorship has been her research on how governments and institutions have shaped public discussions of race and created sustained injustice for Black citizens in different parts of the Americas. 

“I know the importance of the larger political and social context in which we are living,” says Nobles. “I do think it’s important that we all recognize the larger context in which all institutions operate—including those of higher education. Including MIT.” 

Nobles’s research has unearthed numerous cases of police violence against Blacks in the early-to-mid 20th century, and she is using those materials to develop a new archive with the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice project (CRRJ), a program at Northeastern University. She has also written on the interplay of citizenship and racial categories in the census process, and on the politics of formal government apologies for past injustices.

“I’ve traveled the length and breadth of the country with Melissa,” says CRRJ cofounder Margaret Burnham, a professor at the Northeastern University School of Law. “In addition to the traditional university settings, we’ve presented our findings in high school classrooms in Mississippi, churches in Georgia, and family reunions in Florida. Melissa engages with all of these diverse audiences from a posture of genuine respect, learning as much as she taught, and displaying the personal skills for which she is so well-known: empathy, creativity, and pragmatism.”

Richard Samuels, Ford International Professor of Political Science and the director of MIT’s Center for International Studies, says that Nobles “has never been content to probe at the edges of knowledge.” He adds: “To her credit—and to MIT’s benefit—she has wrapped her arms around big and important questions such as citizenship and racial justice, and has squeezed big insights from them.”

The whole student

Her journey as a scholar and an administrator has also made Nobles a fierce advocate for educating “the whole student” at MIT, both undergraduates and graduate students. It is work that encompasses not only creating environments that enhance learning inside and outside the classroom but also building structures to expand the Institute’s diversity and its awareness of all factors that determine student success. 

As leader of SHASS, Nobles was engaged in how to weave the humanities, arts, and social sciences more deeply into the Institute’s fabric—and demonstrate their indispensability not only for students of science and technology but also for the society in which they will make careers.  

“All higher education has a responsibility,” says Nobles. “But MIT has a special responsibility, because we’re educating the students that most understand the technology. They are the best positioned to understand it. And at the same time, they can be the translators to the rest of the world.” 

“We all use this technology,” she continues, “but we have to have some confidence that some humans actually understand it. And then, in addition to that, that those humans understand what it means to be human.”

Discovering history through the census

As a young woman in the first post–civil rights generation, Nobles says, she came to awareness of the issues at the center of her research by reflecting on her own family’s experience. 

“My parents were both raised in the American South,” she says, “my father in Tennessee and my mother in South Carolina. Both in racially segregated systems. And as a consequence, they were denied the opportunities that their citizenship should have afforded them.”

Despite being the valedictorian of her high school class, her mother was unable to attend the state’s leading university. “She should have been accepted to the University of South Carolina, the flagship university,” Nobles says. “But she wasn’t, simply because she was African-American. She went to South Carolina State, which was an all-Black school, because the South had segregated state schools.” 

“MIT has a special responsibility because we’re educating the students that most understand the technology ... They can be the translators to the rest of the world.”

Nobles pursued undergraduate studies at Brown University and her graduate degrees at Yale University. An interest in Brazilian politics and culture led to her first book, Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics (Stanford University Press, 2000), which examines the racial categories developed in the process of counting citizens in Brazil and the United States. 

Nobles recalls that her major at Brown was not “American” history but rather the history of the Americas writ large. “A big part of the history of the New World is slavery,” she says, “and two of the main slaveholding societies were the US and Brazil.” 

Comparing these societies is made more complex by the numerous differences between them. Slavery in Brazil lasted longer (until 1888, when it was abolished by law), but it did not result in the prolonged segregation that occurred in much of the United States well into the 20th century. Yet the descendants of those slaves have remained trapped in a devastating cycle of violence and poverty.

Brazil “had neither a civil war, nor did they have legal segregation,” says Nobles. “But the outcomes were worse for dark-skinned people in Brazil than in the US. So it poses a question: Why is that the case? The so-called ‘racial democracy’—which Brazil often called itself—wasn’t really actually revealing itself in life outcomes.”

The idea of using the census to examine this question came to Nobles during a summer job at the Ford Foundation in Brazil during graduate school. When the foundation was approached by Black organizations seeking to create a census campaign aimed at persuading more Brazilians to identify themselves as Black, her interest was piqued. 

“I started to look into it and found that we actually had quite a history of racial categorizations in the US using census categories,” she says. “The bottom line was that the categories themselves are as much political and social products as they are anything else.” Among her findings was the role that 19th-century US scientists played in engineering the census to “create the knowledge of the category that you purport to be counting”—in part to justify slavery. 

Brazil and the US were “two societies that had very similar histories in certain ways,” she says, “but had quite different trajectories. Much of it seemed to rest on how they thought about … human differences, and those that they assigned meaning”—one of which was skin color. 

Nobles’s second book, The Politics of Official Apologies (Cambridge University Press, 2008), looks at how governments have grappled with issues of grievance, redress, and justice raised by individuals and groups. 

“[There’s] a skepticism, right? ‘Ah, those apologies. They’re just empty words.’ Except when you ask someone to do it,” says Nobles. “Then you see that they matter. They matter because they set in motion a set of expectations. It introduces some moral reckoning, or at least some moral accounting ... So it’s not only a recognition, but it presumes action.” 

The moral for university leaders is clear. “In academic life and administration, you say something,” she continues. “People are going to say, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ If you identify a problem, is there a solution? If you say this, what do you want to do? Students, faculty—everyone recognizes the power of words. And that’s what animates an organization. So I’m very careful about words as a consequence, because I know that they have meaning. They have power.”

The other George Floyd(s)

In July 2020, after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Nobles published a startling essay in the Boston Globe.

It centered on two George Floyds. The first was the victim of a murder covered by media in every corner of the globe. The other? A Black man in St. Augustine, Florida, who was murdered in his prison cell in 1945 by the police officer who had arrested him only hours before. 

“There were no demonstrations after his death,” wrote Nobles about that George Floyd. “No lawyer challenged the conclusion of the county coroner’s jury that Floyd had resisted arrest. No one questioned the coroner’s entry of ‘accident’ on Floyd’s death certificate as the cause of death.” 

The death of George Floyd in Florida in 1945 is only one of the many stories uncovered by Nobles and other researchers as part of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice project. The CRRJ reaches back into history to excavate the numerous acts of state violence against Black Americans in the first half of the 20th century. These accounts and documents will eventually become a database of such killings.   

The CRRJ took shape in part at MIT in 2007, when Nobles began to collaborate with Burnham. The initial aim was to investigate acts of violence in the civil rights era, but the project soon began to illuminate earlier incidents. 

“It’s incredibly important to invest in, and hold ourselves accountable for, our goals around promoting diversity, strengthening belonging, and advancing equity across the Institute.”

The work requires expert sleuthing. “There are no national records,” says Nobles, “or even standardized municipal and local records … The only records are newspaper articles. So we began to basically go through newspaper articles, beginning with the Black press—which typically had more of an interest in this—and/or local newspapers. Southern newspapers.”

The CRRJ’s work is rewriting the history of the era. “What we’ve discovered, in short, is that such violence is more prevalent than we can imagine,” she says. “That it wasn’t only citizens, but it was also typically law enforcement. Either [by] commission—they actually were themselves involved in custodial deaths—or omission: they didn’t protect an alleged perpetrator. So either way, they had been involved.”

Nobles says the project’s documentation of this trail of murder and mayhem brings these horrific events to the doorstep of a 21st-century America still battling disenfranchisement and voter suppression. 

“The reason such violence was able to happen in a kind of unchecked way was because of disenfranchisement. It goes back to the vote,” she says. In much of the country, she points out, sheriffs were and still are elected, but “they didn’t have to worry about Black votes. So they didn’t see them as beholden to them. There was no democratic accountability.”

The CRRJ’s research reveals that “there are so many George Floyds,” Nobles says. “So many Trayvon Martins. Each of them has an analogy. We’ve literally found cases that look like every single one of them—in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. There’s something to do with, again, the lack of constraints—or the absence of sufficient constraints—on the exercise of state power. The powers of coercion.”

Elevating the humanities

Sustained support for her research is one reason Nobles believes the Institute has been such a good fit for her over the past 26 years.

“What has made MIT such a welcoming and nurturing place for me has been its boldness,” she says. “Its willingness to think outside of the box … When people weren’t interested in hearing about censuses, they saw the value in that. When people weren’t interested in talking about [public] apologies, I was supported. We started [the CRRJ] in 2007. Now, you know, [in] 2018-’19, it blows up. But I was getting support from MIT from the beginning.”

Nobles says the example of colleagues in MIT’s political science department—including Richard Samuels, who studies Japan; Institute Professor Suzanne Berger, who specializes in France; and the late Myron Weiner, who specialized in Indian politics—inspired her to explore academic leadership.

“They were formidable intellectuals,” says Nobles, “but also cared about the institution in which they worked. [They] knew that they had a responsibility. They were concerned about the public good. They were concerned about the institution in which we were conducting our research … We were all interested in the world, but we were also trying to be grounded in the place where we were and doing good there.”

The recognition afforded to institutional leadership also played a role. “The message I was getting was that this is important work if you want to do it,” she continues. “I think sending those signals to younger faculty is quite important, because otherwise, you don’t have any kind of institutional memory. And they have no ownership of the place where they’re spending their adult lives.”

The study of institutions is at the heart of Nobles’s work as a political scientist—and has increased her desire to help shape the institution of higher education. “I read about the importance of scholars in nearly all societies,” she says. “They are important parts of shaping the larger intellectual landscape in which we all operate. But there is also an organization behind it—and it’s typically universities.”

“Scientists and engineers [should] know something about the humanistic world to be better engineers and scientists.”

Deepening the integration of the humanities, arts, and social sciences into the MIT experience has been an essential part of her work—especially as the dean of SHASS. The Institute has offered a home to such disciplines since its founding decades, but SHASS was created just after World War II to put them on a more elevated footing.

“When the school was established,” says Nobles, “the notion was that these disciplines would no longer be seen as junior partners in MIT’s intellectual enterprise. So I saw my role as expanding that understanding that we’re not junior partners. Scientists and engineers [should] know something about the humanistic world to be better engineers and scientists. [And] they should appreciate the inherent worth of those bodies of knowledge in the same way that humanists have to appreciate the inherent worth and beauty of science and technology.

“Those things don’t have to be in tension, although sometimes they are. But they don’t need to be. More often they should be working in a complementary [way].”

The hidden curriculum

Navigating institutional tensions is part of Nobles’s mission as chancellor. 

“Science and technology, it’s clear, can’t solve all of our problems,” she says. “And then, behold, come two issues that are right on our doorsteps that bring that home: the pandemic and climate change. The pandemic? You have a vaccine and people don’t take it. That has nothing to do with science. They don’t believe in science … And then with climate change. People’s behaviors have to change—their understanding of how they’re going to interact with the environment, and how environmental degradation is changing the notion of humanity.” 

The burdens on the MIT students who will be asked to address these challenges can be immense. “Thinking about the kids that are coming up today, there’s a lot that’s on their shoulders,” she says. “And also, there’s a lot that’s coming at them. In some ways, there’s too much. So we have to learn how to create leaders who can curate knowledge.”

In an interview about MIT’s Task Force 2021 and Beyond, an initiative addressing institutional changes brought on by covid, the new chancellor noted that suggested additions to the curriculum encompassed not only “teaching on ethics, racial justice, and structural, systemic, and institutional hierarchies” but also “teaching what one might call the ‘hidden curriculum’: how to deal with the complexities and uncertainties of life, and how to care for mind, body, and relationships.”

Melissa Nobles in her office
LEAH FASTEN

The elements of this “hidden curriculum” are “what used to derisively be described as ‘the soft skills,’” says Nobles. “Those things [where] there’s not an equation. It doesn’t have a clear answer. [If] it resides in ambiguity and judgments and empathy, then it’s ‘soft.’ But a lot of classes, particularly in the humanities or social sciences, trade on just that level of education. If you’re reading literature, you’re learning how to empathize.”  

One MIT dual major in biology and literature put it this way, she recalls: “MIT biology taught me about medicine … MIT literature taught me how to be a doctor.”

The lessons of the “hidden curriculum” offer MIT students opportunities to learn “how to interact with each other,” says Nobles. “How to understand empathy. How to understand human motivation. All of the so-called soft skills that are needed to succeed and needed to lead. You begin to develop confidence in your judgments. You read something and you make judgments. There’s no clear right or wrong answer. You have to justify how you think about it or explain it to others. And all those things provide confidence.” 

The confidence gained in acquiring these skills “can make all the difference in the world when you graduate and you’re out in the world having to negotiate a complex organization or start your own business,” she adds. “Whatever things that students want to do—understand disease, deal with climate change, all the rest of it.” 

MIT’s strength in science and technology disciplines is undisputed. But Melissa Nobles’s journey suggests that the Institute’s commitment to educating and cultivating the whole student will be expanded as she takes the role of chancellor. 

Who knows? Maybe these efforts pave the way for more leaders to follow in Nobles’s footsteps. “The goal [is] creating leaders,” she says. “And not just science and technology leaders.”


Building on momentum

In her first interviews as MIT’s new chancellor, Melissa Nobles stressed that listening is essential. So what is she hearing?

Not surprisingly, a lot has to do with the pandemic. 

“In certain ways, the pandemic is fundamentally transforming student life and learning,” Nobles says. “We have learned that we can provide education online that works well, but at the same time, we have come to value the importance of being together. Faculty have come up with really interesting and creative digital ways to reach students. Students are also using technology to create community online. I don’t think those innovations will be discarded now that we have returned to campus.” 

The pandemic has only accelerated and deepened the work of the Institute’s Task Force 2021 and Beyond initiative, which she describes as a “useful framework” for the future. 

“I served on the task force,” she says. “So I know the good ideas that are in it. The idea is to figure out how we move forward and build on the momentum that the task force itself has created.”

Which ideas are rising to the top of Nobles’s agenda? “The ones that are top of mind for me are the ones that will enhance student life and deepen the meaning of an MIT education,” she says. “Specifically, the recommendations related to improving and expanding the places where students gather and build community; the efforts to strengthen our advising, mentoring, and professional development programs; and the work to make our curriculum more relevant to today’s students are the initiatives I am focused on advancing.”

The work of MIT’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Strategic Action Plan will also be at the center of Nobles’s work as chancellor. The work of this plan is already underway on a number of fronts. “The Institute has made a ton of important hires in the assistant deans for diversity,” she says. “We’ve got a robust office in the Institute Community & Equity Office.” 

Yet the structures that will yield even more tangible and comprehensive change are still being worked out. “It’s incredibly important to invest in, and hold ourselves accountable for, our goals around promoting diversity, strengthening belonging, and advancing equity across the Institute,” she says. “And that’s what the final plan will enable us to do.”

Nobles says that both major initiatives, urgent as they are, will be wedded to the larger rhythms of how big institutions function. “Both of those efforts will take time,” she says. “We’re building on momentum in part because we know the nature of how things work is that it always takes longer. Things are always more complicated.”

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