Building a Culture of Inclusion

Thursday, February 5, 2009
35th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Celebration

Good morning, and welcome to a beautiful new day. On MIT’s annual calendar, this celebration of Dr. King’s legacy continues to be an important landmark and a personal inspiration for each of us to help realize his ideals. I want to express my thanks and admiration to Matt Gethers [’09] and Joy Johnson [G] for their presentations and for the extraordinary standard they set as members of this community.

Rhodes Scholars are known for breadth and intensity, and Matt could not present a more compelling example, from the inspired creativity of his research in synthetic biology to the courage of his work as an emergency medical technician; from the generosity and imagination he has shown in teaching engineering in the local public schools to the discipline and leadership he has brought to the fencing team. Matt truly represents the very best of MIT, and I could not be prouder to think that he will be representing MIT to the world at Oxford next year.

If we must part with Matt, we can take consolation in knowing that we will have Joy with us on campus for a little while longer. In the laboratory, she has advanced the frontiers of knowledge in micro- and nanofabrication, while in the windows of her spare time, she opens the world of engineering to high school girls in Dorchester and Roxbury. Joy, too, represents the best of MIT.

Let me begin with a line from the delightful blog that Joy somehow finds time to write for EECS. Just after the page where she talks about a life-changing three-week trip to India, Joy wrote this:

I once heard that your brain is like an old sweater; once it’s been stretched, it will never go back to its original shape.

At this celebration last year, I described the excitement of being in the middle of an unprecedented political contest, a contest in which two candidates with a very serious chance of winning the Presidency of the United States were an African-American man and a white woman. Today, just a little more than two weeks since the inauguration of President Obama, the old sweater of our national consciousness has been irreversibly stretched in a magnificent new direction. As inspiring as this milestone is for young people, it also carries immense power for those of us old enough to have lived in a very different, less embracing time.

President Obama’s victory was momentous in itself. What made the victory historic, however, was not merely the identity of our new President. It was the new America that showed through so clearly in his election. President Obama’s support came from young and old of every race, from Americans born in this country and Americans who have immigrated here from around the world. The truth is, a richly diverse America does not await us; it is upon us. It is our present and our future. It is the wonderfully heterogeneous nation from which we draw, and will continue to draw, most of our faculty, students and staff. It is the America that we serve as an Institute and that our students will go on to lead.

At MIT, we rightly pride ourselves on inventing the future. To invent the future for this new America, we cannot permit MIT to reflect a nation of the past. That is the context behind the theme today: “Yes, We Must.” Yes, we must achieve a higher level of diversity and inclusion at MIT, and getting to that level calls on leadership throughout the Institute.

It was at this celebration last year that I committed MIT to holding a Diversity Leadership Congress as a way to bring these issues to the top of the Institute’s agenda, to accelerate our progress and to engage the Institute’s distributed leadership, those people with the most direct, working responsibility for making diversity and inclusion a daily reality at MIT. As you know, we held the Congress late last semester, calling together more than 300 academic, administrative and student leaders. It was energizing; it was constructive; it produced lots of good, practical ideas; and it helped us appreciate how much we still have to do. Perhaps most important, it introduced, to a broad MIT audience, the imperative for us to create a culture of inclusion through shared leadership – distributed leadership – at every level, across the Institute. I can lead on this issue, and I will. Others certainly have led and are leading. However, it is often the same brave faces over and over. This time, we are asking everyone to help shift the great stone of change. It is another lesson we can learn from the election of President Obama: when many, many people feel empowered and seize opportunities for progress, together they can create unprecedented change.

What does a “culture of inclusion” really mean? It means that a community succeeds in its diversity only when it looks beyond the numbers alone and actively creates a culture where everyone feels valued, included and at ease, an environment in which everyone can do their very best work. Let me be clear: A culture of inclusion is not something we want to pursue because it is a warm, fuzzy, feel-good idea. We must create a culture of inclusion to actively capitalize on our diverse skills and perspectives, so that we can better advance the fundamental mission of MIT. MIT is a place with unrelenting standards of excellence. We need everyone to contribute at the apex of their ability, and if something in the culture is getting in the way, we have to change it. Creating a culture of inclusion is not an optional exercise.

At a very practical level, the feedback we gathered at and after the Congress called out five general areas for our attention: Recruitment, Retention, Climate, Communications and Accountability. While this morning does not afford the time to delve deeply into these areas, I do want you to know that we are using feedback from the Congress to advance important change. For example, in terms of retention and climate, we are following up on a number of concrete suggestions. We will be creating a Best Practices Toolkit to help people understand how to be an effective mentor. We will be promoting new affinity groups, to build networks of support. And we will foster regular, highly visible opportunities for dialogue between people who do not share the same experiences and backgrounds.

Let me give another example: we know we have a lot of work to do on communication, especially in promoting a clear, prominent vision of diversity at MIT and in building these themes into how MIT defines itself. Following the Congress, we created a basic website to present the proceedings to the community. We are now working on a richer site that will represent MIT’s diversity and inclusion efforts comprehensively. It will highlight the many different inclusion efforts on campus, serve as a gateway to useful resources and let the world know that we are serious about diversity and inclusion at MIT. A number of you have offered suggestions about the website; please keep them coming. It is a work in progress and does not yet approach the interactive portal we intend to build.

I want to talk just a bit about what I mean by shared, or distributed, leadership. One highlight of the Congress was the rather dry observation by Dr. Shirley Malcolm of the AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] that all too often, what is called a “search” process is really more of a “sort,” an exercise in sifting through known options. So, how do we break out of this all-too-familiar pattern? Here’s what one participant wrote:

I require search committees to compile a pre-search list of women, underrepresented minorities and stars who are good potential applicants, even if they are not ready to apply this year. I ask them to invite these individuals to apply, or to visit a year or so in advance if they are not yet applying for faculty positions. The next year, I follow up, and ask what happened to their previous list.

The truth is that sometimes solutions can be as simple as that, as long as people in positions of leadership carry them through. In addition, there are signs that more MIT leaders are taking this issue on as their own: Some department heads have already reached out to Professor Wesley Harris, Associate Provost for Faculty Equity, to discuss concrete plans for making their departments national leaders on diversity and inclusion. That is what I mean by distributed leadership. To help individual leaders succeed across the Institute, we need to keep uncovering such practical strategies. We need to get the word out across MIT, and we need to “follow up.”

Another inspiring example of distributed leadership is the Initiative on Faculty Race and Diversity. Under the leadership of Professor Paula Hammond, seven fulltime faculty members have volunteered to conduct an unprecedented qualitative and quantitative study of faculty diversity issues at MIT. They expect to share their findings next fall, both defining our challenges and suggesting ways to move forward. Their shared leadership is inspiring, and it is essential. In building a culture of inclusion, distributed leadership is our only path to success, because the real progress in mentoring and reaching out and locating new talent must happen step by step, unit by unit, in labs and offices and residence halls across all of MIT. The ideas I have described are just next steps in a very long journey. The progress we seek will require broadly distributed leadership and sustained efforts – centralized and localized, big and small.

Let me address one issue that is particular to the moment. I have heard the serious concern that our efforts to build a culture of inclusion could be imperiled by starkly shrinking budgets. Let me reassure you that budget pressures will not deflect us from this work. At the same time, it is worth noting that many of the most important elements of a culture of inclusion – things like connection, conversation and kindness – do not cost anything at all. It costs nothing to make sure that every new hire, of whatever background, is paired up with a longtime employee as a welcoming guide. It costs nothing for the Institute leaders to reach out proactively to student cultural and affinity groups, and likewise it costs nothing for those groups occasionally to hold cross-cultural meetings together. For every department head to check in regularly with all women professors and professors of color costs no more than the occasional cup of coffee. Surveying fellow faculty members for the top 20 or 30 students in their lecture courses is bound to turn up women and students of color who might be your next UROP stars, and it costs no more than an email. It costs nothing to ask, in an annual review, what steps an individual has taken to build a culture of inclusion, or to educate your colleagues about the difference between a “search” and a “sort.” We cannot allow tight budgets to be an excuse for inertia and inaction.

Before I close, I want to be clear that all the developments I have discussed today are only the latest fruits of a process that has been growing here for many years. I cannot possibly mention all the groups and individuals who deserve our gratitude for their passionate commitment and perseverance on these issues. I do however want to call out at a few of the major current initiatives, including the Committee on Race and Diversity, led by Professor Phil Thompson, our hosts for this celebration of Dr. King; the Council on Staff Diversity, led by Vice President of Human Resources Alison Alden; and Sandra Harris’s inspired new F.A.M.E. program, which helps freshmen bond together in multicultural groups, starting during pre-orientation. I also want to acknowledge the very important leadership of our Associate Provosts for Faculty Equity, Professors Barbara Liskov and Wesley Harris. That MIT leaders of such caliber have taken on these roles demonstrates how serious we are about accelerating change.

It is now my pleasure to introduce Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole. A distinguished anthropologist and a leading thinker on issues of social justice and inequality, Dr. Cole holds emeritus status at Emory University, from which she retired as Presidential Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Women’s Studies and African American Studies.

Dr. Cole is also President Emerita of both of the nation’s two historically Black colleges for women, Bennett College for Women and Spelman College. She is the only individual to have held both those presidencies. What’s more, when she took on the presidency of Spelman College in 1987, she became the first African American woman to serve in that role in Spelman’s 107-year history. From 2004 to 2006, Dr. Cole served as the chair of the Board of the United Way of America – again, the first person of color to lead that national organization. Today, she chairs the board of the Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute, founded at Bennett College for Women.

Dr. Cole was once asked about the experience of being the “first” in so many of her endeavors. She replied:

“In one way it's very exhilarating. You can almost take yourself too seriously – until you realize that something is probably wrong. Being the first probably says, ‘Why has it taken so long?’”

I hope that in bringing diversity and inclusion to the top of MIT’s agenda – and in bringing Dr. Cole to our campus – we are moving closer to the day when the “firsts” will be behind us, while the great task of inventing the future lies ahead.