When Dr. James L. Sherley began a hunger strike outside of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology provost’s office in February 2007 alleging racism in his tenure denial, the thenassociate professor of biological engineering reignited, in a very public way, concerns about the institution’s commitment to diversity.
The lack of diversity has been a recurring problem at MIT. Today, only 34 out of 767 tenured faculty members are Black, Hispanic and Native American.
Since Sherley left, MIT has created a number of new positions that focus on faculty and staff diversity, including two associate provosts for faculty equity. The school is in the middle of an initiative on faculty race and diversity, centered around researching the current climate for minorities at MIT and creating an action plan to solve any problems. And in November, the school brought 300 of its administrative, faculty and student leaders together for an event called the Diversity Leadership Congress.
“In my mind, MIT has prioritized diversity,” says Dr. Wesley Harris, one of the new associate provosts, pointing to the creation of his position and the initiative on race and diversity. “MIT has made commitments.”
Harris is the former head of the school’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The other new associate provost focuses on gender equity, rather than race.
Dr. Paula Hammond, a chemical engineering professor who is heading up MIT’s initiative on faculty race and diversity, says the school has shown an increased commitment to diversity in recent years, even if that commitment hasn’t yet shown up in faculty numbers.
As part of the initiative, researchers are compiling data on salary levels and promotion timetables for minority faculty members, as well as conducting interviews with faculty members about their experiences. By the end of the year, Hammond plans to have a set of recommendations she hopes will result in real policy changes.
The initiatives “are all works in progress. Of course, anything is better than nothing. But this is typical of MIT,” says Dr. Chi-Sang Poon, an MIT researcher. “They treat the subject matter academically and scholastically. It is all talk and no work.”
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