A Path Forward
Statement from the faculty of the MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing program
"As a department, we can do certain things; as a School, other things; and as an Institute, still others. But we can also act as individuals, and as groups. Each of us, separately and together, can continue to fight for justice."
— Faculty of MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing
We support Black Lives Matter and other activists protesting racism and police violence, spurred by the killing of George Floyd. We must stand with them, speak out strongly, and act with determination.
We believe that CMS/W (Comparative Media Studies/Writing) has a lot to contribute to this cause, both through outreach and in elucidating the power of media in discourse around racial justice. New and emergent technologies too often have served as platforms to stoke racial tension and fear. Ironically, these same technologies — videos and body cams disseminated on social media — also offer evidence to prosecute crimes of violence and racial hatred. Our faculty, uniquely qualified to speak to these issues, have to some degree engaged them in their work. At the same time, we recognize and acknowledge challenges and problems in our own varied disciplines. The makeup and activities of CMS/W do not currently encompass the total experience and interests of equity and justice within media studies to the degree that they should. We must ensure that our department is not only a welcoming place, intolerant of racial discrimination, but also actively works toward doing away with structures that racially discriminate. To this end, in the coming year we must intensify efforts to advance such values and goals. Charity, after all, begins at home.
Our faculty must continue to recruit students from diverse backgrounds and create pathways of support for them not only to participate in the department, but to thrive in it and to shape it to their benefit, their needs, their communities’ needs, and their careers. Our faculty and staff must continue to work closely with students who come to study with us from disadvantaged, underrepresented backgrounds, to overcome barriers and challenges facing them, and to support them in pursuing programs that are meaningful to them. We need to assess our progress in this regard by scrutinizing results for the last five years, in order to ascertain our successes and failures and in so doing inform future courses of action.
This review should be our top priority, especially in light of a recent graduate student’s charge of racism against the department. There is no conceivable way to understand that complaint unless we carry out a penetrating analysis to discover what we as a department can learn from it. Self-criticism and self-awareness of this kind could help improve the departmental atmosphere for present and future Black students.
We must devise and implement well defined procedures for handling racialbias complaints. In particular, we need to know how the MIT Committee on Discipline operates in resolving such complaints for undergraduates and for graduate students. We need to know how faculty and administrators who are subjected to racial tension and intimidation should respond and report. For context, our department should request data on the number, character, and disposition of cases involving charges of racism Institute-wide, as part of the provost’s annual report to the faculty. Our department should set aside part of a departmental meeting to discuss the annual provost report on diversity presented annually to the MIT faculty.
In addition to student evaluations of CMS/W subjects, our department should distribute an annual survey to graduate students, faculty, and staff seeking views on accessibility to race-related resources.
The faculty should strengthen our curriculum by revising our undergraduate and graduate syllabi to reflect a greater diversity of voices. This effort is essential to our core curriculum and extends beyond the subjects that explicitly mention race or racism in their titles. We must continue to promote racial equity and diversity in our subject offerings, in substance as well as in stated objective.
Extracurricular activities constitute an important means to promote critical dialogues and occasions that raise awareness and support for inclusive interactions. In particular, our department should host more events that probe our racial climate. For example, we could sponsor a talk and discussion surrounding an important but nearly forgotten study by the former MIT Dean for Student Affairs, Shirley M. McBay, entitled “The Racial Climate on the MIT Campus,” published more than three decades ago. Another work, so far little studied but deserving of concentrated discourse, is Clarence Williams’s Technology and the Dream: Reflections on the Black Experience at MIT, 1941-1999 (MIT Press, 2001), which consists of interviews exposing unsettling, painful experiences of race and race relations at the Institute.
We should develop a Diversity Plan that outlines our departmental goals and actions each year. We should also regularly review our committee makeup and departmental progress in action. CMS/W should assess and discuss on an annual basis its progress with minority recruitment and retention, or perhaps more often at some regular departmental meetings. Exit interviews of faculty and staff who leave the Institute should be part of the annual review. In-depth postmortems for failed promotion and tenure cases should be a standard part of our endeavor to build a flourishing, vibrant department — similar to morbidity and mortality (M&M) conferences incorporated in the medical profession across the country.
The department should demand a more serious and rigorous performance from the Faculty Diversity Committee within SHASS, with a transparent accounting of every search and every promotion case. An explicit statement outlining procedures to ensure that guidelines and practices of equity and fairness have been adhered to all along the way should be prepared and submitted with every promotion and tenure case.
The role of Human Resources in helping or hindering progress toward racial justice should be carefully evaluated. In particular, does Human Resources have a role in promotion and tenure processes? Is their role restricted to staff, and do they exercise their role equitably and justly?
Our department should address what happened with the Institute Community and Equity Office, whose status and authority were lessened in recent restructuring within the upper administration. The mandate of the Office previously required a senior faculty member with status on Academic Council to speak out on questions of promotion and tenure, generally and in the context of particular cases. Even though the current directorship carries a position on Academic Council along with other vice presidents for nonacademic affairs, the position now carries with it no tenured faculty rank at the senior level. But maximum force and authority for minority promotion and tenure reviews on Academic Council demand independence of thought, of judgment, and of influence, guaranteed only with tenured senior-level faculty status. Otherwise, the Office exerts no direct formal weight in the MIT system of promotion and tenure, where faculty rank stands paramount, by the Institute’s traditions and its own policies and procedures.
Our department should encourage the annual evaluation by faculty and staff of performance by Institute administrators — department heads, deans, provost and associates, and president — so that these administrators can become more accountable and benefit from the community’s reaction to their handling of racial issues. No such formal mechanism exists to accommodate opinions from students and faculty. Related to administrative performance is the issue of judgment about policies affecting recruitment and hiring of black faculty. Our department should request that the Administration rescind the current policy that prevents targets-of-opportunity minority hires by departments with a certain percentage of minorities already in place. We should also take every opportunity to urge the Administration to reconsider its tight constraint on the total number of faculty hires.
While resources are scarce, our department, the School, and the Institute must allocate resources to expand efforts to support marginalized individuals and groups. Further, we must seek additional funds to carry out actions we choose regarding diversity and inclusion at all levels. As a department, we can do certain things; as a School, other things; and as an Institute, still others. But we can also act as individuals, and as groups. Each of us, separately and together, can continue to fight for justice. We can speak about the media — its uses and abuses, legal and illegal – about politicians and leaders, and about individuals and agencies that foment or perpetuate racial bias. We can and must promote racial justice. As thoughtful educators, we recognize covert and coded messages and practices that are stealthily employed to achieve racist goals. We must use our expertise and knowledge to speak out against injustice and to consider our own actions critically and honestly. Home, as we said, is the place where charity and action begin.
Helen Elaine Lee
Kenneth R. Manning
James G. Paradis
Ta-Nehisi Coates at MIT
“What I tell my students is that you here at MIT have access to great knowledge — more knowledge than 99.9 percent of people who have ever been on planet Earth, and I think you have some sort of moral duty to learn how to communicate that. Knowledge is power; power shouldn’t be hoarded." Story | Coates website
A dream of computing | Fox Harrell
Harrell, a Professor of Digital Media and Artificial Intelligence, writes that "We must reimagine our shared dreams for computing technologies as ones where their potential social and cultural impacts are considered intrinsic to the engineering practices of inventing them." Commentary | Harrell website | Center for Advanced Virtuality
On women candidates of color | Helen Elaine Lee
Lee, Professor of Writing and Head of the MIT Women's and Gender Studies program, comments on how the Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movements have renewed attention to the roles that bigotry and sexism play in American institutions ranging from the media to the political establishment. Commentary | Lee Website