Barnhart holds community forum on sexual misconduct

Four working groups present recommendations on campus climate

Four MIT working groups presented recommendations addressing preventing and responding to sexual misconduct in a community forum held by Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 Nov. 5. The forum was held in response to the 2018 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report on the sexual harassment of women in sciences, engineering, and medicine.

The four working groups were Training and Prevention, Leadership and Engagement, Policies and Reporting, and Academic and Organizational Relationships.

To begin the forum, Barnhart said, “To address sexual misconduct is also to address culture and climate issues [in higher education] more generally. You have to have solutions that resonate at the community level, the department level, the student level. In addition, we are committed to strengthening our prevention with ongoing and tailored education.” 

The Training and Prevention working group, co-chaired by Title IX Coordinator Sarah Rankin and HR Diversity and Inclusion Specialist Libby Mahaffy, reviewed proposals about community-wide sexual harassment prevention training. Mahaffy said the group recommends the creation of “core competencies for goal alignment” and the inclusion of gender harassment in sexual violence prevention efforts. Potential initiatives include expanding a peer education program, coordinating unconscious bias trainings, and administering a climate survey for faculty and staff. 

Rankin said the group recommends expanding ongoing in-person sexual assault prevention training in intact communities such as athletic teams, academic departments, and living groups.  This includes the broadening of initiatives such as PLEASURE education and lab-based workshops. 

The Leadership and Engagement group is co-chaired by Alyce Johnson, special advisor to the Office of the Provost, and Maryanne Kirkbride, executive administrator of MindHandHeart. The group investigated institutional leadership and community engagement on gender equity and inclusivity. 

Johnson said the group has identified “opportunities for MIT leadership to be more explicit or visible in conveying MIT’s goal of preventing sexual harassment” by encouraging reporting and communicating no tolerance for harassment. The group recommends leadership skill-building trainings for conflict resolution and student-led discussions focused on preventing campus sexual violence.

The Policies and Reporting group is co-chaired by Policy and Compliance Specialist Marianna Pierce and Assistant Provost Doreen Morris. The group recommends improvements to internal policies and community-reporting practices for sexual assault. 

Pierce said that the wording of sexual and gender-based harassment policies in the Policies and Procedures manual and the Mind and Hand Book could be made clearer and more consistent. In addition, MIT’s complaint policy will change next semester: a new Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response Office will make annual reports on complaints against faculty and staff.

Pierce stressed the importance of both privacy and transparency. “We want to make sure that how we disclose [complaints] does not discourage complaints and addresses a culture where people don’t bring up [sexual misconduct],” Pierce said.

Barnhart said that, based on the Association of American Universities (AAU) Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct, among those involved in harassing behaviors at MIT, 18.1 percent are faculty members or instructors. This was higher than the AAU aggregate average of 9.6 percent. At MIT, 10.7 percent of those involved in harassing behaviors are the student’s teacher, and 5.2 percent are the student’s advisor (compared to the AAU aggregate averages of 7.2 percent and 1.7 percent respectively). 

The Academic and Organizational Relationships working group, co-chaired by Professor Tim Jamison and Professor Paula Hammond ’84, investigated these “power imbalances inherent in research institutions” in relation to sexual assault.

Hammond emphasized the importance of a “cross-campus discussion about MIT’s values” and recommended the creation of a value statement to represent MIT’s campus culture. 

Jamison said the group has drafted a set of recommended expectations for all community members, with specific responsibilities for faculty and research supervisors.

Hammond said the group recommends mentorship training for faculty and transitional funding for graduate students changing research groups due to harassment complaints. The group also recommends improving faculty advisor accountability by allowing graduate students to provide feedback on their advisor in a protected setting and mandating regular review of the culture of research groups by an objective third party.

After the working group presentations, the forum opened the floor to those who wished to speak. 

Julianne Zimmerman ’88 pointed out how the report reveals “the power imbalance and the prevalence of faculty participation in harassing behaviors” and asked about recommendations for addressing “established faculty and long-standing habits.” 

In response, Hammond emphasized the necessity of holding all faculty accountable and said that they recommended that department heads “have a way of assessing the mentoring of faculty in their department.”

Jamison added that the working groups’ recommendation encourages faculty in positions of power to take responsibility for their relationships with dependent or “vulnerable” individuals, such as graduate students or undergraduate researchers in their labs.

Mark Goldman G pointed out how MIT, unlike “other schools such as Yale, Stanford, Princeton, and Brown,” currently does not release information on how “faculty members responsible for sexual harassment” are punished, despite “report[ing] the same punishments for students,” and asked about the release of the data. Goldman is an opinion writer for The Tech

Barnhart emphasized the importance of privacy for those in the data and said that they “don’t have enough information to release it without violating privacy.”

Daniel Gonzalez ’20, judicial committee chairman of the Interfraternity Council, commented on the importance of involving undergraduate students — who comprise the grad classes of the future — in the policy suggesting process. Gonzalez suggested the establishment of “classes in the communication requirement that encourage dialogue across different social privileges.”

Aditi Gupta G asked about the compensation that the faculty serving as departmental liaisons for diversity, equity, and inclusion receive.

Johnson responded that she does not “know what’s available for faculty doing this work” but pointed out the “great support and resources for students who continue to do this work.” 

Hammond added that the Academic and Organizational Relationships working group recommendation includes a provision for recognition of faculty work.

Chemistry and biology professor Cathy Drennan commented that it is often difficult for faculty to work around the incomplete information they have about tenure candidates’ mentorship relationships due to the confidentiality constraints of Title IX complaints.  Drennan also gave a “positive shout-out” to the Violence Prevention and Response hotline, calling it a “huge improvement since I’ve been at MIT.”

Assistant Director of LGBTQ+ Services Lauryn McNair asked about “recommendations specifically to support students in trans communities” and added that trans representation on the committees to determine support services would help combat unconscious biases in the policy-making process. 

Barnhart responded that an implementation team will be created to ensure trans representation on the committees. Pierce said that her working group sought to address gender-based harassment by collecting feedback from people who don’t conform to stereotypical gender norms.

Susan Murcott ’90, a lecturer in D-Lab, expressed concern for the inclusion of the “invisible people who may not have been covered by the survey — staff and facilities people” in the conversation about campus climate. 

Barnhart responded that the administration plans to conduct a similar sexual assault and harassment survey for the entire campus community.

Gabriel Fields ’19 expressed concern about Professor Seth Lloyd’s continued role in teaching and advising freshmen despite his previous relationship with Jeffrey Epstein. 

Provost Martin A. Schmidt PhD ’88 responded that the “most immediate concern” is to communicate with students currently enrolled in Lloyd’s quantum computing class. Schmidt said that both anonymous feedback and direct communication with Mechanical Engineering Department Head Evelyn Wang ’00 have been offered to students in the class.

Members of the MIT community can email comments on the working group reports and sexual assault prevention to or input them at until Nov. 15.