DEI strategic plan, MIT-China relations, vaccine roll-out discussed at February faculty meeting

First draft of DEI strategic plan to be available by March, plan to be finalized by May

Faculty members discussed MIT’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Strategic Action Plan, issues surrounding MIT’s relations with China and international research collaborations, and updates on vaccine roll-out at the Feb. 17 faculty meeting. 

Associate Provost Tim Jamison, Institute Community and Equity Officer (ICEO) John Dozier, and Deputy ICEO Maryanne Kirkbride presented updates on MIT’s development of a strategic action plan for DEI. Those involved with developing the plan include the DEI steering team which includes the Institute’s Committee on Race and Diversity. 

An estimated timeline for the strategic plan presented to faculty projects that a first draft of the plan will be available in March and a second draft in April. Both drafts will receive community engagement before a final draft is developed in May, as well as an implementation plan and a public launch of the strategic action plan.

Dozier outlined a model of MIT’s DEI efforts. The model begins with the Institute-wide strategic action plan after which are plans for each academic, research, and administrative units. The implementation plan will guide work with each of these units. Dozier said that the Institute would work with these units to develop their own plans that “articulate with the overarching Institute-wide strategic plan.”

The model also includes metrics, target, and reporting and infrastructure and capacity. Dozier said that the effort “is intended to align with accountability” and “with a way that we can measure our progress.”

Dozier named three pillars upon which the efforts stand: composition, belonging, and achievement, adding that “instead of coming from members of our community and being reported to or given to our leadership team,” the efforts are “something that is being owned by us as a community collectively.”

The development of the strategic plan will be informed by previous contributions, such as the Black Students’ Union and Black Graduate Student Association’s 2015 recommendations, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine working group’s recommendations, and other reports and projects from the past 30 years. The steering team will also consult internal data to compare with external data as it relates to DEI and meet internally and with MIT groups — such as the Human Resource senior leadership team, the Undergraduate Association, and the Graduate Student Council — to receive feedback.

Kirkbride said that the Institute will ensure that it is making progress by providing metrics to identify areas of improvement and need, coordinating and facilitating access to training and consultation for those implementing DEI plans, and being able to hire “senior level staff experts” who can help with plans.

Jamison named three broad reasons for creating the plan. The first is evidence indicating underrepresented races and ethnicities at MIT and narrative data of staff monologues describing the experiences of these underrepresented groups at MIT. Jamison described the second as “a combination of opportunity and urgency,” citing MIT’s previous “efforts upon which we can build” and the events of the past 18 months, such as the killing of George Floyd and MIT’s relationship with Jeffrey Epstein. The third reason is that peer institutions have also invested “significantly” in DEI, and studies have shown that “diverse groups, led inclusively, achieve better outcomes.”

Jamison said that faculty can visit the DEI action plan website for information. Additionally, President L. Rafael Reif sent a Feb. 23 email to MIT community members announcing the creation of a new Institute commitments website to track the progress of MIT’s efforts.

Electrical engineering and computer science professor Martin Rinard asked whether faculty could anticipate receiving guidance as to whether particular policies or actions regarding DEI by faculty search committees were legal. 

Dozier said that there are many challenges surrounding Rinard’s question but that the ICEO hopes to have “more consistent, better-coordinated training for faculty search committees.”

Janelle Knox-Hayes, professor in the urban studies and planning department and co-chair of the faculty diversity committee, added that the faculty diversity committee works with faculty searches to review the processes of hiring and to “try to ensure that they’re equitable, fair, diverse, and inclusive.” She said that “it would be nice to see” the Institute develop a formalized system of bias trainings and guidelines for conduct in search committees.

Additionally, mechanical engineering professor Alexander Slocum PhD ’85 said that MIT can evolve its “top-level thinking of what it means to be a professor.” He said that a lot of “really great students would graduate with a Master’s and leave because they didn’t want to ‘play the PhD game,’” going on to enter industry as engineers and scientists.

Slocum said that he would like MIT to bring “people of variety” into the pipeline of hiring and to investigate hiring “some of these really excellent seasoned engineers in industry.”

Provost Martin Schmidt PhD ’88, Vice President and General Counsel Mark DiVincenzo, Vice President for Research Maria Zuber, Jamison, and Associate Provost for International Engagements Richard Lester provided updates on Professor Gang Chen’s legal case over allegations of federal grant fraud and resources for faculty considering international collaborations.

Schmidt said, regarding Chen’s case, that MIT had “tried to address issues publicly, when we felt that there were misrepresentations” or a need for clarification and that “at times, people have expressed concern that perhaps MIT should be speaking more forcefully on this topic.” Schmidt said that MIT is working closely with Chen’s legal team and is making sure that what MIT says is “aligned with and supportive of” Chen’s legal defense.

DiVincenzo said that the legal proceedings for the case would likely “take 12 to 18 months” and “probably more” due to the COVID-19 pandemic slowing down court processes. DiVincenzo reiterated that MIT will be supporting Chen by covering his legal fees and communicating with his legal team and the government “with the hope” of providing “appropriate information so the facts can be there” in the case.

Lester described MIT and the U.S.’s relations with China, saying “this has been a difficult period” for Chinese faculty, students, postdoctoral associates, and research staff, citing “the government’s focus on foreign influence on American university campuses” and “anti-China rhetoric around COVID.”

Lester said that in summer 2020, MIT “began a series of conversations with senior faculty colleagues of Chinese origin” both individually and in small groups to ask what MIT could do to support them. As a result of these conversations, a meeting with Chinese faculty members and senior research staff members to discuss MIT’s actions occurred January 2021, coincidentally scheduled “a week or so” following Chen’s arrest.

At the meeting, Lester said three sets of questions were identified. The first surrounded Chen’s legal situations, the second covered the guidance MIT is offering to faculty for international collaborations, and the third discussed the broader issue of relations between MIT and China or other international bodies.

Regarding the third set of questions, Lester made three further points. He said first that MIT had “put in place a process” since January 2019 to work with faculty principal investigators “to assess the risks of proposed new projects” in addition to the regular reviews of sponsored activities executed by the staff at MIT’s Research Administration Services and Office of Strategic Alliances and Technology Transfer.

His second point was that MIT continues to work with faculty governance to ensure “a clear understanding of the situation” and “geopolitical environment” between China and the U.S.

His third point was that MIT could probably assume that U.S. policy toward China would have “more continuity than discontinuity” due to the bipartisan views on China within the government and “a realistic appraisal of the nature of the Chinese regime which hasn’t been moving in a positive direction.”

Lester said that in the past two years, at MIT, over 200 projects from China and Hong Kong have been proposed by principal investigators and others, and most “have gone forward,” so it is “reasonable to conclude that collaborations in China and with Chinese colleagues are feasible.”

Lester concluded by voicing a “personal observation” that “China is rapidly emerging as the world’s largest and most important economy” and will likely be a world superpower “for the rest of the century” at the forefront of fields of science and technology. Thus, Lester said it would “be important” for MIT community members “to have a deep understanding of China’s political, cultural, economic, and scientific characters” and “to collaborate with Chinese colleagues.”

Zuber said that “international collaborations need to be handled with care and transparency,” because it is not illegal to work or collaborate internationally, but it is “essential that proper reporting occur.”

Zuber listed government concerns surrounding these collaborations: agreements with foreign entities that impose obligations contrary to university or federal requirements; failure to disclose activity to that overlaps with activity done under an existing grant; undisclosed significant conflicts of interest; sharing of confidential information such as peer reviews; unlawful transfer of intellectual property, materials, or samples; and data security and cyberattack vulnerability.

Zuber said that while China is currently “the country of greatest tension and greatest interest,” there are concerns beyond China, such as the “recent Russian cyber hack.”

Zuber explained necessary federal and university level disclosures — sponsor-specific proposal, financial conflict of interest, and outside professional activities disclosures — for researchers participating in international engagements. 

She also described resources available for faculty, including Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative training on foreign influence, guidance for international travel, the International Coordinating Committee, and MIT’s EthicsPoint hotline.

Vice Chancellor and Chair of the MIT Vaccine Planning Team Ian Waitz and MIT Medical Director Cecilia Stuopis ’90 updated faculty on MIT’s COVID-19 vaccine roll-out.

Waitz asked faculty to “encourage” others to fill out MIT’s vaccine eligibility form, to inform MIT Medical about the number of community members who would like to be vaccinated and whether they can receive vaccines depending on the state’s vaccination phase.

Massachusetts began the second step of phase 2 of its vaccination plan Feb. 18 and is vaccinating individuals over the age of 65, those with more than two certain medical conditions, and residents and staff of low income and affordable senior housing.

Stuopis said at the meeting that MIT would be unlikely to receive more vaccine doses from the state, which is “ramping up” its “own large-scale vaccinations sites at Gillette [Stadium] and Fenway [Park]” and at its “CVS and Walgreens distribution networks.”

Stuopis added in a Feb. 17 email to the MIT community that those who qualify for the vaccine under the state’s current phase “should seek to obtain vaccination through” the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ process.

MIT Medical will share further information with the community when the Commonwealth resumes shipping the vaccine to Medical.