DEI Bureaucracy Fails the Stress Test

The recent outbreak of antisemitism at MIT and other campuses puts into stark relief the limits of administrative bureaucracies’ ability to solve the problems of human relationships and tribalism.  With great fanfare in 2021, the Reif administration announced its massive Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative which by some counts added up to about a hundred professional administrators with some variation of DEI in their titles. Though this initiative was subsequently rebranded “Belonging, Achievement, and Composition” (BAC) after the administration apparently realized the incoherence of the DEI rubric with the Institute’s basic culture and mission, the bureaucrats remained. In addition, the administration enlarged and reorganized the Institute Discrimination and Harassment Response (IDHR) office, adding another couple of dozen professional administrators. 

How much was spent on all of this? The employment site Glassdoor reports that the low end for salaries of Assistant Deans at MIT is about  $100K. Add up salaries of over a hundred people at this level, their support staff, benefits for all, and ordinary office overhead at average Institute burden rates, and a $20 million annual price tag for all this feel-good bureaucracy (on top of existing student support such as counseling, psychiatric services, etc.) seems like a very fair rough estimate of the total cost. Do we all feel “belonging” and “inclusion"?

This of course leads us to last month’s melee in Lobby 7 between Palestinian and Israeli supporters, and widely reported concerns primarily among the latter, of harassment, intimidation, and the like. The consequences for actions contrary to Institute regulations will hopefully be resolved by the Committee on Discipline. Independently, it seems important to point out the utter failure of this massive bureaucracy to achieve their own stated objectives:

From BAC: “The BAC initiative seeks to build a community at MIT where everyone feels welcome, valued, and respected, regardless of their background, identity, or experiences. This includes fostering a sense of connection and belonging among students, faculty, staff, and postdocs.” 

From IDHR: “The objective of MIT's Institute Discrimination & Harassment Response Office (IDHR) is to prevent and address discrimination and discriminatory harassment across the Institute.” 

While the DEI/BAC/IDHR bureaucracy is producing training courses for faculty, students, and staff warning that deadnaming a person who has undergone sex transition is a violent act, there are crowds chanting about violence to ethnic groups and a potential community brawl in lobby 7 between Israeli and Palestinian supporters.  If the conflict in the Middle East continues, this could be only the first such occurrence. A widely publicized letter signed by hundreds of Jewish and Israeli members of the MIT community attests to the fact that they do not feel welcome, valued, and respected. It’s not clear that the supporters of Palestine do either, based on Chancellor Nobles's statements that Islamophobia will be addressed in Standing Together Against Hate (STAH).  

So now we are to believe that the solution, however well intentioned, is STAH: that STAH will attend to those identities (somehow) overlooked by DEI/BAC/IDHR. The evidence is incontrovertible that these bureaucracies have failed to allow (at least) our Jewish community to “feel welcome, valued and respected” or to “prevent and address discrimination and harassment” as well as having seemingly neglected emerging Islamophobia. 

Obviously, the current outbreak of antisemitism must be addressed and opposed directly, but the premise that more bureaucratic acronyms and expensive overhead can resolve human relationships needs to be totally re-examined. MIT already has the highest administrative cost per student of any university in the Ivy Plus group, at $59,506, according to the most recent financial reports that all universities whose students receive federal aid must report to the US Department of Education; the average for the group is about $27,000.

Before we create another misguided bureaucracy—and particularly before we select the next Institute Community and Equity Officer, this failure of the existing administrative offices should be recognized by an immediate hiring freeze and a thorough examination of these programs by an objective outside party. A potential model for such an inquiry is the retention of a major law firm as MIT did in the Epstein affair, which resulted in an overhaul of the Institute’s policies for accepting gifts. President Kornbluth, having inherited this bureaucracy, should have a free hand in reshaping it in light of recent events, and must not feel beholden to what in my opinion is the poor advice she has apparently received from these quarters. 

If current trends do not change, there is no apparent end to the creation of administrative bloat with ever more offices perceived to be responsive to discrete identities, denoted by ever multiplying acronyms. In the long run, I can only hope that we move back toward a culture that seeks to attract talent without discrimination from wherever it may come, and that counsels us all to respect each another simply as individuals who, in Dr. King’s words, “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” And, along the way, let us reduce administrative costs so they are no more than those at peer institutions and add $30,000 or so in annual per student savings back into student aid! 

Steven C. Carhart ’70, SM ’72 is an active volunteer for several alumni organizations, including the MIT Free Speech Alliance, Phi Beta Epsilon Corporation, and the Carroll Wilson Committee, as well as former President of his class and Editor in Chief of The Tech, Volume 89.  The views expressed here are his own.