November/December 2021Vol. XXXIV No. 2

Feedback on the First Draft of MIT’s “Five-year Strategic Action Plan for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”

Richard C. Larson

Thank you for inviting all members of the MIT community to submit their feedback on this important report. I am an MIT lifer who entered as a freshman in 1961, lived at Phi Beta Epsilon, and eventually received three degrees from Course 6, (then called the Department of Electrical Engineering). I joined the faculty in 1969 and have been on the faculty ever since, having – over the decades – five different home academic departments. I love MIT and would do virtually anything to help the Institute to achieve its goals. I recall fondly the numerous times I have walked the Infinite Corridor and smiled as I passed by such a diverse set of students, faculty, and staff, from over 100 countries and representing virtually all major ethnicities, religions, and cultures on Earth.

MIT is a world-recognized bastion of the scientific method. Any problem addressed in the “MIT way” follows the scientific method: Define the Problem; define all terms used, state the research hypothesis, provide preliminary evidence in support of the hypothesis, and then map out a plan to carry out related research, which may lead to revising the hypothesis, and finally responding to the research results with a constructive action plan.

The Five-Year Strategic Action Plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) does none of these things. It does not define precisely what is meant by the words, “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.” For instance, today, “equity” is often interpreted as “equal outcomes.” Is this what MIT means in the report? It does not define precisely what is meant by “Structural Racism.” It does not provide specific examples of Structural Racism needing to be corrected on campus. Without data, it simply seems to assume that Structural Racism is pervasive throughout MIT. And it seems to assume that “the solution to the problem” (still undefined) is the dispersion of DEI officers throughout the campus. Over my 50+ years at MIT, this DEI process is unprecedented in its manner of operation.

I believe that the unspoken intent of the effort is valid and important at the highest national level. The intent, as I read it, is to assure that every young person in the USA has the same opportunity to achieve his or her lifetime goals, to reach for the stars, to effect change for the betterment of all. For MIT to make a transformative contribution, we need to think of this as a complex systems problem, extending the boundaries of the system far beyond the MIT campus, focusing on the k-12 educational pipeline that is supposed to produce highly qualified high school graduates. For many students today, especially in urban and rural areas of the U.S., this pipeline is broken. Many high schools are far from providing the type of education needed for our next generation of young people to succeed. 

From my point of view, there is nothing more important to a nation than the education of its young people. If the education system fails our upcoming generations, eventually the nation will fail.

MIT has contributed substantially in the past to needs at a national level. This includes major support for the country during World War II. In 1956, examination of the teaching of science in our high schools revealed huge weaknesses, for instance with physics often taught formulaically via rote learning rather than fundamentally – with the excitement associated with discovery science. Led by MIT physics professors, Jerrold Zacharias and Francis Friedman, MIT stepped up with the creation of PSSC Physics for high schools (PSSC = Physical Science Study Committee). Within a year, in 1957, we as a nation were shocked and frightened as Sputnik, launched from the Cold War foe USSR, was circling overhead while the U.S. had no such Earth-orbiting satellite. Funding for PSSC Physics was substantially increased, resulting in the new physics for high school being implemented quickly and successfully.

While there is no new satellite circling overhead today, I think we are at another “Sputnik moment,” call it “Sputnik II.” This national emergency is the failure of our public-school system to educate our young people, especially those from underserved communities, those having socioeconomic challenges, in both urban and rural America. Regarding issues related to opportunities available to all, this is the system we need to study, analyze and help to improve fundamentally. It’s a tall order, more complex organizationally than PSSC Physics in the 1950s. But if the MITs of the world do not step forward to offer to redesign and reconstruct the educational pipeline, who will?