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MIT faculty reflect on accomplishments, challenges in area of faculty equity

Professors Wesley L. Harris, Barbara Liskov assess the state of faculty-diversity efforts at the Institute.
Wesley L. Harris and Barbara Liskov
Wesley L. Harris and Barbara Liskov

MIT has made new efforts in recent years to address the critical issue of faculty diversity, but work in this area remains an ongoing project, according to Wesley L. Harris and Barbara Liskov, the two professors who have jointly held the position of associate provost for faculty equity.

Harris noted his enjoyment in seeing underrepresented minority faculty progress at MIT.

“I’m so proud of them, and so pleased I’ve had the opportunity to serve them,” said Harris, who is the Charles Stark Draper Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, served as head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics from 2003 to 2008, and was the first director of MIT’s Office of Minority Education.

Named to the new position of associate provost for faculty equity in February 2008 by then-Provost L. Rafael Reif — who is now MIT’s president — Harris played a role in producing a uniquely comprehensive report on the subject that MIT released publicly in January 2010.

That study, MIT’s “Report of the Initiative for Faculty Race and Diversity,” was based on more than two years of research, and led by a group of faculty representing all five of the Institute’s schools.

Among other findings, the report highlighted data showing that MIT draws heavily from its own PhD candidates (and those of a small number of other schools) when hiring tenure-track faculty. It suggested that casting a wider net could help MIT find outstanding minority-group job candidates it might otherwise overlook, and in the process, help MIT’s “competitive advantage” in academia.

The report recommended, in part, “realistic but meaningful specific goals” for underrepresented minority faculty recruitment; training for faculty to work around potential biases in candidate recruitment; stronger networking with other schools; more active faculty mentoring; and a “climate of inclusion” to make these issues easier to discuss.

“We have a blueprint for success,” Harris says. “This is the most thorough study of its kind in higher education. No one [else] has done this.”

The more MIT “can build infrastructure to implement this,” Harris adds, the more the Institute will benefit in the long run. His advice to the MIT community on the issue is direct: “Get to work.”

At the same time that Harris has been focused on bringing more underrepresented minorities into the faculty, Liskov has been examining ways to build parity for women on the MIT faculty.

Liskov — an Institute Professor at MIT, and winner in 2009 of the prestigious Turing Award, often described as the “Nobel Prize in computing” — says there are three main areas in which she has been focused: faculty hiring, faculty retention, and family issues for faculty, which can place major demands upon female scholars. In the first case, recruitment, there is clear overlap between her concerns and those of Harris.

“The issue is making sure there is diversity in the pool, and that the candidates are treated equitably,” Liskov says. “One of the main [problems] is implicit bias. This is a well-understood psychological issue, that people have a tendency to think less well of those in underrepresented groups.” Liskov has helped initiate training and awareness programs for faculty, which include recognition of the idea that women may be less likely to apply for jobs in the first place.

“In the end the choice is going to be made based on the needs of the department and quality of the candidates,” Liskov says. “But if some candidates are not interviewed, there is no chance they will get the job.” 

When it comes to faculty retention, Liskov adds, the problem is again one of equity, this time concerning the range of responsibilities faced by junior faculty. It is important, she believes, that “everybody is given a fair shot” at tenure, working under the same kinds of conditions.

Liskov also helped prepare a 2011 study on gender equity for faculty, “A Report on the Status of Women Faculty in the Schools of Science and Engineering.” It followed major reports on the subject that MIT released in 1999 and 2002. The path-breaking 1999 report acknowledged gender differences in resource distribution at MIT, especially among senior faculty. But the most recent study does report progress: Between 1999 and 2011, the number of women on the MIT faculty increased from 32 to 60 in the School of Engineering and from 30 to 52 in the School of Science.

When it comes to family issues for faculty, Liskov has helped introduce policy tweaks to help professors with children, such as improved access to child care and preschool on the MIT campus.

Overall, Liskov says, “I think people are receptive in principle. But this is a continuing issue. It’s not something that’s done. It’s going to require attention for many years to come.”

The role of the associate provost for faculty equity thus entails significant involvement in formal, Institute-wide efforts to implement best practices in the workplace. But in Harris’ experience, it also involves informal mentoring of colleagues — which serves as its own benefit.

“Sometimes it’s been one-on-one, if I have a conversation with a junior colleague and they find a way to go forward, you see the spark in their eyes, the brisk pace in their step, their head is high, they feel like they can move forward to the next level, those are real joys, those are the things I will take away to the rocking-chair stage,” Harris says.

“The gift to give is the greatest gift,” he adds. “To serve in that capacity has been very rewarding.”

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