We are pleased to announce that we have made significant progress on a key demand of the RISE campaign. We will soon have guaranteed transitional funding for all students across MIT who wish to leave an unhealthy advising relationship.
Advising is so central to our time as grad students at MIT. Unfortunately, an abusive, negligent, or dysfunctional advising relationship changes the entire course of our time at MIT, making what is often already a time of financial and emotional struggle into one of pure distress, which can even cause students to leave the Institute without their intended degree.
We want students in unhealthy advising situations to know they can change their situation without worrying about missing a paycheck, losing their visa status, or fearing retaliation. Advising relationships in academia involve a significant power imbalance. Advisors can, for any reason or no reason at all, make or break a student’s career. We see guaranteed transitional funding and support as an important step towards empowering grad students to improve their advising situation and practice greater academic freedom.
We worked on these demands primarily with Chancellor Barnhart and Dean Chandrakasan. We went back and forth negotiating proposals for a transitional support program that would be brought to the Dean’s council and finally the Provost, along the way garnering support and input from a working group consisting of Deans and Department Heads from across MIT’s schools, other relevant admin, and representation from the GSC.
RISE played a central role in this process, developing the initial proposal, which the group iterated on, that was based on four core principles: 1) broad eligibility & financial security for students, 2) centralization of program administration through OGE, 3) provision of non-funding accommodations, and 4) addressing issues with problematic advisors. We invite you to read the final version here (PDF can be seen below). Implementation of this proposal is now planned for beginning March 8th, a fast turn around which we greatly appreciate.
To summarize, we won an Institute-wide guarantee for transitional funding and support, for those situations the program does cover, via a very clearly outlined process that allows students to be more empowered and secure. Students will not miss a pay period, and the amount they can be asked to work for their old advisor has been clearly defined and limited. We have created a route through OGE, where students can find support with less conflict of interest. Students are guaranteed access to other reasonable academic accommodations, including flexibility around degree requirements and milestones to minimize the amount of time their degree is ultimately set back, as well as avenues for alternative letter writers.
We wanted this program to apply to all graduate students with any motivation to switch labs. However, the proposal was limited to only students in unhealthy situations (e.g., an abusive, negligent, or dysfunctional advisor or colleague). Further, any attempt to address problematic advisors made evident through this program was eliminated from the proposal.
The other major challenge is the fundamentally decentralized structure of how this program will be funded and administered. While this centralized commitment is a huge step, the funding for this program will come primarily from the departments themselves. Thus, departmental inequities persist and department admin are still influenced to disincentivize use of the program. Unfortunately the administration refused to discuss a centralized funding source, as if it was so alien it was not even worth discussing.
This victory was a result of grad students coming together, collecting over 1,000 signatures sending a clear message that collectively we can bring about a healthier and more equitable MIT. We aim to continue to discuss the final proposal’s shortcomings with the admin as we develop Phase II of the program. Thus, it is crucial that we continue to keep the collective pressure on the Institute that made this change possible in the first place.
This is a strong start to addressing these issues. However, we still have a significant way to go to make advising at MIT live up to what it can and should be for a world-class research and educational institution. Please join us as we work to create a healthier learning, living, and working environment for all grad students!
Throughout the course of our campaign, we have recognized a central issue of past DEI efforts at MIT: there is a lot of talk from admin, but a lot of work only by students and staff already significantly overtaxed by other responsibilities. Students and staff are often forced to choose between working towards racial and gender justice and their own career advancement. DEI Officers (DOs) have been long recognized by our peer institutions as the key to successful DEI initiatives. They combine the essential expertise and professionalization of DEI work with the indispensable time and resource allocation needed to succeed. For decades, MIT has paid lip service to this work — but the lack of progress truly speaks for itself. We are asking MIT to put its vast resources where its mouth is and finally bring these promises of progress to fruition. More background on this issue can be found in our op-ed on the topic.
We began this work prior to the launch of RISE this past summer by starting with department-level advocacy for the implementation of DOs. We were able to make some progress at this level by demonstrating the clear and widespread desire for these positions among students. However, MIT continually rebuffed our efforts with a few common refrains: 1) we don’t have the money available and are only getting very limited financial support from the school/Institute level, 2) we can’t make any DO hires until the Institute gives us the go-ahead, and 3) we don’t need a DO in our dept. While we disagree on these points, we have treated them as real limitations, and we have tried to accommodate their logic in the interest of making progress.
We saw from those discussions that support from the central administration could resolve these issues by allocating funding for DOs in every department. Any departments that already want to hire DOs should simply be given permission. As student advocates spanning 12 departments and 3 schools, we built a broad coalition of support for this idea. We codified our demands to the Provost and the support of the coalition in an open letter. Our letter currently has the signatures of 6 Department Heads and 30 student and staff groups across 3 schools.
We met with the Provost to present these demands and discuss what needs to be done to make it happen. The Provost surprised us in presenting a seemingly contradictory set of reasons for not hiring DOs in the departments. He said funding is not an issue, much to our surprise after having heard the opposite in department after department. Instead, the Provost disagreed that most departments actually require external funding; furthermore, he claimed that the main issue for those departments that do require funding is that they simply don’t have a plan for how they will implement DO positions.
We are glad to hear the Provost echo our continual assertion that MIT has more than enough money for DEI initiatives, and we are already communicating this fact to department heads and faculty leadership who have the power to make these immensely popular initiatives a reality. But we can’t help but notice the situation we find ourselves in: all the key administrators claim to support our demands, and yet no progress is being made. How do we make sense of this contradiction? What does this tell us about how MIT operates and how it treats student voices?
This course of events demonstrates very clearly who has power at MIT — or more precisely, who does not: the students! Despite the enormous popularity of basic demands such as hiring DOs and instituting mandatory anti-harassment and anti-discrimination trainings — demands which are quite tame compared to the reckoning that most people in power faced during the summer protests against racism and police brutality — students have been forced to spend countless hours formulating strategic plans, building support among faculty, and wrangling administrators into meetings. If student voices were truly respected and valued, the support of over a thousand students and staff for these demands would be enough to move MIT into action. Instead, MIT chooses to ignore our clearly stated needs, and so the only avenue to make change we’re given is to tug on the heartstrings of this-or-that sympathetic administrator. And when that doesn’t work, when MIT continues to pass the buck between offices and departments, what options are we left with? This is the situation we find ourselves in now, and it’s the situation that countless student advocates at MIT have found themselves in for decades.
This is not to diminish the progress we have been able to make so far: public, collective, and confrontational student advocacy was able to secure agreements to hire DOs in multiple departments including EECS and Chemistry, albeit in a decentralized fashion. But the key lesson is that this progress has only been possible because large groups of coordinated students have demanded it and fought for it, and as long we students continue to lack any real power at MIT, we will have to continue to fight for incremental progress, no matter how clear and sensible such proposals may be. As we noted in our recent article on the need to demand, not request, change at MIT: “It’s time for the students at MIT, who are essential to every aspect of MIT’s core mission, to have greater control over the direction of that mission.”