Saturday, December 05, 2020

Rafa Still Gassing About MIT's Corrupt Old Nerds And Epstein's "Irresistible" Jailbait

To the members of the MIT community,

 

Last January, following the release of a fact-finding report about Jeffrey Epstein’s ties to MIT, I articulated five actions to address the challenges that emerged during that difficult time. I write with updates on those actions.

 

Please know that MIT offers extensive resources for survivors. I encourage you to use any you might find helpful.

1.

We are establishing clear policies and processes to guide decisions about controversial donors.

 

In September, Provost Marty Schmidt and Chair of the Faculty Rick Danheiser released the draft reports of two ad hoc committees, one charged with identifying values and principles to guide MIT’s outside engagements, and one with improving MIT’s processes around gift acceptance. Following a comment period and a forum to gather feedback, the committees are incorporating community input into the final versions of their reports and recommendations. You will hear about next steps early in the new year.

 

Separately, the MIT Alumni Association and Resource Development retained Huron Consulting to review MIT’s donor and alumni database. The review confirmed that the information captured in the database is accurate and secure. It also proposed a number of steps MIT is now pursuing to further centralize the handling of donor and alumni information across the Institute.

2.

We are building a culture in which raising concerns is accepted, effective and safe.

 

It became clear last year that many at MIT, especially staff and students, do not feel they can safely report behavior that is out of bounds, whether concerning the safety of our students, the integrity of our research or risks to the Institute’s reputation.

 

In response, I asked Vice President and General Counsel Mark DiVincenzo to consider potential solutions. He charged a working group, led by Professor David Singer, to review MIT’s hotline process, the potential for a separate whistleblower policy and the effectiveness of our existing policy that prohibits retaliation against those who raise concerns. In September, the group made a number of recommendations to Academic Council, from simplifying the hotline reporting system to publishing an annual report about hotline usage to improving how we inform our community about the hotline as a trusted resource. The group made several important policy recommendations as well, including updating Policies and Procedures and the Mind and Hand Book to more fully address this issue (such as specifically using the word “whistleblower,” adding examples of retaliation and clarifying protections for those involved in the complaint resolution process). With Academic Council’s enthusiastic endorsement, implementation of all of these recommendations is now complete or well underway.

 

We are also working to develop thoughtful processes to address a tension between our commitment to transparency in addressing unwelcome and inappropriate behavior, and respect for the privacy of those involved when there is a complaint. Led by Mark DiVincenzo and Associate Provost Tim Jamison, a working group has been considering this issue for several months and will soon recommend enhancements to how we share with our community information regarding complaints.

3.

We are taking steps to keep our community safe from visitors who may pose a threat.

 

During non-Covid times, MIT draws great strength as a convener, welcoming guests to campus to interact freely with our community. The Epstein experience raised particular questions, however, about campus visitors and the safety of our community. A working group led by Professors Christopher Capozzola and Justin Steil and Chief of Police John DiFava is soliciting advice from campus stakeholders and will offer recommendations on this issue in the spring.

4.

We are supporting the Media Lab community as it makes a fresh start.

 

Since September 2019, an executive committee of Media Lab faculty and Institute officers has been leading the lab through a process to rethink its operations and culture from top to bottom. The lab has made inspiring progress, appointed an outstanding associate director in Professor Cynthia Breazeal and launched a search for its next director. We expect to be able to announce the hiring of a new director early in 2021. I am deeply grateful to the lab’s executive committee for its exceptional leadership, and to the entire lab community for its care, thoughtfulness and dedication in shaping a worthy vision for the future of this MIT icon.

5.

We are engaged in Institute-wide community processes to address persistent issues in our campus climate and culture.

 

The Epstein crisis shone a light on longstanding issues centering on disrespect and harassment of staff, women and those in other marginalized groups. By definition, this unacceptable behavior undermines our strength and limits our success as a community. A number of efforts are underway to address these issues:

Thanks to an implementation team led by Professor Paula Hammond and Sarah Rankin, director of the Institute Discrimination & Harassment Response (IDHR) office, we are following through on recommendations spurred by the landmark National Academies report on sexual and gender harassment. The team helped shape a revised policy for handling complaints of discriminatory or harassing behavior, an essential complement to our robust policy prohibiting harassment. And starting in January, on the recommendation of the implementation team and the Committee on Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response, we will begin rolling out required refresher training about preventing sexual harassment to all employees and graduate students third year and above. This requirement already exists for other campus populations. We will share details later this month.

Advancing a key recommendation of the Academic and Organizational Relationships Working Group, charged in response to the National Academies report, faculty and student leaders are developing a clearly defined and accessible transitional funding program with the goal of lowering the barriers some graduate students experience when they change advisors. We will share more early in the new year.

Institute Community and Equity Officer John Dozier and Associate Provost Tim Jamison are working across the community to develop a strategic action plan for diversity, equity and inclusion. As they wrote in September, the effort “will provide both a clear baseline for measuring and assessing progress and a crucial lever for accountability.” With robust input from across the community, we will share and begin implementing the plan in the spring.

A newly charged MIT Values Statement Committee of staff, faculty, students and postdocs will draw on previous efforts, including the principles articulated by the Ad Hoc Committee on Guidelines for Outside Engagements and values statements developed in departments, and gather community feedback to shape a formal statement of Institute values. Co-chaired by Professor Daniel Hastings and Deputy Director of the MIT Libraries Tracy Gabridge, the committee will also recommend strategies for building the values statement into institutional habits, rhythms, rituals and communications. The committee will submit a final recommendation to Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart and Provost Marty Schmidt in June.

In response to concerning feedback about staff feelings of invisibility and marginalization, last winter Human Resources launched MIT Staff Conversations to inform a strategy to ensure that every member of our staff – regardless of level, function or identity – feels respected, valued and heard. Through 20 facilitated conversations, staff from 120 departments, labs, centers and institutes and 15 divisions of Lincoln Laboratory shared their experiences, perspectives and suggestions for change. This fall, Vice President for Human Resources Ramona Allen presented findings and recommendations to Academic Council and led a discussion about next steps. We will return to this important topic early in the spring semester.

In imagining possibilities for the Institute’s future – how we live and work, learn and teach, and conduct research – Task Force 2021 and Beyond is examining every scenario through the lens of culture, community and values. The task force’s Community and Culture Workstream is focused on ensuring that these themes are strategically embedded in the blueprints for building a better MIT. This effort, too, is due to conclude in the spring.

*     *     *

As we are witnessing with the pandemic, difficult times have the potential to inspire important, constructive, positive change. I am determined to make sure that the challenges our community endured last academic year guide us to a wiser, kinder, more equitable MIT – one with room and respect for every voice. In taking these steps, we also make a better and stronger MIT, both for those who have the privilege to call the Institute home and those we look forward to welcoming in the years ahead.

 

With immense appreciation and gratitude to all who continue to move MIT forward,

 

L. Rafael Reif


Massachusetts Institute of Technology

77 Massachusetts Avenue  |  Cambridge, MA 02139