Best Practices for Effective DEI Committees

Diversity, equity, and inclusion committees (DEICs) now exist in a significant portion of departments and programs at MIT. A few of these committees have existed for 2–3 years. However, many were initiated in response to the recent national uprisings against police terror and institutional racism, as well as the organizing work these social movements inspired, including the #ShutDownSTEM events that occurred throughout academia, industry, and even at MIT, in June of 2020. Many community members are encouraged by the formation of these DEICs, seeing it as a strong commitment to addressing the systemic climate issues that have permeated academia, including our own individual programs and actions, for far too long. Others are worried it is a symbolic action — no different than the many committees, working groups, task forces, etc. we have seen convene for long periods of time only to culminate in weak and unaccountable recommendations that are, more often than not, never actualized. We must carefully and intentionally structure our DEICs to prevent them from becoming another superficial checkbox solution. To this end, we have identified six key factors that can make or break a DEIC’s ability to be impactful in addressing the major underlying climate issues in an academic department: 1) Membership, 2) Transparency, 3) Accountability, 4) Priorities, 5) Timeline, and 6) Consideration of existing work, recommendations, and expertise. In this work, we demonstrate the significance of these six elements in the efficacy of DEICs through examples of poorly executed practices, existing research, and personal experiences. From this analysis, we build our recommendation for how DEICs should be implemented here at MIT.

1. Membership

One of the first steps in creating a DEIC is setting up its membership. A DEIC must consist of elected, equally-empowered members who represent the range of stakeholders in the community. A model of representation helps engage a diverse range of experiences and interests, though membership should be limited so it is not so large that it becomes unproductive. Note, however, this model is only successful if the representatives continually engage their constituencies to relay information back and forth between the DEIC. The stakeholder groups generally include faculty, undergraduate students, graduate students, staff, and post-doctoral researchers (students are often chosen as representatives of the various DEI-related student organizations in the department). If the members are indeed meant to be representatives of their constituencies in any form, it is only right that they are elected by their peers. However, many DEICs hand-pick their members, even when student groups have explicitly asked to nominate their own representatives. This method of member selection instantly creates feelings of distrust, compromises the legitimacy of the DEIC, and brings into question the intent of the leadership charged with member selection.

All groups should have approximately equal representation in the committee and equal voting power on any significant decisions. While it is unrealistic to expect all members to contribute an equal time commitment to the DEIC outside of meetings, labor should be divided fairly, so as not to overburden any one group or individual. Further, tasks should be tailored to the unique abilities and experiences of each stakeholder group. For example, in our experience, students will very likely do the majority of the legwork in developing an initiative. Faculty, on the other hand, should use their unique power and influence to actively garner buy-in from the larger community. Committees should strongly consider appointing co-chairs, likely composed of a faculty, staff, and student representative. In other words, DEICs should be multi-representational with shared leadership. Shared leadership decentralizes hierarchical management roles and distributes power among several group members. This organizational style presents numerous advantages in the efficacy of a DEIC, some of which include increased productivity, a more diverse pool of expertise, and enhanced accountability for accomplishing the tasks on hand.

Finally, in addition to fair representation by role in the department, there should also be representation of a range of identities, communities, and knowledge bases. Effort should be made to diversify the make-up of the DEIC and its leadership. There is a very fine balance between uplifting marginalized voices and imposing a Minority Tax (i.e., requiring marginalized people to do the majority of the work to fix the systemic oppression they are already inhibited by), but we have seen a number departments in which the DEIC chair (and often the department head as well) is a cisgender, straight, white man, and this has set a problematic tone in which underrepresented minority (URM) students feel pressured to educate the DEIC themselves if not navigate outright problematic beliefs and attitudes by the chair. Additionally, there must be inclusion of or regular consultation with someone with tailored DEI expertise. This could take the form of a DEI officer — a professional with experience in advocacy, addressing climate issues, and academia — hired as a full-time employee to improve the department’s climate. The need for expertise is often disregarded by department leadership who say its own faculty, students, and staff know the program better than anyone else, but this falsely equates familiarity with the non-trivial expertise needed to solve these complex and intersectional issues.

2. Transparency

Once the membership has been set, the DEIC must operate with complete internal and external transparency. Transparency is crucial for any effort combating racism, sexism, and other forms of marginalization and DEICs are no exception to this rule. In fact, transparency is especially crucial for DEICs precisely because they represent multiple constituencies of a department, each with different relationships to one another which come with various power imbalances. We have already seen clear examples of nontransparent practices in multiple DEICs, in some cases from their very inception.

One example is the creation of channels of influence within the DEIC or between the DEIC and the department that precludes other committee members (mostly students and/or staff) from having input on crucial decisions. These channels may be exercised either informally or explicitly via the creation of an “executive committee.” Any decision-making that circumvents the democratic procedures of a DEIC only serves to exclude key stakeholders where their voices are needed most and undercuts its efficacy by eroding trust between the committee members. More critically, any communications or decision-making practices which do not equitably include the voices of students and staff are diametrically opposed to the stated goals of the committee. It is impossible for such an exclusionary and inequitable DEIC to advance the goals of inclusion and equity. DEICs must operate on the principle of “nothing about us without us” at all times, not just when it is convenient for some stakeholders.

It is equally important for DEICs to be maximally transparent with the rest of the community by regularly communicating their efforts. The need for transparency is especially pertinent at MIT, where decades of failed or half-hearted attempts to address marginalization have left many students and staff rightfully disillusioned with official working groups. Maintaining the status quo of closed-door meetings will only demonstrate that marginalized voices are especially undervalued and not welcomed within the DEIC. Furthermore, transparency affirms that the DEIC is accountable to the rest of the community and prevents the committee from stagnating over time. One may argue that DEICs should be partially or entirely exempt from transparency requirements because they may discuss sensitive topics (e.g. an individual’s experience with harassment). However, truly sensitive portions of a meeting can always be anonymized or omitted and these should be the only exception to the rule of full transparency. At a minimum, DEICs should publish their meeting minutes, provide regular progress reports, and procure community input (e.g. periodic open meetings, town halls, etc.).

3. Accountability

Transparency is a tool to employ accountability, which is another necessity that must be carefully and intentionally built into the DEIC in the early stages. Accountability is defined as “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.” Our DEICs have been charged to address the systemic issues of racism and sexism in our departments and if there is no form of accountability, then we cannot expect these critical responsibilities to be met. We have identified three key aspects of accountability in the context of DEICs. First, the committee must be able and willing to address root problems with targeted responses, not just surface issues with band-aid solutions. For example, if a DEIC wants to alleviate climate issues to increase URM recruitment, they should avoid band-aid solutions like changing how students represent the program during visiting weekend and focus on solutions which address the root problem, such as developing robust initiatives to help URM students succeed in their PhD programs. The underlying problems are almost always harder and more resource-intensive to fix, of course, but surface solutions are ultimately a waste of resources if they don’t resolve the core issues that necessitate them.

Once a DEIC can identify and commit to addressing the underlying, systemic issues, it must be sufficiently empowered to implement their initiatives meaningfully and successfully. First, the committee must be willing to make firm commitments. Department or committee heads often hedge their bets by making soft commitments, usually riddled with caveats and lacking any sort of timeline or plan. On top of this, the DEIC must be able to make firm commitments, rather than holding only advisory and recommendation power. If the department head can ignore or defer any recommendation, it will be impossible for a committee to make firm commitments that address the key issues. One way to empower the DEIC in the department is to affiliate it with outside offices, perhaps via a DEI officer (as described earlier under “Membership”) that co-leads the committee, facilitates meetings, and is affiliated with the Institute Community and Equity Office (ICEO). Of course, these firm commitments must also be made transparent to the larger community so that they can keep the DEIC and department leadership accountable for executing these promises.

Finally, a DEIC must be treated as a long-term initiative to make sure these broader culture shifts are actualized and that the climate continues to be critically evaluated. It is problematic when the department or committee leadership sets up the DEIC with a fixed lifetime (even if it is on the order of years) or makes comments about hoping to one day not need a DEIC, because such statements reflect a deep misconception that these problems can be completely “solved” or that we will eventually exhaust the ways to make our climate more inclusive and productive. A committee must be held accountable not only to make strong commitments but also to see them through and to measure the change they result in, which may take three or more years. The DEIC must be structured to exist indefinitely, and each commitment must be continually backed with the necessary resources to execute them with the promised rigor and speed.

4. Priorities

Upon formation, a DEIC must set priorities that are explicitly and narrowly scoped. Without a proper definition of committee objectives and priorities, DEICs can become derailed by issues that are irrelevant to diversity and inclusion. For example, if it is determined that all feedback from the community will be considered by this committee, the DEIC will be faced with tasks that are outside its purview such as administrative tasks.

When defining the committee’s priorities and objectives, the heaviest focus should be placed on working toward meaningful, substantial, and timely changes rather than the band-aid type solutions discussed previously in “Accountability.” A DEIC should not focus on developing initiatives that can effectively be organized and implemented by departmental student groups, such as discussion groups, newsletters, seminar series, or mentorship programs. Rather, the focus of the DEIC should be to review all policies and practices in the department, and identify concrete changes that can be made to make these policies more equitable. This includes graduate admissions, faculty hiring and tenure, qualifying exams, advisor/advisee feedback, etc. Where applicable, the DEIC should have access to the data surrounding and resulting from these policies and procedures (including, but not limited to: graduate acceptance rates, attrition rates, qualifying exam pass/fail rates, faculty hiring and tenure data, department specific climate data, exit interviews, and advisor/advisee feedback forms) to identify any structures in the department that may be inherently biased.

We recommend these priorities be synthesized into a values statement or charter to clearly define its scope. All members of the committee should be given the opportunity to provide input in the development of such a charter to ensure that all constituencies feel they have a say in the committee structure and that their unique climate issues will be addressed. A DEIC that is chartered only by faculty will, by design, only address faculty priorities. The charter should address each of the sections mentioned in this article to ensure that these recommendations and best practices are included within the structure of the committee.

5. Timeline

Once priorities have been set, the DEIC must commence with discussion, planning, and execution of change in a timely manner. A well thought out and action-oriented timeline for a DEIC is crucial to its efficacy and its ability to maintain buy-in from the larger community. It is all too common that department leadership are content with an exceedingly slow pace of change, but we cannot perpetually be told to wait. One critical issue with a slow pace of change is that not only do students have limited time at MIT, but our obligations and bandwidth available for this work can vary drastically from year to year and term to term, even week to week. Faculty can similarly be pulled by a wide range of demands on their time with unpredictable fluctuations. The slower we approach these efforts, the more likely we are for new personal or institutional crises to disrupt our progress and this has always set us back. We must act deliberately and with a sense of urgency to make meaningful strides in this work, lest we wait until all momentum and opportunity for change dissipates.

Another common pitfall is a desire to over-deliberate on issues within the DEIC and give undue focus to discussion for discussion’s sake rather than discussion oriented towards concrete action. DEICs must be action-oriented at all times because the issues they are charged to address — discriminatory practices, unsafe working and learning environments, and toxic culture — are incredibly urgent for marginalized people at MIT. We can’t afford to treat these topics as academic experiments or interesting design problems — these are real, immediate issues which are deeply harmful and damaging for those subject to harassment and discrimination in academia, and they must be treated as such. Some may argue that these issues are too complex to rush into, but this refrain has come to be the favorite excuse for saying that nothing can be done or that only the most minor intervention can be taken for now. While racism and sexism are certainly complex problems generally, within the context of academia there is a litany of simple reforms which can be implemented with relatively little effort, but only if DEICs (and indeed MIT as a whole) consistently ask “How can we make this happen?” and “What are the immediate obstacles to change that we need to address?” rather than dwelling on the enormity of the problem for months on end.

To this end, we recommend that DEICs construct an ambitious yet achievable timeline to achieve its goals early on, with deadlines grounded in particular concrete goals rather than an abstract sense of how long these issues “should take” to resolve. These goals should always be “SMART” — specific, measurable, assignable, relevant, and time-based. The structure and frequency of DEIC meetings should be chosen to make the committee as effective as possible in moving towards action. For example, committees should consider making decisions by majority rule (after an appropriate period of discussion) rather than by consensus to avoid lone individuals holding up the process — this is a particular concern with faculty, some of whom have the relative privilege and luxury of turning urgent concrete tasks into unnecessarily long discussions. DEICs should also consider using facilitation techniques such as the stack system, in which the meeting facilitator calls on people to speak in the order in which they raised their hands, to organize discussions in a way that is orderly, time-effective, and ensures that all members of the committee get the chance to speak. Furthermore, to maintain the committee’s focus on its priorities at each meeting, agendas should be created in advance. The committee chair(s) should circulate this agenda prior to the meeting, allowing for other faculty, staff, or student representatives to propose changes or addendum. Each item on the agenda should be allotted a specific time frame for discussion to ensure that the committee can touch on every point on the agenda. In addition, we recommend that the committee invite outside facilitators to moderate meetings. This will not only help to keep conversation centered on the topic at hand, but will also help to control for the inherent power dynamics that exist between various members of the committee. Finally, timelines should be revisited and reassessed frequently to ensure the committee is operating effectively and keeping the department informed on the committee’s progress.

6. Consideration of existing work, recommendations, and expertise

One crucial way to decrease the timeline for change is to build off of existing initiatives and recommendations. It is important to note that when outlining its priorities, a DEIC does not have to (and should not) start from scratch. In the early stages of this process, the committee should review the many previous recommendations that have been made. These include, but are not limited to, the 2015 BGSA recommendations, the 2018 NASEM report, the 2020 Support Black Lives petition, the 2020 Reject Injustice through Student Empowerment Campaign, as well as any recommendations from its own student groups. Our institutional memory often ignores this past work, instead inefficiently starting over to develop new initiatives. These well-researched recommendations should serve as a basis for developing committee priorities, objectives, and plans of action. The committee should also ensure that they are established for longevity and sustainability by carefully documenting all work to ensure that there are no gaps in the transfer of knowledge and initiatives as there is membership turnover.

Although these student recommendations serve as a great starting point, there is a fine line between using student efforts to shape the direction of the DEIC and completely co-opting them. In many departments, DEICs have taken credit for initiatives that were proposed, organized, and implemented by students. Even when DEICs invite students who lead such efforts to report on them at committee meetings, without any attempt to discuss how the committee can help implement or build upon these initiatives, the DEIC is merely co-opting the efforts of students and rebranding them as the department’s own work. Not only do DEICs often co-opt student recommendations, but they often then implement them in a severely watered-down fashion that is completely inauthentic to the original goals. The purpose of a DEIC should be to develop strategic plans for future initiatives, not to pat itself on the back for misimplementing recommendations or co-opting previous initiatives, which, more often than not, have not had much department input or support.

These analyses and ideas were collected by the Reject Injustice through Student Empowerment (RISE) campaign from discussions with organizers from across MIT who have been involved in DEICs. RISE is a grassroots effort to fight racism and sexism on our campus to guarantee the right to a safe working and educational environment free of harassment, discrimination, and abuse. Reach out to us at rise4mit@gmail.com if you are interested in getting involved or supporting our efforts. You can also submit your stories, anonymously if you wish, about your experiences at MIT working with DEICs or facing abuse, harassment, discrimination, and other forms of marginalization using this form on our website.

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