Demanding Change — A Celebrated MIT Tradition

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What is the single most common question the RISE campaign gets from administrators?

The campaign to Reject Injustice through Student Empowerment (RISE) has gained wide support and engagement across campus, with almost 1000 individual signatures and 74 student group signatures. With the hundreds of hours that have been put into this campaign, we are eager to employ the significant research behind our demands on best practices and national recommendations, and to determine the role each office can play in building a more equitable and inclusive MIT. We have been meeting with a wide range of administrators who are decision makers in key areas of our demands, and we enter these meetings prepared to discuss the marginalization, harassment, and discrimination taking place on our campus that first motivated our campaign. However, despite our efforts to focus on actionable change at these meetings, the most common opening question from administrators is: “Why did you have to call them ‘demands’?” This question is often asked with a tone of offense, suggesting our assertions have hurt their feelings, or sometimes with an accusatory tone, implying we are being unreasonable and inflexible. Why are administrators so distraught by such a simple word so common to student advocacy?

MIT has a long history of student activism, one that students and top leadership alike have celebrated and commemorated. Those student activists didn’t confine themselves to presidential advisory groups or making recommendations. They made demands of those in power to concede something students believed was critical and morally right. Making demands and taking action is how the March 4th movement and November Actions in 1968 and 1969 successfully pressured MIT to cut ties with Draper Labs as a protest against the Vietnam War. Making demands and taking action is how the Coalition Against Apartheid in the 1980’s pressured MIT to divest from Aparthied South Africa (though MIT shamefully never ultimately divested before the end of Aparthied). Making demands and taking action is how the newly formed Black Student Union (BSU) in 1969 pressured MIT to drastically change undergrad admissions and set us down the course of a far more diverse undergraduate student body.

In this last example, much of the rest of campus said that the students were being too radical and too aggressive, similar to what we have heard in response to our use of the word “demands.” However, Associate Provost Paul Grey saw it differently — the BSU’s bold actions brought him to the table and allowed them to work together to accomplish the students’ goals. In an interview on his experience working with the BSU, Gray said that the students “were confrontational in the sense that here were a set of students pressing their agenda that was requiring the place to change — and that was, in a sense, a confrontation.” When students are dedicated to seeing a change that they need and we know there is resistance to it, we have no choice but to be assertive of those needs. And just like the BSU student leaders asserting the needs of students in 1969, we must also be confrontational if we want those needs to be heard, taken seriously, and prioritized.

Marginalized groups at MIT have been promised change for a long time through many committees, working groups, and task forces. Each of these efforts can last for years, only to take the form of weak recommendations that are never implemented. With how the administrators consistently disregards and neglects their own recommendations, how could we ever expect them to take “recommendations” from students seriously? While administrators meet again and again, month after month, attempting to fulfill their committee’s charge in the minimal time they have to devote to these efforts on top of their own office’s duties, marginalized students continue to work and learn in an unsafe environment where they are severely underrepresented and experiencing higher rates of imposter syndrome and financial stress, among many other disparities. One cannot expect these students to do anything less than demand change.

So why are administrators so uncomfortable with students making demands? Because it means giving students power. With recommendations, MIT’s top leadership maintains all the power over the solutions, as well as the narrative, timeline, and resources around those solutions. It should be noted that student demands are never set in stone — how could they be when we are given no power to begin with? — and we are more than willing to work with the administration to find a solution we are all satisfied with. However, students firmly asserting their needs and proposing substantial change via demands ultimately shifts some of the power from the hands of top administration back into the hands of the communities most affected by it. MIT’s “1%,” if you will, still controls almost every facet of this incredibly powerful 26.2 billion dollar corporation. 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.

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