Hitting the diversity wall

6 minute read


Some reactions to a recent Insider Higher Ed article on “Hitting the [Diversity] Wall”. The tl;dr of my thoughts: (1) Yep, the wall is real. Finding other students working to remind ourselves that we’re not alone in this fight is critical. (2) The fight is for transformation beyond “diversity and inclusion” - it’s about transformation of power structures. That’s what makes it hard and inspiring. (3) The strategies we take are important: when do we work with our departments and when do we demand change?

After experiencing years of slow progress, I came to see more clearly an immense gap between an institution’s intention for inclusion and their investment in it. This gap enabled the institution to benefit from my and other students’ free labor without being held accountable. I’ve reached the point where I can’t justify that exploitation. I’ve hit the diversity wall and am reclaiming my time and labor.

I hit this wall every few months. It’s my constant existential crisis: I see the gap, I see the lack of investment from MIT, and yet I also see my own white skin, supportive advisor, significant fleixibility (#computational PhD ftw) and relative position of privilege and it feels like I can’t just stop now. Interestingly, I had a conversation with a faculty member here at MIT who works on diversity and inclusion issues and I asked him point-blank: what would make MIT supportive of something like a new Center focused on diversity and inclusion research? He said, also point-blank: if it became a priority of the donors or alums, or if Stanford started using their own Center as a chip against us (not sure which Center he was referring, but perhaps this one?).

I was on the verge of quitting all diversity-related work early last semester, after we’d tried and failed to set up a faculty task force. The idea for the task force was that it’d be a group of faculty supported by grad students and would look into my department’s policies, data, and procedures related to diversity and compare them against what the primary literature has to say. Basically, any time we started thinking of faculty to fill out this task force, we either came up with all of my department’s faculty or none of them. In our report handing off the task force to the department, we wrote:

the lack of strong departmental leadership with respect to diversity significantly lowered the chances of the Task Force having significant transformative impact in the department

I still believe this is true, and I still believe that true transformative change in my department is still a long ways away. However, the thing that has kept me going strong is my other students. I was doing most of the work in my department on my own or with one other person. Now, I’ve joined up with the Graduate Student Council and am connected to a whole ecosystem of passionate, motivated students all working toward the same goal. It’s so energizing to know that even if I don’t succeed in transforming MIT the way I dream of, then I can use my hard-won knowledge to support and lift up the efforts of those who will come after me. Also, it’s just great to be in a room full of people with positive energy directed at change-making. Inspirational!

Our current social and political moment demands we either abandon piecemeal diversity entirely or refashion and ground it as a demand for racial, gender and economic civil rights. This demand would fundamentally alter how colleges and universities view themselves in society; rather than anointing the predetermined elite, they would be cultivating the best and brightest. Instead of relying on an ecosystem of exploiting minoritized students in the name of diversity work, institutions must see that the current political moment demands institutions take seriously how their existing political positions embody complicity and neutrality.

Yes! This is what keeps me committed to the cause - a perhaps naive but optimistic thought that the time is ripe for fundamental change. I secretly hope that the current political and social climate is making it really obvious to the well-meaning do-gooders that there are deeply entrenched problems in our society, and that many “diversity initiatives” are really only surface-level band-aids which are not satisfactory. I hope that it’s a good time for nascent allies to blossom.

Given that diversity work never lived up to my expectations, I continued asking myself as a student, “How do I determine whether I invest in my department’s and university’s diversity work?” Neither of those entities is entitled to my time, especially since both of them tend to be powerfully invested in improving institutional rankings over actual quality. When I reframed the question of engagement, I realized that evaluating how a department or university treats its faculty of color and those of other minoritized backgrounds is indicative of its politics.

This was a really interesting point that I didn’t realize I’ve been considering all along. Despite the lack of transformative change in my department (a disillusioned student once referred to it as an “immobile Department”, which struck a nerve straight into my heart) - I know that they do care, and that they do support their students, and that they genuinely want all of us to succeed. At least from the upper levels, there is no overt negative treatment that I can see in my department. The negative consequences come from fierce commitment to the status quo and ambivalence about creative and proactive change-making. So even if it isn’t always the most satisfying work, it also isn’t the most futile. And I have seen significant improvement, even in the short time I’ve been doing this work! Just last week, I heard my department head say that finding a faculty candidate pool that was 50% non-white-male was a priority for the search committee this year (and they made good on it, btw). Those were my words coming out of his mouth! It’s a fairly low bar but that’s okay, because it’s a bar that they’ve seen, understood, valued, and raised. Onwards!

Such questions led me to consider what could happen if graduate students first demanded demonstrable progress before they ever engaged with any activities, particularly recruitment activities. And what could happen if faculty members had to take seriously the decades of scholarship on faculty of color and not leave this work to departmental staff and students? If students are bound by a moral imperative to do diversity work because the next generation should not have to continue to carry this burden, when do we stop pulling the institution forward and expect the institution to unambiguously lead?

Damn. No answers here, just… damn.