Do the Work: Demands for Action and Accountability in the MIT Department of Architecture
To the Faculty of the Department of Architecture at MIT,
We demand the following:
The ongoing pandemic and continual violence enacted upon Black lives has once again highlighted what Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities have always known: that the systemic violence of white supremacy exists in every facet of life. Despite years of calls for change, whiteness remains the neutral background against which narrow visions of merit, education, and community are valorized at MIT and the Department of Architecture. Neither the Institute nor the Department are unique in this way. But one distinguishing aspect of our department is its tight-knit community in which open dialogue and trust are described as central to the learning process.
In this spirit of dialogue, while students at many of our peer institutions wrote public letters demanding change earlier this summer, we (NOMAS MIT) co-hosted an internal town hall meeting with our Architecture Student Council for all students and faculty in the Department. We presented our list of demands (expanded below) and fielded questions from fellow students and faculty. This garnered a swift reply from our Department Head and Associate Department Heads, who outlined broad next steps and timelines, as well as the creation of a Strategy & Equity team comprised of one faculty, two staff, and one student. While this is a start, we need far more commitment from much more of our community. We continue to ask ― what’s next?
Far too often, the burden of anti-racist work falls upon students, faculty, and staff of color. We as students and leaders in NOMAS can only do so much as we push for an actively anti-racist department and attempt to make architecture engaged with the lives and experiences of BIPOC communities. This summer alone, we have led research with our Rotch Librarian to produce the BIPOC Design Archive Project, taught a class titled What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Architecture (WWDTAWWTAA), held weekly meetings, and co-organized town hall discussions. But we can only host so many conversations, workshops, wikipedia edit-a-thons, and lectures. Without this work, itself an act of self-preservation, we struggle to see any place for ourselves as part of this community and discipline. But who in the Department would be doing this work otherwise? Whose burden would this be?
This remains a question that weighs on us. In previous conversations with faculty regarding issues including Black student recruitment, BIPOC representation on final review juries, and the tenure process, we have been repeatedly told that students need to trust faculty, or that faculty do not have the power to enact change. Even after a well-attended June town hall, there have been few messages of faculty support and even fewer examples of action, which signals to students that a vast majority of the faculty we have been told to trust cannot be depended upon to participate in, let alone spearhead the change needed in our department. Across the discipline, we see an externalization of the issue ― a false idea that these uncomfortable truths about architecture’s complicity in racism can be studied impersonally, that they are distant engineering problems to be solved, and that we can be neutral observers of them. The current conversation in the Department clearly imagines the responsibility for this work falling on NOMAS members and our preexisting allies. Many members of our faculty community have consequently avoided personal responsibility. Where is your town hall? Where is your collective letter? Where are your workshops? Where is your solidarity with us?
As we begin a new academic year, we see this letter as an opportunity to express our resistance against a return to normal. Internal discussions have only gotten us so far, so we must try something else. This public format is intended to challenge faculty responses that remain embedded within the status quo and to hold faculty accountable for effecting change.
Dialogue alone will not dismantle white supremacy. The faculty must recognize themselves as a body accountable for the production and perpetuation of culture within this Department. You all have the responsibility to enact every single demand and sub-demand below. For demands in which you as individuals or as a collective cannot enact change directly, you can leverage your power to act as accomplices to exert pressure. We do not want your token gestures of support. We want your actual, practiced commitment to self-work. We want your time, energy, and expertise. You as faculty have individual and collective power, so use it. Trust is earned; you need to act.
Faculty responses to this set of demands are expected. The responsibility to engage should not fall on the Department Head alone. We invite direct individual and collective responses from you as faculty regarding your steps in addressing the demands below.
Increase Underrepresented Minority (URM) representation in the student body: The racial demographics of the students who constitute our Department reflect the priorities of the Department. For BIPOC students on the outside looking in, it is difficult for them to see a place for themselves within the MIT student body or academic discourse. They do not see students who look like them, who seem to share their interests, or a community in which they can feel a sense of belonging. The composition of our Department tells as much of our politics and educational praxis, as our research and classes.
- Increased BIPOC representation in faculty and staff: The current faculty composition includes disappointingly few BIPOC faculty. It is important to have racial diversity amongst faculty and staff in order to invite a variety of perspectives and experiences, to create mentorship opportunities for BIPOC students, staff, and faculty, and to address the patterns of racism and exclusion in the Department.
- Create tenure-track positions for BIPOC faculty (within 1-2 years): Several of the issues raised in subsequent points of this letter can be traced back to the lack of a diverse teaching and research faculty, including the topics of curriculum reform and Underrepresented Minority (URM) representation in the student body. While it may be difficult to create BIPOC-specific tenure track positions, reevaluating tenure criteria and tenure review committees is within the Department’s purview.1 2
- Increase short-term contracts for BIPOC instructors (within 1-2 years): Short-term hires, adjunct and instructor positions, and postdoc positions provide pathways to tenure within the School and Department as well as academies at large, which is why it is important to retain and encourage BIPOC appointees.
- Create a fellowship specifically for BIPOC practitioners and scholars (within 1-2 years): Fellowship funding provides a space for the development of a body of work/academic project necessary at the start of a career in practice and the academy. As with short-term hires, fellowships provide an instructor with the opportunity to teach and research their subject of interest while building an academic portfolio of teaching and scholarship essential for attaining tenure-track positions that are historically biased against BIPOC candidates.
- Invite student involvement in hiring processes (within AY20/21): Student input in hiring processes gives agency to the voice of students in the future of research, dialogue, and course offerings in the Department. As the primary stakeholders in the academy’s objective of educating, students need to be represented in hiring processes.
Curriculum Reform: We want to see curricular offerings deliberately reframed away from Eurocentric and colonial methods of engagement and toward a model that engages local communities and practices. It is imperative that our school and curriculum is cognizant of the means by which we present and critique work, taking into account the values of the communities with which we engage and the diversity of our student body. This type of engagement also requires instructors who are competent and prepared to participate in these conversations and design scenarios.
- Offer need-blind financial aid and other funding (within 2-4 years): Current financial aid offered to students does not provide sufficient support to permit many students to come to MIT without acquiring debt. The Department must offer more financial support to incoming BIPOC students in consideration of historical inequities and to repair and remedy the systematic financial burden on BIPOC students. This means providing need-blind aid and offering scholarships, stipends, and resources to BIPOC students through BIPOC-focused classes, faculty, and research opportunities. The Department should provide full funding to enrolled tribal members whose tribal lands have been historically exploited by MIT. 3 4
- Eliminate the GRE requirement for graduate program admissions (within AY20/21): The GRE requirement is a proven barrier for URM students.5 It is expensive, inaccessible, and discriminatory. It also does little to prove the merit of students and the probability of success in the graduate program.
- Address the application cost hindrance for URM students (within AY20/21): The application fee is a barrier that can inhibit low-income students from applying. The Department must eliminate the application fee in order to encourage and attract more diverse applicants, or at least for the upcoming admission cycle, provide a highly visible waiver option.
- Create a more holistic application process (within AY20/21): The Department must reconsider the application requirements so that it can attract a broader range of students from more diverse racial, socioeconomic, and educational backgrounds. Students coming from a variety of backgrounds will have different strengths and variable access to resources, which deeply impact the expression of application components. The prioritization of certain application components over others should be carefully reconsidered, and a one-size-fits-all approach should be avoided. Admissions committees should consider awarding admission based on potential and diversity, rather than solely on perceived merit.
- Increase prospective student outreach (within AY20/21): Our Department cannot expect to have a large pool of BIPOC student applicants without concerted effort. We must step outside of our typical avenues of recruitment and actively seek BIPOC students. We must develop new relationships by focusing on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) (many of which have undergraduate architecture programs), state schools, and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCU’s), and we must diversify our connections with international institutions (particularly those outside of Europe).
- Launch an applicant mentorship program (within AY20/21): Many universities that prioritize BIPOC students, such as HBCUs, are severely underfunded because of historical inequities. This can affect the style of admission components, such as the portfolio or personal statement. This does not mean lesser quality, but the way application components are articulated might not align with “elite” institutional or architectural expectations. Many BIPOC students might not be privy to the code of architectural culture and education. Therefore, we recommend that MIT Architecture establish an applicant support program to offer advice to prospective BIPOC students and assist them through the application process.
Require more robust racial bias and cultural sensitivity training for students, faculty and staff (within AY 20/21): Online training modules are insufficient and ineffective for a topic that requires reflection and interpersonal engagement. Both content and format are critical for the success of this initiative. The Department should either mandate or highly encourage participation, depending on its capabilities. Anti-racist education should not be the onus of BIPOC students, staff, and faculty, who are already at the receiving end of racism. Training courses should:
- Expand beyond the Eurocentric/Western architectural canon (within AY20/21): Within classes and seminars, we call for faculty to thoughtfully and significantly expand references and precedents beyond the Eurocentric/Western architectural canon. This is twofold: first, faculty should revise historical references to include those outside of a Eurocentric interpretation of history. Second, faculty should include contemporary voices that present critical race, gender, and postcolonial perspectives.
- Collaborate across disciplines within MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, the larger Institute, and beyond to bring in more diverse voices (within AY20/21): The architecture discipline and its faculty may not always have the skill sets and tools to appropriately engage with communities. Therefore, the Department should foster collaboration between disciplines in the form of seminars, workshops, and studios that incorporate established skill sets from other disciplines into architectural practice and research. Collaborating with organizations and individuals within and beyond the Institute will establish a dialogue with more diverse voices.
- Hold regular meetings to discuss future course offerings and curriculum reform (within AY20/21): The Department must create forums to survey the current curriculum, to discuss amendments, and for the student body to voice their concerns and thoughts for future course offerings. Student voices should be integral to regular curriculum discussions with faculty.
- Require earlier availability of proposed course syllabi (within AY20/21): Currently, students shop classes based on limited information found in the course description page. We ask that syllabi be included in the course description page at least a week prior to the start date of the semester so that access to classes is more equitable. Students might want to select classes based on the diversity of voices represented in the syllabus. Additionally, students have academic, work, and personal obligations, and planning becomes a challenge when syllabi are not posted in advance.
- Create an endowed lecture series for topics of equity and the built environment (within 1-2 years).
Increase funding for student initiatives: Funding must be increased for student initiatives that support spaces for conversations regarding identity, race, gender and class. This includes support for student groups like the MIT chapter of NOMAS (the National Organization of Minority Architecture Students). Increased funding for groups specifically intended for underrepresented students is needed to create spaces for us to feel welcomed and supported throughout our education, especially when we do not see ourselves represented in the curriculum or faculty.
- Take an in-person workshop format whenever possible.
- Involve BIPOC community members in workshop planning to allow for their input on the curriculum.
- Consider international perspectives, acknowledging that the United States context is not shared across all community members.
- Offer training each semester to place it at the forefront of education.
- Training should be built into the academic schedule such that no community member is burdened with work or financial penalties for attending.
Representation in reviews: Reviews are microcosms of our discipline, and it is imperative to craft a diverse jury pool. Reviews are treated as the pinnacle of architectural pedagogy wherein students are introduced to potential mentors, and jurors are invited as potential future faculty. When the jury panel does not reflect a diverse body of expertise and identities, discourse is limited and institutional white supremacy is reinforced. These homogenous review panels treat projects that design for under-represented communities or in under-represented geographies with a sense of novelty, marginalizing the value of student’s work and the sociopolitical arguments that may be embedded in the project. These reviews also remove the potential to create new relationships with those historically excluded from the architectural profession. This is particularly harmful in a department that lacks diversity amongst its own faculty, as a review might be the only occasion in which a student is introduced to a scholar who shares their identity or academic interests. The Department must explore ways to draw from a larger pool of people, and take seriously the need for earlier outreach and preparation.
- Create a more transparent and equitable system for TA and RA appointments (within AY20/21): The previous system of TA and RA appointments was heavily based on word-of-mouth and personal connections, meaning that many work opportunities were never publicly posted, putting students who need work to finance their education and pay rent at a disadvantage. Acquiring a TA or RA position can be challenging for students who already feel marginalized within the Department community. The Department must develop a new system for these appointments, which will better enable students to financially plan and provide more equitable access to jobs.
- Replace the current system of reimbursements (within AY20/21): The current system puts a burden on students to pay up front for diversity-related initiatives and opportunities. For certain large events, the current system requires students to spend thousands of dollars that can take many weeks to get reimbursed.
- Increase funding for student groups that foster diversity and inclusion within the Department (within AY20/21): Funding would support student-initiated programs that provide an essential space for many students within the Department. This funding would express a commitment from the Department that acknowledges the emotional burden that BIPOC students experience within the Department. These student groups also host pedagogical and practical experiments that center an equity-based approach to design (the NOMAS competition and conference, and the WWDTAWWTAA workshop, for example) which are lacking within the Department’s curriculum. Recognizing the essential and valuable contribution that these groups make to the Department in the form of proper funding would help grow and strengthen MIT Architecture as an institution devoted to diversity and inclusion in the built environment.
- Establish funding for BIPOC students and allies to attend workshops and conferences targeting professional development (within AY20/21): External workshops and conferences are especially important for BIPOC students who may be less likely to find faculty mentors and research or career opportunities within the Department itself. Funding should cover expenses for conference registration, travel, and lodging.
- Develop networks that support BIPOC students in establishing and maintaining relationships with BIPOC alumni (within AY20/21): The Department must establish a BIPOC alumni network and host events for alumni and students to foster meaningful connections. This is critical as alumni can help students navigate the Department, the discipline, and the industry in ways that faculty cannot.
Leverage MIT’s resources to build relationships and networks in partnership with BIPOC communities, especially in the Cambridge and Boston area: Boston is one of the most segregated cities in the US. Just one measure is Boston’s stark racial wealth gaps. While white households averaged a net worth of $247,500, non-immigrant African American households had a median net worth of $8 as reported by the Boston Globe in 2017. Although it is shortsighted for the Department to believe that architecture alone can solve racial wealth gaps, let alone structural racism and oppression, it can employ its institutional resources and presence to actively support local BIPOC communities. Furthermore, many members of these local BIPOC communities already engage in rich space-making and cultural practices. MIT should develop partnerships with these communities through which the Department can learn and practice more collaborative and socially engaged ways of working.
- Implement a department mandate that requires at least one womxn6 and one BIPOC juror (2 different people) in final reviews for each studio (within AY20/21)7: This requirement should be considered a bare minimum rather than a quota. Additionally, this will encourage an urgent and collective self-critical assessment of the kind of culture and dialogue that is perpetuated at MIT.
- Establish a code of conduct for jurors to reinforce a culture of anti-racism and anti-bigotry (within AY20/21): This code of conduct should not tolerate racist, sexist, classist, or otherwise discriminatory comments and feedback. This code of conduct must also hold MIT faculty accountable to comments shared during a review, and faculty should be expected to intervene when inappropriate behavior occurs. This may be uncomfortable for faculty, but we ask you to recognize what it feels like to be the target of such comments as a student. Faculty should be supported in these efforts through departmental anti-racist and bystander awareness training. Finally, this code of conduct should be sent to and agreed upon by all jurors as part of their acceptance to participate in reviews.
This document by no means covers the full extent of the changes the Department must enact to foster an expansive practice of anti-racism and anti-oppression. To this end, the Department must conduct its own self-work, which includes:
- Develop a research center to fund faculty and student work that engages with BIPOC communities specifically in the Boston area (within 1-2 years): This work should focus on the long-term engagement of community needs and goals rather than short-term “parachute-type” projects. The work of this center should be well incorporated into the culture and curriculum of department programs through studio courses, lectures, workshops, symposia, research grants, and so on.
- Use the department’s procurement processes to wield purchasing power and support local minority-owned businesses (within 1-2 years). Whenever possible, purchase products for the Department, such as meals, supplies, or equipment, from local minority-owned businesses.
- Participating in anti-bias and anti-racism training for all faculty and staff, as described in demand 4.
- Familiarizing yourselves with ongoing anti-racism work at MIT led by Black students, and leveraging the Department‘s voice and resources to support them. Start with the BGSA petition and the Black DUSP Thesis.
- Engaging with the Faculty Allyship Action List.
- Implementing these demands as an individual and finding ways to enact them collaboratively as a faculty body, working actively to create a more equitable environment for other faculty, staff, and students at MIT Architecture.
1 Several sources cite social research, community engagement, and diversity work as undervalued in scholarship under consideration for tenure. (Mallery M. et al., 2019; J. Fenelon, 2003).
2 The role of SEF (Student Evaluation of Faculty) in consideration for tenure is problematic because it captures a number of contaminating variables such social judgment of the instructor (age, race, ethnicity, country of origin, gender, sex, and sexual orientation) (R. Haskell, 1997).
3 Lee, Robert and Tristan Ahtone. “Land-grab universities.” High Country News, March 30 2020. https://www.hcn.org/issues/52.4/indigenous-affairs-education-land-grab-universities
5 Miller and Stassun, Nature, 2014
6 Includes cisgender and transgender women, and gender fluid or non-binary individuals.
7 NOMAS ASC Open Letter on Representation in Reviews
8 Ballesteros, Carlos. “African-Americans in Boston Have a Median Net Worth of $8. That's Not a Typo.” Newsweek, Newsweek, 11 Dec. 2017, www.newsweek.com/boston-african-americans-poverty-wealth-inequality-744108.