• Former Secretary, United States Department of Labor Alexis M. Herman gave the keynote address at the Diversity Leadership Congress convened by President Susan Hockfield at the Back Bay Events Center on Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2008.

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  • Thomas A. Kochan, George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management at the Sloan School, left, moderates a panel discussion at the Diversity Leadership Congress.Panelists are Philip Harlow, chief diversity and labor relations officer, Xerox Corporation who is speaking; Shirley M. Malcom, PhD, head of the Directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs, American Association for the Advancement of Science and Michael F. Summers, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and professor of chemistry, University of Maryland, Baltimore County are attentive at right.

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Promoting diversity

MIT leaders convene to accelerate efforts

Hundreds of academic, administrative and student leaders gathered Tuesday, Nov. 18, for the first Diversity Leadership Congress, where participants were urged to bring the Institute's signature hands-on style of problem solving to accelerate efforts at promoting diversity and inclusion across MIT.

President Susan Hockfield, who proposed the congress earlier this year to promote diversity of all kinds by inspiring and supporting a culture of inclusion, kicked off the conference by telling participants that diversity matters now more than ever because of the changing demographics of the United States.

"A richly diverse America does not await us. It is upon us. It is our present and our future," Hockfield said. "We cannot permit MIT to be a community of the past."

She also said it was vital to make diversity work at MIT because "it will make us better at what we do." Given MIT's rich tradition of risk-taking and problem solving, she said, the Institute is certainly up to the challenge.

"We have a spectacular tradition of solving daunting real-world problems, and we have no patience with complacency or conventional boundaries if they get in the way of our work," she said. "On the question of diversity and inclusion for faculty, students and staff, this is the time for us to meet that challenge, and to design approaches that are worthy of MIT."

Conference attendees also heard words of advice from former U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and a panel of other leaders in diversity issues, before breaking into small groups to discuss how MIT can move ahead in this area.

Herman, who served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, urged MIT leaders to do everything they can to promote a culture of diversity and inclusion.

"That's the only way to make sure it is institutionalized and not just the flavor of the month," Herman said.

Echoing Hockfield, Herman emphasized the need to embrace changing demographics and promote diversity, which she defined as "the leveraging of all human and institutional capital." Encouraging traditionally underrepresented minorities and women to enter science and engineering fields is necessary to ensure that the United States remains globally competitive, she said.

Panelists share experiences

Three panelists from academia and the corporate world also shared their experiences in promoting diversity.

Philip Harlow, chief diversity and labor relations officer at Xerox, told the audience that "there is no magic formula" for creating diversity. But one critical ingredient is strong leadership within the organization.

"Without having enlightened, progressive-thinking leaders, the idea of moving diversity forward would be a moot point," he said.

Shirley Malcom, head of the directorate for education and human resources programs for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, urged the congress attendees to promote the mission of diversity wherever they go, not only at MIT. Furthermore, whatever MIT does will set a standard for others to follow, she said.

"What you do affects the rest of higher education, because if you get it right, you set forth an example that others cannot ignore," she said.

Michael Summers, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and professor of chemistry at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, described the success his school has had in recruiting and graduating minority students in the sciences.

In the biological sciences, the percentage of black students earning PhDs at UMBC has increased from 1 percent to 18 percent in the past 10 years. And applications for an undergraduate program for minority science students vastly exceed the number of spots available.

"Faculty and students have to realize the breadth of the talent pool," Summers said. "There is this enormous talent pool that we're not retaining."

'Energizing day'

After the panel discussion, participants broke into small groups to talk about what they are doing now and what MIT can do to increase diversity.

Edmund Bertschinger, head of the physics department, facilitated one of the small group discussions and said he was energized by the chance to meet other MIT leaders and share successes and frustrations in trying to improve diversity.

"I'm delighted by the connections made, the ideas shared, and the opportunities for working together created by the congress," he said. "Bring together a passionate group of problem-solvers from MIT and they will collaborate outside the box."

Ann Wolpert, director of the MIT Libraries, said the congress was a "wonderful, provocative, energizing day."

One of the day's takeaway messages is that certain elements are critical to success, she said. Those elements include "enlightened, committed leaders; a written, visible plan for moving forward; and the willingness to measure results and expect accountability."

The strong relationships that already exist within MIT will help give the Institute a leg up on tackling diversity issues, Wolpert said.

"The Diversity Leadership Congress was a vivid example of the committed leadership that can be brought to bear on the challenge of increasing and sustaining diversity at MIT."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 19, 2008 (download PDF).

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