PGSC Recommendations

Recommendations to the Physics Community
on Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Physics Graduate Student Council and the Physics Working Group

July 14, 2020

Printable documents and scorecards



The Physics Graduate Student Council (PGSC) and the Physics Working Group (PWG) are releasing recommendations in the spirit of the Steps Towards Diversity and Inclusion presented by the Society of Physics Students (SPS) on June 18th about what we as the MIT Department of Physics must do to uphold our Physics Community Values by furthering diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in our community — and crucially, justice for our Black students and colleagues.

The tragic and violent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless others have once again thrust systemic racism and its manifestation in the behaviors of individuals into the national spotlight. Systemic racism refers to structural, societal, and system-level dynamics, policies, and practices that disproportionately disadvantage and harm racial minorities. It is important to recognize that these fundamental failures across many elements of society are not the sole provenance of some other place, population, or time. Profound racial inequities and injustice have plagued MIT throughout its 159 years of existence, not only at an institutional level, but also here in our own department. 

Even though MIT has spent decades studying systemic racism on campus, only mild progress has been made toward implementing recommendations from faculty, staff, student and alumni groups. If we truly wish to uphold the values we claim to espouse, then now is the time to act. We as a community cannot wait another day and must work together to achieve lasting change. 

We present endorsements of ongoing initiatives as well as twenty-nine recommendations grouped into six major categories for improving the experience of underrepresented physicists:

The webpages linked above contain broad overviews of each of the six action areas, along with detailed descriptions of each recommendation. We present specific actionable items and provide links that provide a first step towards explaining the research and motivating our recommendations. We expect that conversations with the Department to develop comprehensive plans for change will entail discussion of the compelling body of literature behind each recommendation and the full range of potential actions.  

To this end, underrepresented scientists and their allies have already done much of the difficult legwork in devising goals, collecting background information, and presenting well-researched proposals for improving the state of physics. National task forces, in particular the AIP National Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics & Astronomy (TEAM-UP), have made tremendous efforts to compile detailed resources and best practices guidelines for supporting Black physicists. We appreciate as well the objectives put forth recently by fellow students, including the BSU/BGSA petition, student government demands in other departments, documentation from campus advocacy and activist organizations like GSC-DEI and Grad Students for a Healthy MIT, and many others. We are grateful to the Divisions for their enlightening #ShutDownStem discussions and action plans, as well as to fellow physics graduate student organizations (physREFS, PVC representatives, GWIP) for lending expertise gained from their advocacy efforts. Most importantly, we thank our fellow students for sharing valuable ideas, suggestions, guidance, and insights from their lived experiences.

Due to the wide-ranging scope of existing literature, the full list of improvements we can make for our community is extensive. Many of our recommendations touch upon issues that can be resolved by simple action items. However, the most important recommendations are far more complicated and will require a coordinated effort to fully investigate, deliberate, and rectify. To provide some sense of priority, we mark in bolded red font the items on which we request that the Department take immediate action.

We recognize that our physics faculty and staff already do a great deal to support our Department, so we propose two major ideas to divide the labor:

  • First, we discuss the potential appointment of a graduate student advocate, a department ombuds, and/or the hiring of an additional diversity staff member. Rather than reinvent the wheel, we ought to bring members into our community who are well-educated and dedicated to these areas and who can guide our community in best practices.
  • Second, we recommend that the Department strive to engage all its members at every career level in DEI, outreach, and advocacy, and prevent placing the burden of this work on just a few.

According to the Physics Values Statement,

As members of our community, we uphold the principles of well-being, respect, inclusion, collaboration, and mentorship. We take an active responsibility in ensuring that everyone feels welcome and respected. We recognize that other people’s life experiences are not our own, but are valid in and of themselves. Given this, we realize that our actions may impact others in unintended ways even as we strive to treat each other with respect. We understand that we will make mistakes. When we do, we will work to correct them and educate ourselves.

It will require a significant and sustained effort from each and every MIT physicist, as well as the Physics Department as a collective entity, to embody these values in a meaningful way. The path forward will be easier if we can coordinate various cohorts within the Department and centralize what are at present many disparate initiatives and ideas. In addition, while any efforts devoted to DEI may seem like they are only taking time away from other work, we urge our community to think about the long term. Efforts to improve the experience and work conditions of all members of our Department will raise the quality of students and researchers we can attract into physics and MIT, and allow all of us to better contribute to teaching, research, our campus community, and the advancement of physics. 

We are at a pivotal moment in history—a moment that requires us to pull together in solidarity and stand up for what is right. We look forward to working with the department to improve our climate, support our colleagues, and create an MIT physics community that embraces Black students, postdocs, and faculty and their pursuit of physics. Let us ensure that the next generation of physicists does better than our own.