Symposium on National Academies report on sexual harassment

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Good afternoon. I am Rafael Reif, MIT’s president, and it’s my privilege to welcome you to this important event.

Our subject today is the report called “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.” 

As you’d expect from a consensus report of the National Academies, it is a serious piece of scholarship. And we are fortunate that its lead authors, President of Wellesley College Paula Johnson and Institute Professor Sheila Widnall of MIT, are with us today.

A warm welcome to friends and colleagues from our academic neighbors, including Wellesley and Brandeis, and a special welcome to our guest speaker, University Professor Anita Hill.  

I also want to recognize Chancellor Cindy Barnhart, Provost Marty Schmidt, Vice President and General Counsel Mark DiVincenzo, Vice President for Human Resources 
Lorraine Goffe and the many others here today who have led the way, officially and unofficially, over decades to make MIT a more equitable and welcoming community for everyone. Thank you.  And by all means, keep going.

Today, I am deeply encouraged. Your attendance speaks to the strong desire to understand these issues more fully – and to keep making progress. In a moment, Sheila and Paula will speak about their findings and recommendations. For now, I will offer just a few comments on why these issues matter so much to us at MIT.

Over the last year, the “MeToo” movement forced the whole country to grasp that sexual harassment is pervasive. Like all of you, I was deeply disturbed by the revelations of misconduct elsewhere. And I must believe it also happens at MIT. On this question, our community is not an oasis of safety. 

In fact, the National Academies’ report makes this same point about academic institutions in general. When it comes to sexual harassment, a community like ours presents a particular set of risks: a 24/7 environment that brings together people across a broad range of ages, incomes and backgrounds, many of whom have power over others. The power to make being at MIT miserable. Power enough to make or break a career.

The success of our community is built on collaboration and mutual respect. Sexual harassment is an act of aggression that belittles, unnerves and controls. It violates our fundamental expectations of respect and equality. And it violates the humanity of the person being harassed.

At MIT, fulfilling our mission depends on people of exceptional talent performing at the height of their capacities and working together to solve the most challenging problems. It is obvious that there can be no room for sexual harassment in that picture.

Last fall, I wrote to the community to express these values and ideas. And I also described our efforts to fight sexual harassment at MIT. Let me offer a few updates since then.

We have expanded rules regarding consensual relations among community members across lines of authority, such as faculty and graduate students. We’re assessing the process by which a student can file a complaint against another student under Title IX and our sexual misconduct policy, to see if it needs improvement. Marty, Cindy, Mark and Lorraine have worked to develop enhanced processes for handling sexual harassment complaints against staff and faculty. These recommendations are being vetted internally, and I hope that we can start to implement them soon.

Because a true solution needs to include everyone, we’ve also greatly expanded training efforts. Online, we started with students. And a week ago, Marty, Cindy and Lorraine let us know that, when we expanded that online training to include all paid MIT faculty and staff, the participation rate was an astounding 99.7%. To the 9,300 faculty and staff who took the time to complete this program: Thank you. This is a tremendous expression of this community’s commitment and values.

Finally, to make good decisions, we need good data. MindHandHeart is already conducting studies about the working and learning environment in various departments. And next spring, we will once again conduct an in-depth survey that will allow students to convey how they may have experienced sexual misconduct at MIT.

I’m grateful to everyone who has worked so hard on these many efforts. In the end, however, the most important work is up to all of us. 

We need to actively build a culture that treats sexual harassment, coercion and assault as out of bounds — unthinkable for anyone, of any age, in any context. 

Getting the culture right matters to us here on campus. And it matters far beyond campus, too. Because the students we educate will go on to launch, and lead, and populate companies, labs, agencies, institutions and governments around the globe. And they will carry with them the professional culture they experience at MIT.

Finally, let me state the obvious. Most harassers are men. As a result, the men in our community have a particular responsibility, and must play a particularly important role in leading and driving the necessary change in culture. 

Every member of our community is valuable, and harm to one is harm to all. As long as sexual harassment and assault persist in our community, we fail to live up to our shared potential and to fulfill our aspiration to make a better world.

So I close with a challenge: that we each strive to define what we can do to invent a better MIT community for those who are here today, and for those who follow us tomorrow.

And now it’s my great honor to introduce someone whose integrity and courage twenty-seven years ago brought sexual harassment to the center of our national conversation. 

In 1991, during the confirmation hearings for US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill testified that, as her supervisor at the US Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. 

For those of us who were adults at the time, Professor Hill’s courage in coming forward, and the terrible disrespect she endured during her testimony and long afterward, are unforgettable. Until that moment, “sexual harassment” was a legal and academic term. (In fact, early work on the subject was done here at MIT, by our own Mary Rowe.) But the concept was not widely understood.

Today, we know that sexual harassment is pervasive, that it is wrong, and that the responsibility to stop it belongs to all of us. For all of that, we owe a great debt of gratitude to University Professor Anita Hill.

A graduate of Yale Law School, she is the author of two books, including her autobiography, “Speaking Truth to Power.” Today, she serves as the University Professor of Social Policy, Law, and Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Brandeis. And last fall, she was selected by some leading figures in Hollywood to chair their new Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality, which aims to “tackle the broad culture of abuse and power disparity” in the entertainment industry.

Professor Hill spent last year as an MIT MLK Scholar. She continues as an MIT research affiliate – and we are very proud to count her as a member of our community.

Please join me in offering a warm welcome to University Professor Anita Hill.