Diversity and Excellence, Hand in Hand at MIT

Thursday, February 9, 2006
32nd Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Celebration

As we meet this morning, it is hard not to be reminded of the passing, just last week, of Coretta Scott King. Some of you here today will remember her speaking at MIT in 1994 at our 20th Martin Luther King Celebration. MIT was honored, and I am sure inspired, by her presence and her observations on that occasion. In one sense, Mrs. King’s passing marks the end of an era and compels us to reflect on the achievements of a movement that seems ever more remarkable with the passage of time. However, there is a second, and a more important, message that we should draw from this moment. Just as Coretta Scott King carried on the work of civil rights, we must renew our commitment to the ideals Dr. King exemplified. We must shoulder the burdens of change ourselves if we are to build a more inclusive society, a more pluralistic and tolerant society and, in every sense of the word, a more just society.

In this respect, Mrs. King herself provided us with a model. In reading accounts of her life and work, I was struck by the crucial role that Dr. King’s death played in catalyzing her own public involvement. In that tragic moment she knew that she had to take up his work. It should be the same for us today. As the generation to which we have looked for guidance leaves the stage – a generation that included leaders like Mrs. King and Judge Constance Baker Motley – we must step up and play our parts. That is precisely why we gather each year at this time: to affirm a shared commitment. As this year’s program recognizes, there is still much to do to if we are to accomplish the agenda Dr. King set out for us. In talking about the quest for civil rights, Dr. King often drew on powerful Biblical language – especially when he invoked the image of the Promised Land, a place for which we are bound but have not yet reached. He understood his work as part of a long, historic journey. Today, I would like to reflect on the ways in which we continue Dr. King’s journey, as a nation, and as an institution.

Our understanding of American life and history has changed measurably since Dr. King’s lifetime. Since symbols matter, and can encapsulate larger changes in society, I will just mention one that caught my notice recently. Last week, we learned that the Smithsonian Institution had chosen the site for a new museum of African American history and culture. This museum will be built on the National Mall – immediately adjacent to the Washington Monument. Such a museum will surely be a powerful symbol, but what story will it tell? Will it show us that we have reached Dr. King’s goal? We all know full well that it will not – because it cannot. It will, however, show the steps by which progress has been made, and it will celebrate the individuals whose work has moved us further along on our journey. As a museum it will tell our history, and, by revealing that history, it will inspire us each to make our own contributions to advance our progress on the journey. Here, at MIT, our journey is not complete. We are not yet where we want to be.

I will now step back and ask a fundamental question: “Why does MIT want to follow Dr. King on the journey?” The essential answer is that we acknowledge, individually and as a community, the call of justice, the imperatives of fairness, and of inclusion. Of course, we also set our course by points on MIT’s own unique compass. Let me remind you of two that guide us. First, we have a special responsibility to take a lead in opening education and careers in science and engineering to all those with the interest, ability and commitment to succeed. These are fields we love and they are fields in which we lay claim – justifiably – to national and international preeminence. Our actions are watched, and our policies become influential. If you doubt it, let me assure you that MIT’s support of women faculty has transformed the face of science higher education in America. We have a bully pulpit, and it is up to us to use it.

This leads me to the second way in which we can influence things for the better beyond our own walls. To be candid, in America, we still confront nagging concerns that “diverse” equals “second-rate.” But anyone who has experienced MIT knows that is simply not true, and no other place is better equipped than we are to put that myth to rest. Think of MITES, our extraordinary summer program for talented high school juniors from around the country. Think of the SEED Academy, our weekend program for high schoolers from Cambridge and Boston. Think of the STEM program, for middle school students. I have met students in these programs and I have seen for myself their infectious enthusiasm and intensity. MIT proves that raising the bar is not only possible, but it is essential. MIT proves that fighting the tyranny of low expectations is the surest way to enable students – all students – to excel. MIT proves that diversity and excellence can – and should – go hand in hand.

We know where we want to go but we must now decide how we are going to get there. The short answer is, by hard work. For the remainder of my remarks this morning, I’d like to focus on some of the initiatives that make me confident we will get there. After all, no one at MIT has ever been afraid of hard work!

Those who work in the Admissions Office never talk about the undergraduate “applicant pool.” They refer instead to the “talent pool” – because that’s what it really is. Over the last year, they have redoubled minority recruitment efforts, and they are working with community-based organizations and our own alumni to identify top students who might not ordinarily apply to MIT. Their efforts have already led to an increase in applications in both the early and regular admissions cycles. After acceptance letters go out, the Admissions Office will work – with all of our help – to ensure that these extraordinary students choose to enroll at MIT.

As we strive toward improvements for those who study here, we also are taking important steps for those who work here. Programs in Human Resources aim to enhance opportunities for career development for current minority staff, through programs such as The Partnership, the YMCA Black Achievers Program and Conexión. At the same time, to recruit exceptional staff members from minority communities, we have expanded outreach efforts.

Since last year, we have also begun some important efforts to bring to MIT, and nurture here, a diverse graduate student body and a diverse faculty. Traditionally, it has been harder to make progress in graduate admissions than at the undergraduate level, but we are developing new approaches, which stress collaboration between individual academic departments and the central administration, like the Converge program. I believe these collaborative efforts will provide the ideas, tools and administrative support that our graduate programs need to compete for highly competitive – and widely sought after – graduate students.

The Institute’s own faculty has provided impetus for these initiatives through the commitment it made in the spring of 2004 to take a leadership role among our peer institutions in the recruitment and academic success of underrepresented minority faculty and graduate students. The Provost has recently announced the establishment of three new committees that will help us put into action the faculty’s own commitment to diversifying its ranks. These efforts will align with the continuing work of the Council on Faculty Diversity.

First, we have appointed a new Minority Faculty Recruitment Committee. We have asked this group to identify and assess efforts to increase the pool of minority candidates for faculty positions at MIT. Its members will identify the most successful approaches to minority faculty recruitment here and at peer institutions. The committee will recommend new approaches and serve as a resource for department heads and deans throughout the Institute. In parallel, we have established a Committee on the Retention of Minority Faculty, so that we can develop a deeper understanding of the experience of minority faculty at the Institute. This understanding will lead to the design of new ways to assist and support their career development. Finally, a third committee will review the Martin Luther King Visiting Professors and Scholars Program. As the Provost pointed out earlier, this program brings remarkable individuals to MIT. The new committee will look at our experience over the past decade to determine how we can make the program even more successful for its participants and for MIT.

All three of these initiatives reflect Provost Reif’s deep personal engagement; I am delighted that he has made faculty diversity a top priority so soon after moving into the Provost’s office. As I describe new programs and our progress for undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and staff, it must be clear that I certainly do not believe our journey is complete. There is much to do all across MIT if we are to meet our own highest aspirations as a community. I think, however, we are moving in the right direction, and I believe we share a vision of our destination – a destination that Dr. King might have called the “Promised Land.”