Diversity and Inclusion: Building a Solution Worthy of MIT

Thursday, February 21, 2008
34th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Celebration

Thank you, Tarick Walton, for that magnificent performance of the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We all carry his phrases around in our heads, and they thread through the background of our thoughts all the time. But hearing them spoken aloud, passionately sung out to us, reawakens their power. To hear them transports us to an absolutely riveting moment in American history. But hearing them in this place, sung out by a member of this community, I’m also intensely aware that we are in the present – and that this is a remarkable moment for America, too.

We are in the midst of one of the most exciting political contests anyone can remember. A contest in which two candidates with a very serious chance of winning the Presidency of the United States are an African-American man and a woman. Who would have believed it, fifteen or ten or even five years ago? For those of us raised in the 1950s and 1960s, this is not the America we grew up in.

This is a different day, and we savor and celebrate these political milestones. The truth, however, is that when you look beyond the spotlight of the presidential race, we still have a long way to go before we have a society that offers every child an equal chance to blossom, or that makes the most of everyone’s talent, or that delivers on the promise that Dr. King rightly called for forty-five long years ago.

We have a long way to go as a country, and we have a long way to go here at MIT. Many MIT administrations, including mine, have made sincere and earnest efforts on this subject. Yet as a community, despite the intense, unrelenting and committed work of many people, we have failed to create the serious, meaningful change that we long for.

That is not a result that is worthy of MIT. If this were any other kind of problem – an engineering problem, a scientific problem, an unsolved problem in mathematics or a problem of national defense – we would not be satisfied with well-intentioned but only incremental progress. At MIT, in our scholarship and our teaching, we insist on innovation. We demand excellence in everything we do. 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.

However, on the questions of diversity and inclusion for faculty, students and staff, we have not reached these standards of achievement. We have not yet made our community what it should be, and, to borrow a phrase from Dr. King, we cannot be satisfied until we do. I can tell you plainly: I will not be satisfied until we do.

It is not enough to say that we are doing marginally better than our peers, though we are. MIT should be the unquestioned leader, the place that sets the standard for what can be done. We cannot be satisfied until we are a community that not only seeks out diverse talent, but that truly embraces and rewards diverse perspectives, because we know that they make us stronger. In the end, we cannot be satisfied until, to everyone who earns a place at MIT, we are a community that says not “You’re lucky to be here,” but rather, “We’re lucky you came.”

Four months before the 1963 March on Washington, from his cell in a Birmingham jail, Dr. King decried the complacency of a society that indulged in what he called “the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will cure all ills.” He wrote:

“time itself is neutral….Human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of [those] willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”

It is clear from our own experience that the “wheels of inevitability” will not carry us to a solution on these questions. I believe MIT needs to commit itself to unprecedented, sustained, concrete action on diversity and inclusion. And I believe that the time to do it is now.

We need to do it because it is an obvious moral imperative. We need to do it because we are educating students who in a thousand ways will lead the nation – and America will soon be a place where no one is in the majority anymore. As MIT sociologist and urban planning professor Xavier De Souza Briggs points out, interracial bonds of friendship can serve as “precious bridges” that not only connect individuals to opportunity, but that help make our whole society more resilient and more effective. Our students will also help lead the global community. To do that successfully, they also need the lessons of diversity: the ability to step outside their own world view, to appreciate other people’s life experiences, to engage their perspectives, and to work together to weave coherent global answers.

Finally, and most important, we need to make diversity work at MIT because it will make us better at what we do: broader and deeper as thinkers; more effective as collaborators; more creative as teachers; more understanding as friends; and wiser, less complacent and more self-aware as human beings.

The obvious truth is that when we listen only to people who agree with us, we cease to grow. Fortunately, the reverse is equally true: A number of studies tell us that diverse teams are better at solving complex problems. Why is that? Because on homogeneous teams, unquestioned assumptions remain unquestioned, and everyone gets stuck in the same place. We see the same dynamic power of diversity with great movements through history: that the mixing of cultures and civilizations produces huge accelerations in thought and bursts of invention. The Silk Road. The Renaissance. And America, in its best moments. When our ideas are challenged and amplified from different directions, they get stronger and better, and we do, too.

We need to accelerate this important aspiration for MIT. Achieving a community that respects, welcomes and supports people from widely different backgrounds will require leadership in every School and Department, and at every level of the Institute. To develop this broad base of leadership throughout MIT, we will try something that we have not done before. I will convene a Diversity Leadership Congress, a group that will include all 300 or so of the Institute’s academic and administrative leaders.

The Diversity Leadership Congress will give us a forum to learn from each other and to reflect on one another’s experiences of MIT. It will give us a chance to learn together from people who have successfully built a culture of inclusion in other organizations, and then to think together, creatively, about the next steps for MIT. From this shared understanding, we will develop goals for changing the way we operate, and we will come away with a vivid sense that each of us bears direct responsibility for creating this kind of change.

I welcome ideas from everyone here, and anyone in the MIT community, as to what shape this conference should take. I do not have a fixed idea of what it will look like yet. But I do know what it needs to achieve. It needs to give us the momentum to make change happen here.

The work ahead of us will be hard, but I’m convinced it will be worth it. More than 30 years ago, America had another pioneering candidate for President, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. She once said: “I don’t measure America by its achievement, but by its potential.” I hope you share my belief in the potential of MIT, and my conviction that we can and must continue working together to accelerate change.

In this new effort, I take great comfort in knowing that we are hardly starting from scratch. We are already moving in the right direction: Last year, under the inspired and inspiring leadership of Bryan Nance in the Admissions Office, we admitted the most diverse freshman class in MIT’s history: 22% of our newest undergraduates are members of under-represented minority groups, and 9.3% are African-Americans. As we learned from The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, in a study of America’s top-ranked colleges and universities, in 2007, for the first time ever, MIT earned the highest yield for African-American students. That is to say, of the African-American students we admitted, 65.1% decided to enroll at MIT. The challenge now is to make sure we offer those rising talents an environment where they can do their best work.

Our theme today is about the importance not only of recruiting a diverse student body, but, as importantly, of nurturing every student's success. As Associate Dean and Director of the Office of Minority Education (OME), Dr. Karl Reid is increasing our impact in these areas, through programs that center on an "ethic of care" – the beautifully simple notion that students do best when we prove that we care for them, by expecting a great deal from them, and by offering very strong support in return. Through "Laureates and Leaders," for example, the OME identifies minority students with graduate school interest and potential very early in their MIT careers, and then helps them build the trajectory of experience and achievement to carry them through to their goals.

I also want to call out the work going on in the School of Architecture and Planning, where last spring Dean Adele Santos asked Dr. Robbin Chapman to serve as the School's first-ever Manager of Diversity Recruiting. Together they are pioneering an aggressive effort to bring underrepresented talent into the School, to help this new talent thrive, and to step up education, awareness and dialogue around diversity.

Dean Steven Lerman and Assistant Dean Christopher Jones are also ramping up the efforts of the Office of Graduate Students. After being redesigned in 2004, the MIT Summer Research Program, or MSRP, is beginning to hit its stride. Last summer MSRP brought 61 promising juniors and seniors to campus. Of the 33 applying to grad school, 28 applied to MIT. Thirteen were admitted, and 11 will join us here in Cambridge next year. Based on this success, Dean Lerman is working to expand the program even further.

As for the faculty, Professor Paula Hammond is heading up the committee convened by the Provost, for the MIT Initiative on Faculty Race and Diversity. She and her faculty colleagues have assembled a research team, which is well into its quantitative research, and is now planning the protocol for upcoming interviews. We can expect an extremely thorough and revealing study when their work is done. Finally, Professor Wesley Harris has just assumed the newly created position of Associate Provost for Faculty Equity. Together, he and Professor Barbara Liskov will lead MIT’s new focus on faculty diversity and gender issues across the Institute, including the recruitment, retention, promotion and career development of minority and women faculty.

To all the people I have mentioned, and many more who are also working hard on diversity and inclusion at MIT, thank you. You have made deeply important contributions to this community, and you have all taught me a great deal personally. I am grateful for the opportunity to work with you together on the challenges that lie ahead.

At one time or another, each of us made a decision to come to MIT. We came here because we recognized, in this one-of-a-kind community, qualities and values that create an extraordinary environment for doing the work we love. MIT is a place that goes out of its way to embrace new ideas and surprising perspectives. It is a place for people who get excited when you raise the bar, and if you don’t do it for them, they raise the bar themselves! It is a place where we embrace our responsibility to solve real-world problems, a place in which we are only truly happy when we’re blazing an unexpected trail.

This is the MIT that brought us all together. This is the MIT that can inspire the next generation. And this is the MIT that will make a difference on the urgent challenge of diversity and inclusion. In our efforts together, we cannot be satisfied until we have made MIT a place where every young person who wants to change the world wants to come, and where all of them feel that they belong.