Idealism Into Action: Practical Steps on the Road to Inclusion

Wednesday, February 10, 2010
36th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Celebration

Good morning! I cannot imagine a better way to greet the new day than soaring on the wings of the MIT Gospel Choir and on the notes of Jermaine Tulloch. Thank you very much for waking us all up to the day and its great potential. I also want to thank Dylon Rockwell and Zenzile Brooks; I am so proud of both of you. Dylon, you called out to all of us that our motto, Mens et Manus, urges us to transition theory into practice. Zenzie, thank you for your exhortation not only to be thankful for our gifts but to use them with a sense of joyful responsibility. What a great call to action. We are incredibly blessed to have the two of you, with your intellect and insight and joy, as members of this community.

I also want to thank our hosts this morning, the Committee on Race and Diversity. This breakfast is only part of the work that they do on campus, every day, to keep the issues of race and diversity in focus and to keep our minds on the work that remains to be done to make this campus the place that we know it can be. This annual celebration of the legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an important moment for coming together and for finding fresh inspiration. It is great to be here with all of you again.

On that note, however, we should take a moment to acknowledge that last November, MIT lost an enduring source of inspiration: Professor Leo Osgood. In his nearly three decades at the Institute, he made innumerable contributions, as a professor, as a coach, as the dean-on-call in the former Office of the Dean for Student Affairs, and as a friend, mentor, counselor and comfort to generations of students. Among his many contributions, we are grateful for his leadership in conceiving and initiating the Martin Luther King, Jr. Visiting Scholars Program; his seminal contributions to Project Interphase; his work as co-chair of a presidential task force on the career development of underrepresented minority administrators; and all of his work as Associate Dean and Director of the Office of Minority Education, a program he led from 1995 until his retirement in 2006. Leo was a guiding force behind this celebration for many years, and we are all the beneficiaries of his compassionate vision.

Dylon and Zenzile have both testified eloquently to the importance of “deploying our gifts” for the greater good, today’s theme. So I will simply focus on two ways that this idea of “deploying our gifts” intersects with the life and work of MIT. As Zenzile described it, MIT itself is a gift, one that we have a duty to use, in service to the world. Yet as wonderful a gift as the Institute may be, intrinsic to its value is a perpetual striving to be ever better, and one important, constructive tool to help us build a stronger MIT is the recent report of the Initiative on Faculty Race and Diversity.

I want to acknowledge the scale of the effort, which, under the leadership of Paula Hammond, the Bayer Professor of Chemical Engineering, involved eight MIT faculty members who worked over a period of two and a half years conducting extensive quantitative and qualitative research. The report demonstrates that, through the search and tenure processes and in their daily lives on campus, the experience of many of our faculty members from underrepresented minority groups is different from that of their majority peers, sometimes painfully so.

Clearly, to achieve a true culture of inclusion – to make MIT as valuable and effective as it can be – we still have much work to do. Fortunately, the report recommends the kind of practical steps that accelerate positive change. For example, it makes clear that strong mentoring for junior faculty makes a tremendous difference, but it finds that mentoring is uneven across the Institute. Once MIT has succeeded in recruiting brilliant young faculty members, it only makes sense that we would give them the guidance to thrive. Getting that process right will contribute directly to the excellence of MIT.

Let me quote someone who already has taken direct personal responsibility for creating a culture of inclusion, Professor Ed Bertschinger, who heads the department of physics. Here’s an excerpt from his blog on MIT’s new diversity website:

I am sometimes asked, ‘Why do you do this?’ Why do I spend time and energy promoting diversity and inclusion at MIT and in my profession? …. Two reasons. The first is an intrinsic sense of fairness and justice. The second – the key to turning idealism into effective action – is that I learned how to be effective…by mentoring junior faculty starting almost a decade ago. MIT attracts great talent but does not always nurture that talent very well. A ‘sink or swim’ environment will separate individuals but can be terribly wasteful of human potential and is generally harmful to morale.... Good mentoring is at least as important as a financially adequate ‘startup package’ for new faculty members.

As the first step in implementing the new report’s recommendations, Provost Rafael Reif and Professor Hammond have already begun strategy meetings with Academic Council, School Councils and the heads of academic units. To translate the report’s recommendations into actions on the ground, we will begin by sharing best practices around faculty searches, recruitment and mentorship, so that, in Ed Bertschinger’s phrase, people can “learn how to be effective” in creating change.

In broader terms, I also hope the findings in this report will help make it easier for individuals and departments to think and talk openly about how issues of race may affect them, because I believe that on this score, we still have much work to do. Since the report came out, I’ve heard from a number of people that its findings and recommendations somehow threaten to erode or compromise the excellence of MIT. I could not disagree more. As I have said many times, MIT is and must always be a place with unrelenting standards of excellence. This report is not about compromising those standards – it is about reaching them. For almost 150 years, MIT has built and maintained its standards of excellence by bringing in the very best people, and offering them an environment where they can do their very best work. Thanks to the Initiative on Faculty Race and Diversity, we have new information that will allow us to uphold those bedrock MIT standards. And strengthening MIT in this dimension is pivotal to helping us magnify and deploy our shared gifts, for the good of humankind.

That idea is not only the theme of this celebration – it is the very mission of MIT. Every day, the people of MIT deliver on our mission to “advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship to serve the nation and the world” in profound and startling ways. Every day, they use their exceptional powers of analysis and creativity to tackle some of humanity’s gravest challenges, from sustainable energy to drinkable water, from cancer to autism to AIDS, from the shape of our cities to the future of our oceans.

On that note, I am pleased but not at all surprised to note that MIT people are using their gifts to respond to the terrible human tragedy unfolding still in Haiti. As we heard from Dylon, many students are donating time and talent as well as money. MIT’s Public Service Center is coordinating a range of efforts to channel funds and expertise to Haiti, and thanks to the work of two dedicated researchers, Chris Csikszentmihalyi and Dale Joachim, since the earthquake, people in and connected to the Media Lab have used their technological skills and creativity to facilitate communications between Haitians here and in Haiti; they plan to extend their work through the process of rebuilding, to help match the flow of resources to the actual areas of need. I am conscious that many efforts connect this campus to the work at hand in Haiti, and some of which I am not yet aware, so I hope you will let me know what they are.

I want to close with a passage that bears special consideration for those of us who belong to an intellectual community like MIT. It is drawn from Dr. King’s Nobel Prize lecture, “The Quest for Peace and Justice,” written almost half a century ago. As he framed it then,

Modern man has brought this whole world to an awe-inspiring threshold of the future. He has reached new and astonishing peaks of scientific success. He has produced machines that think and instruments that peer into the unfathomable ranges of interstellar space. He has built gigantic bridges to span the seas and gargantuan buildings to kiss the skies. His airplanes and spaceships have dwarfed distance, placed time in chains, and carved highways through the stratosphere. This is a dazzling picture of modern man's scientific and technological progress.

Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology…. the richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish – but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.

In many ways and many places, Dr. King’s words still ring true; the human family has certainly not mastered the art of living together. But I hope that perhaps we have learned something about the true human purposes of technology. And I am extremely proud to be part of a community that is harnessing the tools of modern technology and science to serve the highest human purposes of connection, compassion and kindness.