MIT Martin Luther King, Jr., Birthday Celebration

Friday, February 16, 2007
33rd Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Celebration

This past January 15, on the national day of celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. King, part of my own, personal reflection for the day was to reread the words of Dr. King in his now iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. The speech never fails to move me, as it did when I first heard it, and as it has moved and inspired millions of others in the nearly 45 years since it was delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Every time I read that speech, some passages sing to me a well-known, well-loved tune. And every time I read it, at least one passage sings a new song to me, and strikes me in a new way. So it is with only the most powerful expressions of the human spirit.

This year, one passage in particular jumped off the page, harmonizing with my own reflections, joining with my thoughts on our work together here at MIT. As Dr. King describes our forward path toward justice for all, he says, “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”

I believe the most powerful way we can honor Dr. King at this annual breakfast is to assess our progress on the march and to affirm our commitment, as a community, to accelerate the pace of change.

We are gathered at a painful moment for the MIT community. Professor James Sherley has raised issues that reach beyond any single individual or any single institution. In this difficult time, our deepest concern is for Professor Sherley’s health, and for the impact of this situation on his family. But our concern also reaches into the larger MIT community. Because, as Dr. King reminds us, none of us walks alone. We will only move ahead if we do so together.

Walking Forward Together
If MIT today is to advance its historic mission of teaching, research, and service, we simply must increase opportunities for minority faculty, students, and staff.

Let me speak first about our faculty. Our faculty itself has made an important commitment to accelerating our progress, in the May 2004 faculty resolution. Overall, the number of minority faculty at the Institute has doubled since 1990. However, the numbers are still too small. As of October 2005, less than 5 percent of our faculty were members of minority groups. But there are some encouraging signs of progress:

  • Of the new faculty who have arrived at MIT this year, 11.5 percent are members of under-represented minority groups.
  • This year, we have welcomed to campus eight Martin Luther King, Jr., Visiting Professors and Scholars, more than ever before in this program.
  • And we have been working toward an Institute leadership that reflects the diversity of our community. In our departments, labs, and centers, and at the level of the Academic Council, our academic and administrative leadership is now more diverse than it has ever been before.


Still, we are acutely aware that the numbers remain small – much smaller than we would like. But as we chart the course of our walk together, we can point to powerful proof that concerted institutional effort can make a difference. That proof lies in MIT’s own, ongoing work in gender equity.

The study of women faculty in the School of Science and its successors in the other Schools had a powerful impact not just at MIT, but also around the nation and around the world. We want our new initiative on minority faculty issues, recently announced by the Provost, to have the same catalytic impact, and to demonstrate the same kind of institutional and national leadership.

This new initiative will build on important work over the last year. The review of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Visiting Professor and Scholar Program, charged by Provost Reif a year ago, has produced some important new ideas for how this program might help accelerate our progress in bringing new minority scholars to our campus. And we have announced plans for a new office of the Associate Provost for Faculty Equity, and are now in an active search for its first leader.

Our new initiative will examine and assess what we have accomplished and also how race may still to affect the recruitment, retention, and experiences of under-represented minority faculty members at MIT. The committees the Provost appointed last year to address minority recruitment and retention issues will be merged into this new initiative. We are now moving toward the appointment of a core team. That team will consult with – and listen to – our minority faculty and others to define a process that will lead to a comprehensive, rigorous and systematic study of these issues. The team will also assess the resources needed to carry out this effort thoroughly. The initiative will provide the critical information needed to develop the most effective ways to strengthen the representation and career experiences of under-represented minority faculty at MIT. The Provost and I are deeply committed to this initiative – as a stimulus for real change at the Institute and as a national example.

As we move forward to increase opportunities within the faculty, we will continue to do the same for students and staff. Our progress in each of these domains will amplify our success in the others, as we build a more diverse and inclusive MIT.

MIT has a reputation as an excellent employer, acknowledged by national awards. But there is no denying that we are not yet where we want to be with respect to the diversity of our staff, nor have we yet laid the paths to career advancement that can inspire the best work and build the strongest organizations. Our Human Resources department has launched promising efforts to reach out to minority communities, and our new Vice President for Human Resources, Dr. Alison Alden, has made it clear that this will be a central issue for her. But, recruiting and developing a more diverse staff requires hard work all across the community, at all steps of the process whenever there is a vacancy to fill, a promotion to be made, or a project to be assigned. I am certain that, working together, we can make progress.

Our progress has been greater in student issues. But we cannot be complacent. And with respect to graduate students, in particular, there is still much to do.

When I first spoke to the MIT community, in August of 2004, I said that I wanted MIT to be the dream of every child who wants to make the world a better place. I meant it then, and I mean it now. To achieve that dream we must continue to dismantle any impediments that may keep exceptional students from attending MIT.

Access to educational opportunity is still distributed very unevenly in our society. That is why MIT engages so many innovative outreach programs to draw young people toward the very best colleges – programs such as STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math: An MIT Program for Boston Middle School Students), the SEED Academy (Saturday Engineering Enrichment and Discovery), and MITES (the Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science Program). These extraordinary programs prepare young people with the skills they need for success at MIT and at universities like ours.

Our Admissions Office has intensified its efforts to recruit the most talented students from all backgrounds. That work has borne fruit, with this year’s freshman class the most diverse in MIT’s history.

Our financial aid policies open our doors to as wide a range of students as possible. As we have for many decades, we admit undergraduates without regard to their financial need and we award all MIT scholarship aid on the basis of need alone. These policies represent an institutional investment of more than $60 million this year, and one of the key objectives of the campaign for students that we launched earlier in the winter is to fully endow undergraduate financial aid, to insure there need never be a decision between funding financial aid and funding other important institutional activities.

At the graduate level, we continue to build Institute-wide recruiting efforts such as the Converge weekend for prospective students. Our role as a leader in graduate education for diverse communities was recognized last fall, when we became one of ten universities chosen to offer the new Amgen Scholarships, a nationwide initiative that provides opportunities for talented undergraduate students to engage in fully-funded summer research experiences, to encourage them to pursue graduate degrees and, eventually, careers in science. And MIT was chosen to host the program’s national office.

Taking away obstacles for the Institute’s own students, and for other young people, is a job for all of us gathered here today. It is a serious but also a joyous obligation, eloquently expressed two years ago at this breakfast by our student Sarah Gonzalez, now a senior. At that year’s event, Sarah encouraged us each to do our part, saying, “I hope that everyone in this hall will reach out and embrace every opportunity to become a mentor, to become a role model, and to support programs that encourage students to accept the challenge and break though the remaining frontiers, professional and scholarly.”

The remarkable accomplishments of our students and our graduates show us why we must hear and act on Sarah’s words.

Dr. King urges us to walk together. And we have been walking, steadily forward. But now it is time to pick up the pace.

We owe that faster pace to our own community of teachers and students, researchers and staff. We owe it to the many extended communities for whom we stand as a beacon of excellence and aspiration. And we owe it to a world that looks to us to bring the very best thinking to bear on the very toughest problems.

While each of us must pick up Sarah Gonzalez’ charge, we must move ahead as a community. As Dr. King said, “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”

Let us walk forward together.

Thank you.