MIT Martin Luther King, Jr., Birthday Celebration

Thursday, February 3, 2005
31st Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Celebration

This morning, I would like to suggest that MIT has a special responsibility to meet the challenge of creating a more diverse and supportive community.

This is not to say that any other institution can feel free to abdicate its moral responsibilities. This is an issue for every institution, and for every individual, in our society.

But MIT is different from other educational institutions, in ways that make these questions especially salient for us. Here, I would like to point to two things in particular.

First, the Institute has long served as a tremendous engine of opportunity for social advancement. We have a long history of educating students who have not had the advantages of wealth and status – students who have gone on to change the world as leaders in science and technology, business, and public service.

If we are to keep that tradition alive…and, we would hope, to extend it…we cannot ignore any part of our population. We must recruit a diverse student body, opening MIT to anyone who can benefit from the tremendous opportunities available here.

As I said when I met the MIT community for the first time in August – and as I still believe – I want MIT to be the dream of every child who wants to make the world a better place.

We must be equally open when it comes to our faculty and staff. America and the world have benefited enormously from MIT's willingness, during and after the Second World War, to hire teachers and scholars from many nations, and from groups that had been denied full membership in a restrictive academy. As we look to the future, we need to keep the lesson of that history in mind.

This leads directly to the second reason I think true equality is so important for us: MIT is a great meritocracy. As I talked to members of the Institute community during the search process and the transition period, this came up again and again.

People feel passionately that this is one of our core values, and one of our greatest strengths. It is one of the things that make them proudest about being part of MIT. And it is one of the things that drew me most strongly to the Institute.

But we cannot rest on our laurels, and assume that we've gotten it right once and for all. As we evaluate people for possible membership in the MIT community, and their performance once they are here, we need constantly to ask, “Are we really looking at merit?”

Social-science research has demonstrated, very powerfully, how unconscious assumptions can affect our judgments of people and their performance. If our aspiration is for MIT to be the great meritocracy in American higher education – and I believe it can be – we have to understand how to free our judgments from unconscious preconceptions. We expect the best at MIT, but we have to make sure we can recognize it.

It is essential that MIT is…and, just as important, is seen as…a welcoming and supportive place for anyone, from any background, who has the talent and passion to make the most of what the Institute has to offer.

This is what is right. It is what our traditions tell us to do. And it will strengthen education and research for everybody here.

I am reminded of an anecdote from the late 1960s. One of the first women students at one of the Ivy League universities remembers vividly when, in response to a question she asked in class, a professor said to her – with delight – “No one ever asked me that question before.”

Bringing new voices to the table changes the conversation. MIT, of all institutions, must remember that innovation comes when we can bring new perspectives to bear on existing problems.

In pointing to the challenges we face, I do not intend to slight the great steps this institution has taken to enhance and sustain the diversity of its community: * Our student body is unusually diverse by the standards of any of our peer institutions. * Our faculty and staff include exceptional individuals from every possible background. * And we have made tremendous progress with respect to women's issues.

But I suspect that you will agree with me, that there is still much to be done. In particular, we have a long way to go before we can be satisfied that we have done all we can to create a diverse graduate student body, and a diverse faculty.

Nonetheless, as I look at the remarkable people gathered in this room, I see great strength and great potential – and a very good place from which to begin the next leg of our journey together.

Making progress on that journey will require strong faculty participation – because, as an educational institution, we are defined by our faculty. They will not let MIT down.

Last May, the Faculty made a public commitment to take a leadership position among our peer institutions in the recruitment and in the academic success of underrepresented minority faculty and graduate students.

I am grateful to the Faculty for its leadership in this issue. The Provost, Chancellor, Deans, and I look forward to working with the Faculty to take the steps necessary to meet its goals.

I hope you will forgive me if I close these reflections on a personal note.

It is truly a tremendous honor for me to stand among you here this morning. The presidency of this unique institution is a great privilege…and like any privilege it carries with it great responsibility.

As a woman, I know that I have benefited from the pioneers who blazed the trail for the women of my generation…opening doors to education and careers that had long been closed. As President of MIT, I know that one of my most important responsibilities is to ensure that others have the sort of opportunity that has brought me here. I hope that in the years ahead we can all work together…to bring Dr. King's dream to life.

Thank you.