Remarks at the Diversity Leadership Congress

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I am delighted to welcome MIT’s student, staff and faculty leaders to the Diversity Leadership Congress. I am very grateful that you’ve made this Congress a focus and a priority. I also want to add a particular welcome to those of you participating via webcast. As you will hear, the success of our efforts depends on the broadest kind of shared leadership, so we are very pleased to have all of you interested and involved as well.

Our program this afternoon should be challenging, intriguing and useful. However, since this is the first time that we have held an event like this, let me start by answering some central questions about our purpose here. I want to set the stage by doing three things: define what we mean by diversity, inclusion and leadership; talk a bit about why diversity should matter to us at MIT; and explain how this Diversity Leadership Congress can help us work towards solutions together.

First, a definition of terms. What do we mean by “diversity”? Speaking broadly, when we talk about diversity, we mean the whole array of human characteristics that differ among us and can shape our experience, including, but certainly not limited to, race, gender, culture, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic background, age, religion and language. And while there are myriad ways in which we differ, we come together today to engage in a deep conversation about what we share, what we value and how we can create a community that reaches out to, welcomes and rewards the very best talent, wherever that talent may come from. We are here to explore how we can cultivate a culture where everyone feels valued, included and at ease, a culture that brings out the best in each of us.

Another term we will here often today captures what I am talking about: a culture of inclusion. What does that really mean? It means that a community succeeds in its diversity only when it looks beyond just the numbers alone and focuses on creating an environment in which all of its members can do their very best work. Or to put it another way: Diversity is being asked to join the orchestra. Inclusion is when every instrument plays a part in the symphony. Let me be clear about our purpose: a culture of inclusion is not something we want to pursue because it is a warm, fuzzy, feel-good idea. We need to create a culture of inclusion, so we can actively capitalize on our diverse skills and perspectives, so we can better advance the fundamental mission of MIT. In an increasingly complex and interconnected world, optimizing the contributions of each member of our community becomes even more important. And in a time of constrained budgets, it is especially vital that we focus on these issues as avenues to strengthen our community. As I have said before on other occasions, our challenge is to make sure that, to every person who earns a place at MIT, we say not, “You are lucky to be here,” but rather, “We are lucky you joined us.”

Finally, what do we mean by leadership on these issues? We invited you to join today’s conversation because each of you plays a leadership role at MIT. How you carry out those roles will make a critical difference in how diverse and inclusive MIT can become. The reason we have called you together to this task, to approach this important challenge as a leadership team, is that building a more diverse and inclusive community calls on the personal leadership of many, many individuals, at every level, all across the Institute. For our effort to succeed, each of us at MIT needs to take the challenge seriously, gain the tools to create positive change, and then use those tools, in whatever ways work best for our department or group. In shared leadership, we have the powerful advantage of one another’s support and encouragement. I hope we can begin to share some of those tools and insights today.

Let me say just one more word about leadership. By bringing you here together, we have called out MIT’s distributed leadership in a new way. While today’s discussion focuses on the roles you will play in advancing an agenda of diversity and inclusion, we need your leadership on many issues, not least in addressing the current financial challenges. As leaders, you are the Institute’s key communicators, so one important task for each of you is to share today’s conversations and ambitions with your groups. I very much hope that out of today’s Congress we build a network and an infrastructure that will enhance the many ways that we serve MIT and the world.

Now, with those key questions answered, let me turn to a more fundamental question: Why should diversity matter to us at MIT? Let’s take a step back for a little context. This country just experienced a momentous election, and what makes it historic is not merely the identity of our new President. It is the new America that showed through so clearly in his election. President-elect Obama’s support came from young and old, of every race, Americans born in this country and Americans who have immigrated here from around the world. A richly diverse America does not await us, it is upon us. It is our present and our future. It is the nation from which we draw most of our faculty, students and staff. It is the America that we serve as an Institute, and that our students will go on to lead.

At MIT, we rightly pride ourselves on inventing the future. To continue to play that role in this new America, we cannot permit MIT to be a community of the past. Our students will lead global communities. To do that successfully, they need to live and learn the lessons of inclusion. Their future effectiveness will depend on their ability to step outside their own worldviews, to appreciate other people’s life experiences and to engage their perspectives. At MIT, when we set out to teach our students “leadership” – from the many courses at Sloan, to the new Gordon Engineering Program, to the Community Catalysts – we deliberately train them to succeed in diverse teams. If we expect that of our students, surely we should expect it of ourselves. And surely they should expect to see those lessons in action, not only in a corner of our curriculum, but in the real arena of our working lives on campus.

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. 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 when everyone brings the same perspective to a problem, unquestioned assumptions remain unquestioned, and it’s harder to break out of standard approaches. We see the same dynamic power of diversity with great movements through history, when the mixing of cultures and civilizations has triggered world-changing 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.

With that background, let’s look at the task at hand. We all embrace the MIT style of problem solving. When we confront an engineering or a scientific problem, an unsolved problem in mathematics or in urban design, or a problem of national defense or economics – we are not 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. And there is one thing we just cannot resist: a challenge to make a system better. On the question of diversity and inclusion for faculty, students and staff, now is the time for us to meet that challenge and to design approaches that are worthy of MIT. Today we join together in that task.

Having said all that, I must take a moment to acknowledge and celebrate the hard-won advances that have brought us this far, thanks to the extraordinary commitment and perseverance of many members of this community over many years. I cannot possibly mention all the groups and individuals who deserve praise on this score; fortunately, the Congress website will include a listing of as many as we can identify. If you know of activities that should be on the web site, please let us know. However, I do want to call out at a few of the major current initiatives, including: the Committee on Race and Diversity, led by Professor Phil Thompson; the Council on Staff Diversity, led by Vice President of Human Resources Alison Alden; and the Initiative on Faculty Race and Diversity, led by Professor Paula Hammond. I also want to acknowledge the very important leadership of our Associate Provosts for Faculty Equity, Professors Barbara Liskov and Wes Harris. They have assumed new roles to give these efforts greater focus. That MIT leaders of such caliber have taken on these roles demonstrates how serious we are about accelerating change. Together, these kinds of activities help us see, in Barbara Liskov’s phrase, that real progress requires not only good intentions, but “constant vigilance,” and that, as Wes Harris puts it, “our standards of excellence must include how we treat one another.”

Seeing this network of leadership in action also made very clear that the right way to accelerate our work was not by somehow finding and declaring the “right answers,” but by capitalizing on the insights and expertise that pour forth from this amazing community. In proposing the Diversity Leadership Congress, we invited input from across the community, and I am delighted to report that we got it. From the earliest conceptual conversations to the last logistical details, this Congress has developed thanks to the work of an outstanding team of people, and I ask that you join me in acknowledging them now.

Let me close with a few thoughts on how this Congress can be useful for each of us, and for the Institute as a whole. MIT is a hands-on place. We are the kind of people who ask, “How can we get things done?” Not surprisingly, we are approaching this challenge in that same “very MIT” way. This afternoon will have three parts: a keynote address; a panel discussion; and then break-out sessions, to catalyze our shared conversation. I will introduce our guest speaker in a moment, but I want to offer a quick perspective on the panel discussion as well. We have invited a very accomplished panel of leaders from the academy and industry. They will share their real-world experiences in fostering diversity and inclusion, and describe practical tools and strategies that work. One of our own leaders will moderate the panel: the incoming chair of the faculty, Professor Tom Kochan. Tom brings the wisdom of his own research into how diversity fails or succeeds in real organizations.

After the Congress, we will use the web to share the content of all these talks, as well as the ideas that flow out of the small group sessions later this afternoon, so that all of us at MIT can adapt these lessons to our own situations, develop our own best practices, and share with each other what really works – and what doesn’t. Over the coming months, I also plan to work closely with Academic Council and Administrative Council to implement specific ideas that come out of the day. And I hope and expect that each of you will bring this conversation back to your units and will actively engage the people you work with.

Needless to say, there is no one solution or approach that will work for every department or in every setting. On diversity and inclusion, different parts of MIT have different strengths and challenges. But we are one Institute, one MIT, and we must approach this work with a unified commitment to drive positive change. At MIT we are really good at teaching and learning, and I look forward to seeing how we turn those great skills to the task at hand.

To start us off, as we get down to today’s business, we have the privilege of hearing from someone who made great strides for diversity, before “Diversity” was spelled with a capital D: the Honorable Alexis M. Herman, former U.S. Secretary of Labor. Born in Mobile, Alabama, Secretary Herman began her career helping young out-of-school men and women find work in the Pascagoula, Mississippi shipyard. Appointed by President Jimmy Carter at the age of 29, she became the youngest director of the Women's Bureau in the history of the Labor Department. And on May 1, 1997, she was sworn in as America's 23rd Secretary of Labor, in the Clinton administration, the first African American to hold that post. Under her tenure, U. S. unemployment fell to a 30-year low, and the nation witnessed the safest workplace record in the history of the Department of Labor.

Currently, Ms. Herman serves as chair and CEO of New Ventures, LLC, and co-chairs the Rules and Bylaws Committee of the Democratic National Committee. She also lends her expertise to an array of non-profits and corporations: Active in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, Ms. Herman now co-chairs the Bush Clinton Katrina Fund, and also serves the National Urban League and the National Epilepsy Foundation. On the corporate side, she chairs the Toyota Diversity Advisory Board and the Sodexho Business Advisory Board; she sits on the boards of Cummins Incorporated, Entergy Incorporated, MGM Mirage and The Coca-Cola Company; and she is former chair of the Coca-Cola Company's Human Resources Task Force. Please join me in warmly welcoming our former US Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman to the MIT community.