Rising Diversity, Rising Excellence: The Story of MIT

Thursday, February 9, 2012
38th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Celebration; Walker Memorial, MIT

Let me begin this morning with a very warm thank-you to the MIT Gospel Choir for their glorious music. Shamarah Hernandez and Derek Ham, thank youfor your inspiring words and your selfless contributions to the MIT community – and thank you, in advance, for the important ways you will no doubt serve the world. I also want to thank our hosts, the Committee on Race and Diversity, for bringing us this marvelous morning of warmth and connection every winter, and for furnishing us, every year, with such a compelling program.

I also want to express gratitude, on behalf of everyone at MIT, to all those who organized and participated in the Institute Diversity Summit two weeks ago. A number of people worked extraordinarily hard to organize the Summit, and many more attended it. I am immensely grateful, because as the strategies, best practices, and insights from the Summit propagate across MIT, the Institute as a whole reaps the benefits. In particular, I want to thank the student panelists for their candor and courage in sharing their personal stories. The testimony of their lived experience reminds us that our culture of inclusion remains an urgent work in progress.

Let me offer a few brief observations on the theme of “Expanding the Possible.” As we all know, achieving our diversity and inclusion goals requires social change, always a very difficult assignment. As is often the case, inertia presents the greatest obstacle, because, without constant vigilance, old habits and well-worn pathways will prevail. I believe that we must answer inertia with momentum. We need to engineer a set of underlying institutional mechanisms, expectations, habits and rhythms that make diversity and inclusion simply part of what we work on here, every day, part of the exhilarating forward motion that defines MIT.

The Institute Diversity Summit contributes importantly to our momentum for change. I am delighted to report that, across the Institute, our Schools and departments are building their own mechanisms that contribute to MIT’s momentum to advance our progress. Last spring, Provost Reif reported on ways that the Deans and Department Heads were making the issue of “diversity hiring, and supporting a culture of inclusion, an intentional part of regular, strategic agendas at every level of the Institute.”

Let me offer a few examples of how individual Schools and departments are making concrete progress. Based on the upcoming recommendations of its subcommittee on Diversity and Inclusion, the School of Engineering is preparing to establish a set of School-wide standards and procedures around recruiting and mentoring of graduate students and faculty. To make sure these standards are implemented in practice, and evaluated for their effectiveness over time, the School will also create a standing Committee on Diversity and Inclusion.

The School of Architecture and Planning now asks all department heads to define and work to achieve clear, creative diversity goals, such as reaching out to alumni to build mentoring networks for underrepresented minority graduate students. To make diversity integral to the culture and values of the School, the School of Architecture and Planning also devotes an entire yearly School Council meeting to having departments report their progress on diversity issues and share future strategies.

The Department of Political Science has raised funds to permanently support a pre-doctoral fellowship for extremely promising graduate students from underrepresented minority groups. The fellowship helps them build connections to professors here, so we have a better chance of recruiting them as faculty down the line.

The School of Science aims to increase the pool of underrepresented minority faculty candidates by increasing the number of URM graduate students in MIT’s Science departments, by securing new resources to attract them to our programs. Each of our science departments has focused on identifying outstanding minority undergraduates and encouraging them to consider graduate school at MIT. Thanks to these efforts, all of our Science departments admitted URM graduate students last year. Overall, the number of underrepresented minority students enrolling in the School of Science jumped from 7.7% of the total in 2005, to 14% last year – an encouraging example of “expanding the possible.”

If one characteristic defines our work at the Institute, it is our passion for turning good ideas into action; these are just a few examples of the people of MIT taking action in practical ways to build momentum for change.

I want to make one final point about expanding possibilities here at MIT. Some of you heard this at the Diversity Summit, but the facts bear repeating. Last year, we celebrated MIT’s 150th anniversary, and we re-taught ourselves some important lessons from the Institute’s founding history. MIT began as a small regional technical school. Though it had the highest standards and ambitions, the pool of its faculty, students and staff was predictably circumscribed. Pioneers, like our first woman graduate, Ellen Swallow Richards, Class of 1873, and our first African-American graduate, Robert Robinson Taylor, Class of 1892, made their way to MIT early on, but they were outliers; for close to a century, the Institute was chiefly composed of white men from New England. That is not, of course, the MIT that courses through the Infinite Corridor today. The Institute looks very different, not only in the diversity of its population, but in the range and scope of the problems it tackles, which have radiated outward to embrace not just American industry but global humanity and not just the region but the world.

In 150 years, MIT has grown from a local technical school to a premier global research university. That history is a tale of expanding possibilities: of growing scope, of rising diversity – and of rising excellence. I am convinced that those trend lines have risen together for a reason. By actively welcoming faculty, students and staff from every background, we have increased the breadth of our thinking, stimulated new lines of questioning and dismantled entrenched ideas, and in so doing, we have equipped ourselves to invent the future. In the complex society we serve, our diversity is central to our excellence. Just as everyone at MIT shares responsibility for our mission, if we hope to continue “expanding the possible,” we also share responsibility for making our diverse community thrive.