Our "Inescapable Network:"
Haiti, the Diversity Initiative, and MLK
It has been more than a month since a magnitude 7 earthquake struck Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. News reports estimate that the earthquake has killed 230,000, injured 300,000, led to 2,000 amputations, and destroyed 250,000 homes and 30,000 businesses. We have a great affinity for numbers at MIT, but much of the damage cannot be expressed quantitatively. Institutions and resources have been devastated. Means of income and ways of life have been destroyed. And how does one measure unremitting grief?
Every day since January 12, images and stories of the earthquake in Haiti and the world’s response fill the pages of newspapers and dominate television and online news coverage. Insensibility to this tragedy is inconceivable. And yet, until recently, except for in an MITnews article, the response by MIT’s administration has been simply inadequate. President Hockfield’s recent Institute-wide e-mail is encouraging.
However, the situation demands more than a statement commending the initiatives of campus groups and individuals and calling generally for long-term action. What is urgently needed is for MIT’s administration to support its stated intentions with concrete and substantial institutional backing.
Many institutions and organizations have responded. Across town the Harvard administration spoke up immediately in recognition of the members of its community who were directly affected by the earthquake, thereby declaring its membership in the human community. On January 14, President Drew Gilpin Faust sent a letter expressing condolences and a recognition of suffering to the Harvard community that embodies the responsibility of leadership that her university’s privilege and resources entail. This letter stated that health care professionals from the Harvard teaching hospitals would be serving Haiti, thereby setting an example for others to contribute their expertise. The letter also indicated that Harvard had established a dedicated Webpage facilitating direct contributions to Haitian relief and listing organizations responding to the crisis in Haiti and those supporting local Haitian communities.
Two weeks later, on January 25, President Faust sent another letter sharing information on how the earthquake has affected members of Harvard’s “own community” and announcing a relief fund for colleagues, established with contributions from Harvard University and the Harvard University Employees Credit Union. And most recently, the Harvard administration helped students to plan the Haiti Benefit Concert, held on February 12, and covered all costs for this fundraiser.
Two days after the earthquake, also on January 14, President Hockfield announced the report from the Initiative on Faculty Race and Diversity in an e-mail message to the MIT community. This letter proclaims the goals of “a true culture of inclusion” and “leadership in diversity and inclusion,” in service to MIT’s mission of continued excellence in teaching, research, and community service.
The failure to make the connection between the earthquake in Haiti, and issues of racial and ethnic diversity and inclusion needs to be corrected. MIT is uniquely equipped to provide leadership in the areas of energy, engineering, media technology, telecommunications, architecture, urban planning, prosthetics, water resources, disease prevention, education, and more.
Expertise in these fields is so desperately required in Haiti. Indeed, the silence of our leadership is perplexing on a merely pragmatic level, as Haiti offers many practical and clinical opportunities for the development and application of technologies through which MIT could distinguish itself.
Members of MIT’s student body have responded with compassion and ingenuity. In efforts to raise funding and awareness, they have established donation booths and organized activities such as the Strength Through Unity benefit Showcase, the Haiti Relief Show, a charity ice skating event, and a video game marathon. They have gathered to develop relief project ideas, hold prayer sessions, and strategize about ways to adapt technology such as a solar autoclave for sterilizing water. Donations to MIT’s Public Service Center will be used to fund student and faculty projects that benefit Haitian people who were affected by the earthquake. Faculty members, such as Dale Joachim, Phil Thompson, and Amy Smith, from whom you hear in this issue of the Newsletter, have stepped forward to devote their expertise to relief efforts.
We cannot afford to be an institution that functions brilliantly from the neck up, or to demonstrate this example to our students. These efforts by some members of our community demonstrate that MIT need not be a place where ideas are explored and technology is invented and produced in an intellectual vacuum.
What, then, does it mean for MIT, which is situated in the city with the third largest Haitian population in the United States, and whose circle includes many students, staff members, and faculty members of Haitian descent, to champion its commitment to inclusion, diversity, and service, while remaining publicly silent about the earthquake?
On February 4, MIT celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. with an annual breakfast. The article written by the Chair of the Faculty and included in this issue was inspired by the address given at that event. With King’s example so recently invoked, let us consider what he wrote, in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” about connectedness.
“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham...We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Surely we must try to live King’s words beyond his annual day of celebration, by putting into practice, with our unique and tremendous engineering and scientific resources, the stated ethics of full inclusion and service. Can we sit idly by in Cambridge and not be concerned about what happens in Port-au-Prince? Surely it is possible to speak out, in compassion and leadership, to say that we see the people of Haiti and that their fate affects us. That it is ours, as well.
If not, then King’s further words, also written from that Birmingham jail in 1963, are true: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
Diversity Initiative Must Not be Undermined
by Economic Belt Tightening
The excellent report on the Initiative for Faculty Race and Diversity identifies not only the commitment to fairness and justice, but also the necessity of broadening and diversifying the MIT faculty if we are going to continue to be able to contribute to social needs at the highest level.
An important aspect of the creativity and productivity of the U.S. scientific and technological workforce has been its broad social and economic base. Though limited to white males, the establishment of the Land Grant Universities, the passage of the GI bill, the expansion of state public funds for higher education, and the availability of federal graduate training grants, opened up scientific careers to men from diverse social and economic backgrounds. During this period many other nations limited access to higher education to the children of their aristocracies.
However, until recently, even in the U.S., people of color and women have been systematically excluded from advancing in science and technology careers. We have to recognize both the injustice of limiting their access to the Institute world, and the increasing damage to MIT that follows from excluding their talents and contributions.
We need to combat the persisting backward attitude that those from disadvantaged backgrounds have inferior talents; too many of our colleagues are slow to recognize that scientists and engineers from such backgrounds can be more hard working, more creative, and more productive than they are.
An additional danger is that the setbacks in the economy, and the concomitant belt tightening at MIT, will be used as an argument to delay or negate the recommendations of the report. We have to be clear that the fundamental health of MIT as a productive and leading institution of higher learning depends on the timely and steady implementation of the report in continuing to develop a faculty that fully taps the human resources of our nation.
Jean E. Jackson
Helen Elaine Lee