MIT Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee

23rd Annual Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
February 6, 1997

President Charles M. Vest's Remarks


It is my great pleasure and privilege to present this year's Martin Luther King Leadership Awards.

This past Monday, the Boston Globe ran a story about the relatively short list of Black Americans and other minority figures who receive attention in history and social Studies classes. The article listed a long roster of distinguished Americans who remain almost unknown to America's youth. Several were cited for their ground-breaking work in industrial technology, biochemistry and architecture fields of great interest here at MIT. Yet, even here, I suspect there are few, if any, students, faculty or staff who could tell you about Jan Matzellger, Norbert Rilleux, Charles Drew, or Benjamin Banneker.

This lack of awareness of the role, the value, and the importance of diversity in our culture is a legacy of our past, but it is by no means an historical artifact. Even in today's mass culture, too few minority heroes are drawn from sources other than the ranks of athletes and entertainers.

While I do not wish for a moment to underrate the achievements of these figures, I wish we could make more room in mass culture for the celebration of Americans like W.C. Patton, who died on January 16 at the age of 84. Mr. Patton, a school teacher and principal who began by leading modest registration efforts in post-war Alabama, ultimately rose to become the NAACP's national director of voter education, a post he held for 22 years. If American students of all races knew half as much about W.C. Patton as they do about Michael Jordan, our nation would be a better place.

It is for this very reason that the Martin Luther King, Jr., Leadership Awards are so important to all of us at MIT. These awards provide us with a welcome opportunity to celebrate the contributions of diversity to the larger world of higher learning. At the same time, they allow us to celebrate individuals who exemplify the ideals of Martin Luther King and inspire us all to incorporate those ideals into our own lives.

Our first award goes to a group rather than to an individual.

Since its inception in 1994, the MIT Committee on Campus Race Relations has greatly enhanced our university's dialogues on culture and race. Through its publications, sponsored events and grant programs, the Committee has worked to achieve a greater sense of tolerance and appreciation for diversity within MIT. Above all, however, the Committee has promoted a greater sense of shared community. No organization could more thoroughly embody the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our next award goes to Myra Rodrigues, a member of the MIT staff who has devoted herself to assisting those in need. In a quarter century of service to the Institute's Social Services and Medical Department, she has proven that one of the best ways to enhance an entire community is to help one person at a time. Many lives have been touched by her compassion and wisdom, and we cannot think of a more fitting recipient of an award that bears the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our third award goes to Professor S. James Gates, a distinguished scholar who earned multiple undergraduate and graduate degrees here at MIT, culminating in 1977 with a PhD in Physics. Since 1984, he has been a member of the physics faculty of the University of Maryland. He has also served as the chairman of the Howard University Physics Department and as the first director of the NASA-supported Center for the Study of Terrestrial and Extra-terrestrial Atmospheres.

Although the demands of his career could easily be all-consuming, Jim has always remained committed to a larger social agenda. A spirited and articulate defender of affirmative action, he exemplifies the potential our society can unlock by providing opportunity to all its citizens. By achieving greatly and by championing the virtues of diversity in science and in the larger scientific community, Jim sustains both the vision and the excellence embodied by Martin Luther King. We are honored by his presence here today.


It is the fate of every university president to face a heavy schedule of speaking engagements throughout the year. Some engagements are onerous: many are pleasant. Some are an honor: most are a duty. But a few are inspirations. This is always one such event. Perhaps it the most inspiring of them all.

We celebrate the ideals and the vision of Martin Luther King for many reasons: for the challenges he called us to meet, for the courage he dared us to match, for the stirring eloquence that moved our hearts and transformed our nation. Most often, however, we say we honor Dr. King for his dream.

Certainly, his dream is as powerful today as it was in 1964 when, in a single address, he became the nation's most compelling voice for racial equality and social progress. But Martin Luther King was, above all, a man of action. His dream is memorable and important precisely because he did so much to make it a reality. If we wish to honor him, then we must do the same.

To dream his dream is not enough, nor can we build the society of which he dreamed by command or decree. Rather we must work Proactively to build it through the environments and opportunities we create for learning and working.

In the years since Dr. King's death, many of our nation's colleges and universities have made a deliberate effort to Infuse Dr. King's dream with a measure of reality. Over time, one Important pathway to his goals, which we have come to call affirmative action, has yielded substantial results.

For example, US Census data tell us that, between 1980 and 1992, the aggregate percentage of minorities in the U.S. population remained fairly stable at just over 25 percent. In that time, however, the percentage of minority undergraduates at U.S colleges and universities rose from 17.3 percent to 23.5 percent. That's progress by any standard.

At the graduate level, the rate of increase is comparable, but we need to accelerate the pace in order to reach a more acceptable absolute number (In 1992, just over 15 percent of the graduate students in America were minority students.)

So much for the national picture. How does MIT look? Well, I have to say that within this context, we look relatively good. Just yesterday I received a report on the enrollment of minorities and women in engineering programs in the U.S. shows that over the past five years: MIT ranks in the top ten in the number of engineering degrees at all levels awarded to women, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans; MIT ranks number two in the country in the number of engineering doctoral degrees awarded to African Americans; and we are number one in the number of engineering doctoral degrees awarded to Hispanic Americans and to women.

We are proud of this ranking, yet the actual numbers show how far we have to go. While we have awarded a total of 1207 engineering doctorates over the past five years. we have awarded a total of 170 to women, 19 to Hispanic Americans, and 16 to African Americans.

With such numbers, despite their recent growth, it is no wonder that there are so few minorities and women on the faculties of our colleges and universities Minorities still make up only 12 percent of the professorate and only 8.5 percent of those who are full professors. The situation is far worse if we look specifically at the fields of science and engineering MIT is a case in point. Clearly, we have far more work to do.

To me, at least, these numbers have two important implications. The first is that whatever its imperfections, affirmative action has improved access and opportunity for women and minorities In America the second is that affirmative action, as most of us know from personal experience is hardest to achieve and most gradual In its impact at the highest levels of our society. Real progress at these levels will occur only with more time and with much more effort. Is such an effort necessary?

These numbers suggest that exclusion and discrimination are not merely historic artifacts but continuing realities. They also suggest that steady pressure must be maintained until results are seen at the very top. To quit now will simply mean a long-term stratification of opportunity a permanent glass ceiling.

Why, then, is affirmative action in higher education under attack from so many quarters?

This past July, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Hopwood v. University of Texas that any consideration of race or ethnicity by the law school for the purpose of achieving a diverse student body is not a compelling interest and therefore is not permitted (at least in Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana).

The repeal of affirmative action by the University of California's Board of Regents gained national attention during the Presidential campaign. In Colorado, the governing board of the university system has cut back on its affirmative action programs. Most disturbingly, California voters have approved a measure which would forbid any state agency or school from taking race or gender into account for purposes of hiring or admissions. (Implementation of this measure is on hold pending the outcome of numerous legal challenges.)

I believe that much of the support for these assaults on affirmative action derives from a fundamental ignorance a lack of knowledge about the true position of minorities in the United States. That ignorance was amply demonstrated in a survey conducted in September of 1995 under the joint auspices of The Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University.

This study indicated that 41 percent of white Americans believed that, economically, African Americans were just as well or better off than whites, and 44 percent of whites believe that African Americans are just as well or better off in terms of educational achievement.

On the question of economic well-being, the reality is that mean household income for African Americans is only 65 percent that of white households. On education. enrollment and employment for African Americans, especially in graduate school and on faculties, continues to lag significantly.

In addition to this lack of knowledge about present reality, I believe that part of the problem can be attributed to ignorance about population trends in the United States. While minorities account for approximately a quarter of the American population today, that figure will rise to just over 30 percent in 2005 and nearly 34 percent in 2015.

These trends suggest that the economic health of our nation in the 21st Century will rest squarely on the productivity, achievement and skill of a workforce which will be increasingly diverse. In a technology~driven post-industrial economy an economy in which education is the single most important contributor to success our nation cannot afford to short-change or ignore the educational aspirations of its historically disadvantaged citizens.

And, even as our nation's population becomes increasingly diverse, the average age of Americans is also increasing. So, these days, we hear a lot about the future of Social Security. Consider this: white baby boomers are going to depend for their retirement on taxes paid into the system by a workforce that is markedly more diverse than it is now. If that diverse workforce has not received the best education we can give it, then we will face the likelihood of severely constrained Social Security benefits.

I know that, even in the face of these realities, there will be many in America who will still argue that affirmative action is not a necessary and valuable tool in building a more equitable and productive society.

Even deprived of the argument that affirmative action doesn't work, or that we don't need it anymore, they will fall back on the idea that it is wrong because it violates the concept of colorblindness, which Dr. King himself characterized so eloquently as the ability to judge people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

There are two responses to this challenge to affirmative action. One of them has been made with particular eloquence by one of today's winners of the Martin Luther King Leadership Award. In the July, 1995 issue of The Scientist. Jim Gates wrote of the value of genetic diversity in promoting the survival, performance, vigor and adaptability of biological systems. He suggested that the same principle could and should be applied to human societies.

This nation, Jim argued, desperately needs to use all the means at its disposal to achieve the highest levels of performance in the increasingly international competition in science and technology. Diversity in both nature and other fields of human endeavor has shown to lend itself to increased levels of performance. Is it not prudent at least to be open to this possibility in pursuit of excellence in scientific, engineering, and technological achievement?

Jim's inspired defense of the value of diversity may be extended from science and technology to society as a whole. We will all benefit immeasurably from an integrated, cohesive society In which all individuals can realize their potential, and in which we can draw effectively on the individual and collective strengths and talents of our citizens of all colors and ethnicities.

Still, simply to speak of the shared advantages of diversity is to fall short of the basic premise embodied by Dr. King himself. In the end, we must pursue racial equality through affirmative action not simply because it will make our society stronger, or more adaptable or more prosperous (although It will do all those things). In the end, we must pursue these policies in spite of their costs and regardless of their benefits. We must pursue them because they are right and just.

That is why we need to honor and emulate Dr. King, for, although he was a pragmatic activist, he never let his pragmatism dilute his idealism. He knew that only moral leadership could move mountains and transform nations.

I hope, therefore, that the students, faculty and staff of MIT will join me during the year ahead in a renewed effort to sustain our university's commitment to diversity and opportunity in all aspects of our scholastic and professional lives.

Perhaps such a commitment Is in part just an expression of pragmatic self-interest, but it also Is an expression of an abiding sense of justice. Let us, together, pursue these goals as Dr. King did, not because they are good for us, but simply because they are good.