MIT Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee

24th Annual Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
February 13, 1998

President Charles M. Vest's Remarks

I would like to thank all of you for participating in this annual celebration.

I am especially pleased that we are joined by members of the Cambridge community, including City Councilor Henrietta Davis.

It is a great privilege for me to share the podium on this important occasion and it is an even greater privilege to have this annual opportunity to present the Martin Luther King Leadership Awards.

In the same spirit that Cambridge's own Tip O'Neill used to observe that all politics is local, I would like to suggest to you this morning that all great societal change is personal. Collective action and general social progress is, at its root, the result of individual leadership, individual example, individual courage and conviction.

The winners of the Martin Luther King Leadership Award are selected not simply for their personal achievements although those are considerable but for the effect they have on those around them.

They are selected not only because they exemplify the ideals of Martin Luther King, but because they have succeeded in transmitting those ideals to others. We are fortunate to have them in our midst.

The first of this year's awards goes to Dr. Lynda Jordan who is currently a Martin Luther King, Jr. Visiting Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry. As many can tell you, Dr. Jordan has a passion for biochemistry. She has an equal passion for inspiring excellence and perseverance in her students and has made it a special mission to foster the growth of minorities and women in science.

Dr. Jordan has been recognized and celebrated at the national level for her work in science and her leadership in encouraging younger generations to pursue their dreams, and we are delighted to add our own accolades to her honors.

Our second award today goes to Ms. Tobie Weiner, administrative assistant in the Department of Political Science. Not only does she serve as a mentor and friend to faculty and students alike, she has worked creatively and tirelessly to organize and teach subjects on such issues as social justice, the history of the civil rights movement, and community service.

In all of this, Tobie has worked enthusiastically and skillfully to create an inclusive, compassionate and civic-minded community here at MIT. We are fortunate to have her here, and we are pleased to be able to recognize her many contributions to life and learning at MIT.

Our final 1998 Martin Luther King Leadership Award goes to an exceptional student who has used his artistic talents as a springboard for community-building and inclusiveness. Although still only in his junior year, he has already won several notable awards for his painting and printmaking, including a 1997 List Foundation Fellowship in the Arts.

His high visibility and charisma have enabled him to produce a number of provocative and successful performing arts events that have made significant contributions to our cultural life. Many of these activities have celebrated black artists and engaged them directly in our community. Eto Otitigbe, Class of 1999, is an exceptional student leader, and we are delighted to recogniz e him with this award.

Congratulations and many thanks to all of our 1998 Martin Luther King Award winners.

REFLECTIONS ON THE OCCASION

Last year, I spoke on this occasion about the looming attack on affirmative action.

Like any good scientist or engineer, I cited data from MIT and elsewhere to support the assertion that. affirmative action as a policy was just beginning to bear fruit in the world of advanced education and research, and that both here at MIT and in society as a whole we had far more work to do.

Since that time, however, I have come to believe that the focus on the goals of affirmative action is increasingly being lost in an escalating debate about methods. That saddens me, because I think that a genuine understanding of these issues must begin with the recognition that by any measure of opportunity, advancement, education or income women and minorities have not yet been fully integrated into the highest levels of America's economy and civil society.

Does that mean that we should defend every action, policy and process which has ever been taken in name of affirmative action? Certainly not. But does that mean we must continue to use effective, appropriate and vigorous means to end this unjust state of affairs? Unquestionably it does. That calls for continuing discussion and debate. How do we get there from here?

But before we as a society or as a local community discuss the means of affirmative action, can't we accept the ends it is intended to achieve? Can't we agree that there is an important problem here, even if we cannot agree on the best means for its solution? If the opponents of affirmative action are not willing to acknowledge this then the debate is not about affirmative action, but about much more fundamental issues of social justice.

The concerns of justice are, in this case, squarely aligned with a pragmatic attention to economic and social well-being. Our nation grows more diverse with each passing year. Members of minority groups make up one quarter of our population today; they will make up well over a third of our population within twenty years.

In a post-industrial world, knowledge is the basis of economic achievement for nations, just as it is for individuals. The well-being of all America depends on the educational achievements of all our citizens. If we recognize and agree on that principle, then I think the debate can rightly focus on the best means to achieve a society marked by economic and social justice.

Unfortunately, I think much of the discussion in the last few years has been clouded by rhetoric that obscures rather than illuminates the issues. If we want to free ourselves from the fierce polarization which has characterized the national debate about so many social issues, we must all abandon the use of such terms of concealment and speak plainly.

I will go first. Like many of my colleagues, I helped shape and I strongly support the Association of American Universities' Statement on the Importance of Diversity in University Admissions. That statement talks about the immense value of diversity in enriching and enhancing the educational experience of all students.

In attempting to describe the advantages of diversity for the entire community, however, we may have employed however unconsciously our own terms of concealment. By this, I mean that we may not have made a strong enough link between the promotion of diversity and the deliberate goal of expanding opportunity to students from groups which remain statistically underrepresented at the highest levels of American life. The extension of these opportunities is a good thing in and of itself. We should be forthright in asserting this.

And just as we should be clear about all of our reasons for supporting diversity, so we should examine some of the murkier language that has been used to attack affirmative action and other policies designed to promote and insure diversity.

Let's begin with the term "quotas" -- a term that is used to suggest that a certain number of people from targeted groups will be admitted or promoted regardless of qualifications. This notion still persists, despite the general acknowledgment that such quotas are, in the case of university admissions, unverified and unverifiable. Programs with specific numerical goals are explicitly rejected by the AAU and its member schools.

Can we stop talking about a problem which doesn't exist?

Let us turn to another loaded word: "preference."

If admissions committees and officers were showing absolute preference for women and minorities, then women and minorities would be admitted out of all proportion to their representation in society as a whole. If, on the other hand, "preference" means giving positive consideration to any factor other than grades and test scores, then surely an attack on preferences for race or gender should apply to preferences for athletic achievement, community service, artistic or musical ability, or -- in the case of many schools, but not here at MIT -- having alumni parents.

These forms of " preference" are rarely attacked, because they are seen as part of a larger set of criteria. "Preference" is thus another misleading term which effectively conceals the one-factor-among-many approach to admissions allowed by the Bakke decision, while subtly suggesting that minorities are over-represented in college populations.

Finally, let us turn to the most troubling of all these terms of concealment.

Ultimately, opponents of affirmative action in admissions complain that it results in the acceptance of candidates who are "unqualified" or, just as ominous, " under-qualified."

What can we say to this?

We could point out that the allegedly under-qualified minority students admitted to the University of Texas Law School did just as well at passing the state bar exam as did their white, male counterparts.

We could point out that the allegedly under-qualified women admitted to MIT earn slightly better grades than do their white male classmates.

We could point out that test scores and grades provide a threshold or benchmark measure of potential, but beyond a certain level, such measures cannot offer hard and fast predictions of achievement.

We could point out that every student who is accepted at MIT is well past that threshold level of competence and is well qualified to do the work.

I believe that we should make all these points, and one more.

The ultimate test of any admissions policy or any other policy designed to promote diversity should be its ability to maintain standards of performance while broadening access and opportunity.

MIT's graduates whatever their gender, race, ethnicity, or test scores continue to do extraordinarily well in their chosen fields. They constantly reinforce our reputation as one of the best universities in the world. By the pragmatic test of how our graduates perform, I think our admissions policies including our policies regarding diversity have been enormously successful.

MIT and society as whole should be willing to look at any alternative policy which produces the same or better results. But no amount of misleading rhetoric should confuse us into accepting anything less. By all means, we should perfect our tools and refine our methods but we should never turn away from the pressing task before us.

We have achieved too much not to stand our ground.