MIT Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee

25th Annual Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
February 4, 1999

A Journey Shared: Diversity, Community and Achievement at MIT

President Charles M. Vest's Remarks

Before I begin my remarks, I would like to take a moment to recognize several distinguished representatives of the larger Cambridge community who have joined us for today's program. From the Cambridge City Council, I am pleased to welcome our current Mayor Frank Duehay and his predecessor Mayor, City Councilor Ken Reeves. We are also pleased to have with us: City Councilor Katherine Triantafillou; the Cambridge Police Commissioner, Ronnie Watson; the Mayor's School Liaison, Ann Lee Foster; the Mayor's Chief of Staff, Lisa Yanakakis; and the coordinator of the Mayor's Initiative on Race and Class, Michelle Farnum. We are also delighted to welcome to today's events a delegation of leaders from the Cambridge public school system, which is establishing its own dialogue on race relations under the guidance of School Committee member Denise Simmons. Ms. Simmons is here today, along with Fellow School Committee member Robin Harris, Superintendent of Schools Bobbie DAlessandro, and Deputy Superintendent Patrick Murphy. I think it is fair to say that MIT and the City of Cambridge are on a shared journey and the ways in which we work together in education, development, and civic affairs is something that gives me great confidence in our future. It is good to have you with us this morning.

Just four years ago, the keynote speaker at this event was Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. This past year, after half a century of service as one of our nation's foremost jurists, scholars and advocates for civil rights, Judge Higginbotham was taken from us. I could not let this occasion pass without a few words of appreciation for this extraordinary man. Leon Higginbotham was a hero for many Americans. Here at MIT, we will be forever grateful for his compelling and effective advocacy on our behalf during what became known as the Overlap case. As many here remember, in 1991, the United States Justice Department brought an anti-trust suit against MIT and the Ivy League schools alleging collusion in the way we awarded financial aid to students. We argued that our practices sought to ensure that students would be awarded financial aid solely on the basis of their financial need, and that different schools would not get into financial bidding wars for students. Judge Higginbotham, who had recently retired from the bench, believed our case was so compelling that he volunteered to present, pro bono, the amici briefs on our behalf before the appellate court. A staunch and effective supporter of affirmative action and diversity, Leon Higginbotham argued that the principles at stake in the Overlap case had to do with both public policy and ethical norms. And one of those norms, he said, was that those people who are poor but who are talented should have the same opportunity to have an entry into these great universities as did the Kennedys and the Rockefellers and the Cabots and the Lodges. One of the reasons he worked so hard to preserve the practice of need-blind admissions and need-based aid was his recognition that this policy was a blessing not only for those who received the opportunity, but for the larger society as well. After he had made his argument to the appellate court an argument that prevailed Judge Higginbotham got a letter from an antitrust lawyer who had heard his presentation. The lawyer observed that, in the future, many poor white kids will get into Ivy League schools, and they will not recognize that this option was made possible because of the arguments a black lawyer and the Congressional Black Caucus made on behalf of MIT for all of the poor kids of America. As Judge Higginbotham reminded us when he spoke here in 1995, We meet here today to acknowledge that Martin Luther King's legacy was not merely to black people or brown people. His legacy was one that embraced all people. This is, perhaps, the least understood and most misrepresented aspect of the ongoing debate over policies designed to promote more equal opportunity and greater diversity in American society. Leon Higginbotham knew that society could not progress unless it progressed as a whole with no one left behind or pushed away. Today, this fundamental principle is under direct assault. Across America, the old cry of your gain is my loss is heard on college campuses, in corporate boardrooms, and in the halls of Congress. It is a matter of profound and disturbing irony that, a time of unparalleled prosperity, many of those who have the most the most wealth, the most access, the most skills, the most power seem more reluctant than ever to invest those resources in a strong and just society. In order to bring that strength and justice to our society, all of us must continue to think on, and speak out about, the issue of race-sensitive admissions in American higher education. Since 1978, our colleges and universities have designed and administered admission policies under the guidance of the Bakke decision, which was forged in the Supreme Court by Thurgood Marshall. This guidance is clear: race may be one of several factors considered when we select students for admission to our programs. This simple statement, in my view, is the appropriate one. Under it, as Bill Bowen and Derek Bok have clearly demonstrated in their recent book, The Shape of the River, our institutions have contributed substantially to the establishment of a strong black middle class, and therefore to the strengthening of American society. But the quest is far from complete. Today, through referenda such as Proposition 209 in California and Initiative Measure 200 in Washington State, public universities are losing their ability to utilize race-sensitive admissions, or even the ability to mount outreach programs to minority students in primary and secondary schools. From MIT's point of view, more dangerous still are successful attacks in the courts, especially the Hop wood case regarding admission to the University of Texas Law School. A case involving undergraduate admissions at the University of Michigan, currently pending in the courts, may be the most important to date. Many argue on behalf of these referenda and court challenges that it is discriminatory to make race a consideration in admissions, and that students should be admitted only on what they consider to be merit. In my view, there are two elementary flaws in this argument. First, we have laid upon the table several factors such as grades, rank in class, test scores, geographic distribution, breadth of interests and accomplishments outside the classroom, race, economic status, international mixture, and so forth. Those who challenge us reach out and remove from the table one, and only one, factor race and say, Thou shall not consider this. Second, their underlying assumption is that we can accurately measure the quality of our applicants by a simple number or two. They seem to seek a world in which we are each ranked at age 18 by some easy indicator like an SAT score, which thereby determines our breadth of opportunity. We believe that building a class by using a range of factors promotes a better educational experience for all our students, and that it increases our ability to contribute to building the strong, coherent, productive society this nation will need in the next century. The logic underlying this belief should be to use a favorite MIT expression intuitively obvious. Yet far too many among us still cannot seem to understand that the old patterns of exclusion and separation did not work and must not be restored. They don't work for society, and they don't work for individuals. To the contrary: individual fulfillment is enabled and enhanced by participation in the larger community. Here on the MIT campus, the recently-issued report of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning reminds us that excellence in research and education arise not only from individual efforts, but also from the commingling of diverse ideas and perspectives, the challenge of competition and teamwork, and the support of a nurturing community. The message underlying their recommendations is that MIT must become more than the sum of its parts. And in order to educate a new generation of leaders for an increasingly interconnected, global society, we must by our own example show our students how to function, communicate and thrive in a diverse environment. One promising effort in community-building at MIT is occurring in our Facilities Department and on our Campus Police force, where working and managing in a diverse environment is made an explicit part of each person's career development. While the program is relatively new, early evidence suggests that direct attention to training and evaluation in managing issues can improve communication, productivity and employee satisfaction for everyone. Of course, many of the same pressures and problems that afflict our larger society remain very much a part of life at MIT. We are still only at the beginning of a long and difficult journey. I hope, however, that even in times of controversy we hold on to the example of such leaders as Dr. King and Judge Higginbotham, who remind us that our journey cannot be completed alone. Unless all of us help each of us to make our way, we will never realize our highest potential for excellence and achievement. In designing our admissions polices, in shaping our curriculum, in advising our students, and in working together, we must never lose sight of the truth expressed in these words, written by James Taylor to honor the memory of Dr. King:

We are bound together
By the task that lies before us
And the road that lies ahead.
We are bound and we are bound.

Thank you again for being here this morning and for sharing this journey.