MIT Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee

26th Annual Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
February 3, 2000

Academic Success and the Learning Community

President Charles M. Vest's Remarks

A few years ago, my wife, Becky, and I were privileged to be invited to dinner at the home of the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. As you know, the Secretary General is an MIT alumnus. It was a glittering and very memorable evening. The dinner was held to honor the outgoing president of the UN General Assembly who, when asked to make a few informal remarks, began by saying something along the following lines:

The General Assembly is a collection of brilliant and talented people. But what do we do? We dress nicely in pinstriped suits and talk politely and endlessly about a number of matters in a most gracious and dignified manner. Most of us become good friends and we certainly have mutual respect. But we never talk about the real issues the hard things that we should bluntly confront.

Perhaps in academia, and at MIT, we too are guilty of something along these lines. We gather annually to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, and to remind ourselves that although the path is long and hard, and the goals seemingly distant, we have much to be grateful for, and many triumphs and heroes to recognize and thank. Most of all, we express our pride in our remarkable students with whom we work and learn and lead. I look forward each year to this celebration and its sense of vision and recommitment to the cause of building a just society.

Today, however, I want to follow the diplomat's advice and talk about a really hard issue one that many of us in this room know about and worry about, but rarely talk openly aboutand one for which I certainly don't have the answer. The issue is the gap between ability and achievement of many minority students in American colleges and universities. We in leading colleges and universities have two fundamental duties regarding all students: first, to seek and admit talented, accomplished and motivated students; and second to provide a learning environment that enables them to realize their highest academic and personal potential.

Last year at this breakfastand in a subsequent Boston Globe editorialI discussed the misguided move in this country away from explicitly considering race as a factor in admission decisions. The core of my message, and indeed MIT's message, was that we believe that considering many factors in admissions -- including race -- allows us to build a class that promotes a better educational experience for all our students, and that it increases our ability to help build a strong, coherent, productive society. We must sustain these principles. We must continue to publicly champion the critical importance of diversity in college admissions and in life and learning on our campus. And we will.

The fact is that by applying these principles, we do get the right students and they represent an extraordinary variety and mixtureof backgrounds: African American, Asian American, Caucasian, Hispanic, and Native American. I like to say that MIT students come from the upper left-hand corner. What do I mean by this? It goes like this: The faculty and staff who read applications assign two scores to each applicant. One score is quantitative and is based on grades, SAT scores, rank in class, advanced placement performance, etc. The second score reflects non-quantitative matterssuch as initiative, accomplishment and leadership in activities outside the classroom, community service, high-level competitions, etc.

These two scores establish a matrix. Those in the upper left-hand corner of the matrix have done remarkably well in both dimensions. They are the cream of the crop. MIT's students come from the upper left-hand corner. Our white students come from the upper left-hand corner. Our minority students come from the upper left-hand corner. They are the best. The same is true at the other highly competitive colleges and universities across the country. We get the right students. But today, let us turn to the next stageacademic success, and our responsibility to these talented students.

Here is an undisputed statistical fact. Undisputed, but highly controversial difficult to interpretand not discussed enough. It is clearly summarized in the book The Shape of the River, by Bill Bowen and Derek Bok, which reports on their study of the academic performance of all students in 28 competitive colleges and research universities in this country. This major study describes the great success of three decades of affirmative action in higher education -- but it also contains a most troubling finding.

Bowen and Bok noted that admission to and graduation from the kinds of selective schools included in the study pays off handsomely for individuals of all races and backgrounds. It also pays off handsomely to our nation. However, the overall grades of students of color in these schools statistically lag those of other students, even when corrected for factors such as high school grades, SAT scores, socioeconomic status, gender, school selectivity, etc. In this statistical analysis of academic performance, there is huge individual variation, but the pattern is evident. This finding of the Bowen/Bok study clearly shows that far too many minority students are not achieving their full academic potential. This, at a time when we need them to be the best they can be as they prepare to be our leaders in this new century of American life.

MIT was not one of the universities studied, but we must examine this question in a substantive manner here as well. Our leading colleges and universities enroll enormously gifted minority students, and we need to understand the reasons for the gap between their ability and their achievement. It is not helpful, in my view, to immediately retreat to some ideological or political position on any side of this issue. Nor, frankly, do I believe that we should just decide that tests are racially biased and let it go at that. We need to understand what's going on and then roll up our sleeves and get to work on it. After all, at MIT we like to think that once we've identified a problem, we've taken the first step in finding the solution. And the time to attack tough issues is when we can do so from strength.

Our strength derives from the remarkable contributions made by MIT minority students and graduates during the last three or four decades to science, engineering, politics, business, community development and the arts. Our good colleague Dr. Clarence Williams chronicles many of these contributions in two forthcoming books. I have read much of it in draft form and can tell you that their achievements are inspiring. And yet, their reflections on their MIT experiences also raise a persistent question: Given the talent and promise of our students and the resources that we devote to developing that talent, have we doneare we doing our best?

As MIT's president, I must listen to, learn from, and act on the constructive criticism that they -- and many of you -- have raised. That is what I am doing today. We need work together to create and sustain a learning environment that brings out the best in all of our students. I can think of no better goal as we enter the 21st century. And we must undertake it with optimism and confidence.

Why am I optimistic? Just look around this room. It is full of remarkable individualsstudents, faculty, staff, administrators and guestswhose achievements and contributions to society are simply extraordinary. I suspect that right here is the key to enhancing our understanding. Let us begin by learning what makes for success. Let us learn from each other's experiences, challenges and successes. The successful individuals studied by Dr. Williams took personal responsibility for their own academic accomplishment, and they took direct advantage of the opportunities afforded by MIT, regardless of obstacles they may have encountered. Let us, in addition, take community, as well as individual, responsibility for our students' academic success.

There are hints out there about concrete actions that can be taken. Let me cite just three examples: the first has to do with mentoring. One of the crown jewels of MIT's education is UROP, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary today. It is a wonderful way for students to get involved in real, world-class research and to find a faculty mentor. And yet we know that proportionately fewer minority students choose to sign up for UROP. We need to understand why, and correct it -- and we will. Kim Vandiver, Dean for Undergraduate Research, has made this an important priority, and I am confident that we can turn it around.

The second example has to do with creating a stronger learning community. People at MIT have always thrived on the intensity of competition and individual achievement. Yet as noted in the report of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning, these factors have also led to an environment that is fragmented in many ways. We need to develop community across cultures, across campus. One place where this happens is the LeaderShape program, now in its sixth year. Students from an extraordinary array of ethnic and cultural backgrounds spend an intensive week together, getting to know each other and themselves, talking about their aspirations, and developing projects to make those dreams come true. We need to build on the lessons we are learning from this kind of experienceand make them available to all of our students.

And finally, there is the matter of expectations. We need a community that that not only gives its members the opportunity to succeed, but that treats all its members as if they can and will succeed. That begins right within each of us. Our expectations of our students and of ourselves must be high. Over and over, on the videotapes in the Intuitively Obvious series, we hear students talk about how hard it is to succeed when your teachers and others send you signals that they don't think you have what it takes, when they have lower expectations of you than you do of yourself.

The Committee on Campus Race Relations is now making an updated version of those tapes. Let's learn from our students. It's all right there. I have put this issue of expectations and academic performance on the table so that we can get to work on it. Over the past few months, I have talked with many of you about our students and how their environment and success can be improved. As a result of these discussions, I want to tell you that I am in the process of putting together a task force to tackle this head on. It will be results-oriented and have a specific time line. We will formally announce the group in the near future, and once we do, I invite all of you to send your ideas and suggestions our way.

As I said at the beginning, the first step toward a solution is identifying the problem and asking the right questions. I am confident that this place, if any place, can find the solution. By building an MIT that is not only inclusive, but sustaining, we can take a big step forward to creating a better learning and living environment for all of us. Such a community must be based on equal opportunity, to be sure. And it must continue to be one of supremely ambitious, talented and hard-working individuals. But it also must be one of mutual respect, self-confidence, shared purpose, and high expectations. We owe this to ourselves; we owe it to our students; we owe it to society. Let us not waver from our collective responsibilities, and let us never waiver from our resolute commitment to the Dream.