MIT Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee

27th Annual Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
February 8, 2001

"Confronting the Gap: Building and Sustaining Inclusion"

President Charles M. Vest's Remarks

As we gather together to celebrate the life and accomplishments of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., this year’s theme could not be more appropriate: Confronting the Gap: Building and Sustaining Inclusion. There also could be no more difficult theme in America to address in a meaningful way at the dawn of the 21st Century.

Throughout my life, I always looked forward to the passing of dates made famous by anniversaries, books and movies that once seemed so distant — 1976, the Bicentennial Year; 1984, the setting of George Orwell’s political novel; and, of course, 2001 — the year of Arthur C. Clarke’s space odyssey. I hoped that as these milestones ticked by, they would be markers along the way to a bright and exciting future. By and large, they have been. Yet as we gather here in 2001, the issue of race in America remains one of our deepest dilemmas. And the gaps in opportunity and participation in what is best in our country and our institutions remain very much with us.

I would like to subtitle my ruminations this morning "Two Books and a Plateau." The books present hope. The plateau is a difficult reality to be confronted and overcome. The books, of course, are The Shape of the River, and Technology and the Dream.

The Shape of the River
Last year at this breakfast I commented extensively on The Shape of the River. This book, then recently released, is a detailed statistical study of the effects of affirmative action in admission of African-American students to elite colleges and universities. It tracks academic performance and experience, and chronicles the resulting legacy of their education in their personal and professional lives.

To a large extent, it is a book about success. The inclusion of race as one of many factors in college admission decisions has clearly been an important element in building an ever-increasing middle class of people of color. But the book also presented a stark and indisputable reality. Students of color — as a group — had lower grades overall than other students in these schools. This gap persisted even when grades were corrected for factors such as high school grades, SAT scores, socioeconomic status, gender, school selectivity, etc. There is, of course, a huge statistical variation, but the pattern is
clear. While MIT was not included in the study, it was clear to me that we had to take a look at our own campus and make an assessment of these same issues.

Subsequently, Professor Steve Lerman, Chair of the MIT Faculty, and I appointed a faculty Task Force on Minority Student Achievement to assess how well minority students are doing at MIT and, where problems are found, to design new strategies for confronting them. I believe that as the task force identifies programs and strategies to enable minority students to achieve their full potential, we will find that they will benefit all students at MIT.

The task force is headed by John Essigmann and staffed by Karl Reid. John is a highly visible faculty member, a Housemaster, and has a deep insight into the lives of students on this campus. Karl is known to many of you as the Director of the MITES program. He is also the Executive Director of Special Programs in the School of Engineering and is a two-time alumnus of the Institute.

The task force has been working steadily since last September — interviewing students, faculty and staff; analyzing data on student performance trends; and assessing how well our current resources in academic support, financial aid, and counseling are meeting the needs of our students. They are beginning to review how other schools, particularly those that emphasize science and engineering, are addressing the gap. On the basis of these investigations, the task force — with input from the community — will design programs to help make MIT a more vibrant, stimulating and supportive educational environment — not only for our minority students, but for all of our students. The task force is working on a fast track, and expects to present their report and recommendations this summer. The group is operating in the classic MIT tradition of working together to design solutions to tangible problems. In the case of this design project, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Technology and the Dream
The Shape of the River spurred us to appoint the task force, which will help current and future generations of students make the most of their MIT experience. The second book, Technology and the Dream, holds over half a century of lessons for our future.

Last month the MIT Press released this truly extraordinary volume, authored and edited by our good friend and colleague Clarence Williams. This volume chronicles the lives of 75 MIT alumni, faculty and administrators. It is accompanied by a CD containing some 100 additional oral histories. In the book, you will find luminaries such as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and RPI president Dr. Shirley Jackson; scholars such as Professors James Gates and James Williams; players in our national history such as Louis Young, one of the famous Tuskegee Airmen of World War II; and many people who have lived ordinary lives — or at least as "ordinary" as it gets for MIT graduates!

This wonderful collection of oral histories is a fitting companion to The Shape of the River, because unlike that book, it focuses largely on scientists and engineers. More important still, it provides the human side of the story — the memories, experiences and reflections of people whose lives have helped shape and have been shaped by MIT. It is a book about the experiences and accomplishments of these individuals, but, more deeply still, it is about us — about MIT. It is about both triumph and failure. It is about the complexity of life and race. It is about injustice and about thoughtless, unintended injuries. But Technology and the Dream also is about the value of an MIT education and about life lessons — both pleasant and unpleasant — that lead to growth. It is about perseverance, pride, determination and personal accomplishment. It is about how things look to a student and how they look to that same person years later. It is a book that simultaneously gives us hope, pride and inspiration, yet says how slowly many important things have changed. It displays, for all to see, the gap between where we are and where we ought to be in our quest for an inclusive, just society. Clarence, we all thank you
for educating us — yet again — through this remarkable book.

The Plateau

As Clarence's book demonstrates, we have worked hard and continuously in this institution to build a diverse community of scholars, professionals and staff — one that truly represents the changing face of America and one that is truly inclusive. And I must say that it is simply exhilarating to walk down the Infinite Corridor amidst the wonderfully diverse sea of our students. They come in every color and shade, every national origin and culture. I often visit other campuses across the country — campuses that, if you will excuse the expression, are pale by comparison.

But we have reached a point here at MIT that leaves me very uncomfortable. Our progress in some critical dimensions has stalled. It has hit a plateau in the last few years — a leveling-off that cannot stand. During my ten years as president, I have maintained a personal database of measures of diversity at MIT. I want to share with you just one graph from it — a graph that speaks volumes. Many of us of my generation believed that if we worked hard to create substantial diversity in the undergraduate population of our universities, then, in due course, our graduate enrollments, and then our faculties,
would change.

As you can see, this has not been the case at MIT. Neither graduate enrollments nor faculty composition have tracked with the very substantial progress that has been made at the undergraduate level. You can find the same phenomenon with women at MIT, although their presence in the graduate student population is not as far out of whack. Worse still, we are not alone. Indeed, we have roughly double the national average in the percentage of African-American and Hispanic-American undergraduates who are enrolled in science and engineering. At the graduate level, however, we are slightly
below the national average.

But my real point is that our graduate enrollments have hit a plateau. And the number of African-American and Hispanic American members of our tenured and tenure-track faculty, after having doubled from 1990 to 1998, has been stationary from 1998 to the present. This does not describe the leadership position to which we aspire.

What are we doing, and what must we do?
MIT has at least 36 formal programs in support of diversity according to an audit we undertook two years ago. These range from the MITES program for promising high school juniors — to Project Interphase for incoming students — to ECSEL for curricular reform — to the Sloan Minority Fellows program for graduate students — to the Provost’s Minority Faculty Hiring Initiative — to the Committee on Campus Race Relations, which works to realize the promise of inclusion in all elements of our community.

But these programs are not sufficient. During the current academic year we have placed renewed emphasis on working through a new Council to build and sustain diversity in our faculty. Just as in the case of the Task Force on Minority Student Achievement, we are asking the tough questions, engaging minority faculty who know the score, and trying to make a difference for the long haul.

The Council on Faculty Diversity was established to mount a focused and sustained effort to increase the number of underrepresented minority and women faculty members at MIT. Councils, in the sense used here, deal only with issues that we believe are critical to the future of the Institute. They are comprised of both faculty and administrators so that thinking and implementation are interconnected. We have only three other such councils. In other words, this is serious business. The Council is lead by Professor Nancy Hopkins, Associate Provost Phil Clay and Provost Robert Brown and includes faculty leaders in all five schools of the Institute. The Council is examining every facet of university culture with the goal of achieving an MIT faculty that better mirrors the diversity in our student populations. This is the "A Team," and we are in this endeavor for the long haul. Although the deliberations of the Council are at a relatively early stage, three specific objectives already have emerged: 1) Putting in place an active program to enhance the pipeline of young promising minority and women graduate students into the academic profession. Here we hope that MIT will become a role model for other institutions.; 2) Getting all units at MIT to aggressively seek women and minority faculty members, using the "best practice" for identification and recruitment; and 3) Active monitoring and mentoring of the careers of faculty. Guidance and career advice are as important to young faculty as they are to students, and we should make such mentoring the expected norm here at MIT.

By the end of the year, we hope to have programs in place to deal with each of these goals. In addition, the Council is looking at the issue of balancing family and professional responsibilities within a major research university. These are not new topics, but the thought, leadership, and hands-on approach that Bob Brown, Phil Clay and Nancy Hopkins and their colleagues are applying to them give me faith that we can leave the plateau and climb the trail of leadership once more.

I have talked about students and faculty. What about staff at MIT?
Here again, we are at something of a plateau. The number of minorities in administrative positions at MIT is still low. While there has been some growth in the number and percentage of minority administrators (from 9 percent to 11 percent between 1991 and 1999), there has been virtually no growth in the number of African Americans in administrative positions. For underrepresented minorities at the support staff level, the picture is similar — with a growth of only 2 percent during that same period. In an academic institution, it is important that the staff, as well as the faculty, be able to understand, and offer guidance and inspiration to our students. In order to do so, our staff, particularly in areas that support student life and learning, needs to reflect the character of our student body.

We have a long way to go.
In order to address the challenge of creating a more diverse campus community, the Human Resources department last year launched a diversity initiative. This working group quickly decided that the most effective course would be to concentrate on one aspect of diversity rather than try to effect change in all dimensions simultaneously. They decided to concentrate on the barriers to and opportunities for increasing the number of underrepresented minorities on the administrative and support staff at MIT. The group is collecting and reviewing data, past studies and programs, and conducting interviews and focus groups — with the aim of developing a set of recommendations by the end of the spring term.

Triumph and failure.
That to me is the picture. MIT was a pioneer in educating and advancing minority students. We do have a triumph in our undergraduates, although we have some hard work to do if we are to spiral this success even higher. But we are failing at leadership in diversity at the graduate level and within our faculty and staff. We must expect more of ourselves. We must realize our goals and vision.

Today we are grateful to have such extraordinarily accomplished men and women as Wes Harris, Harvey Gantt and Desiree Ramirez in our community. But we need more such leaders at all levels, and we must create an environment that not only fosters professional success, but one that eliminates marginalization and extends respect in every dimension to talented people of color. MIT is not about plateaus or gaps. It is about leadership. We want to be the best in all that we do. And that must mean being the best in realizing our vision of a proud, accomplished, diverse and mutually respectful community.

Thank you.