MIT Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee

28th Annual Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
February 8, 2002

"From Dreams to Reality: The Illusion of Full Inclusion"

President Charles M. Vest's Remarks


Thank you all for coming out this morning to take part in this annual MIT tradition. It is always a highlight of my year.

I am especially pleased that we are joined this morning by friends and colleagues in the wider Cambridge community – our community. We are all citizens of this great city on the banks of the Charles River. Cambridge is our common ground: We work hard to make it a vital and sustaining community for all, and it is fitting that we come together to celebrate this morning.

And so I would like to extend a special welcome to:

City Councilor Denise Simmons, State Representative Paul Demaukis, Chairman Benjamin Barnes of the Cambridge Licensing Commission, and Melvina Monteiro, Executive Director of the Cambridge Police Review Advisory Board.

Thank you all for joining us.

One year ago, at this gathering, I noted that 2001 was an iconic date – the year of Arthur C. Clarke's space odyssey. Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubric imagined that 2001 would be remembered as a year in which computers became nearly human, and in which everyday passengers would board spacecraft and drift gracefully to our colony on the moon.

In reality, this past year will be remembered as the time when seemingly everyday passengers boarded aircraft five miles from where we stand and pierced our proudest buildings, ending the lives of more than 3,000 innocent people going about their daily business. We discovered some elemental truths: that evil is bred by ignorance, poverty and absolutism; that our own technology can be turned against us by the crudest actions of determined people. At the same time, the memory of that terrible reality will always conjure in our mind the sounds of people – of every color, creed and corner of the country – singing "America the Beautiful"… together.

It has been a dark time and it has cried out for new understandings. A month after the attacks, the New York Times ran a story whose headline was " Attack Narrows the Racial Divide." Listen to an excerpt from that story:

"Ever so slightly, the attacks on the Trade Center have tweaked the city's traditional racial divides…" "…Some of it is how ordinary men and women react to each other in the streets, on subways, in bodegas. Some people attribute it to the solemnity that hangs over the city, others to fear, still others to newfound unity as Americans. Whatever it is, the way that New Yorkers perceive one another across color lines – however accurate those perceptions were to begin with – has changed."

And in December, the Tampa Tribune reported on interviews with two dozen people about race relations, noting that:

"Maybe it's a veneer, as some say. Maybe there's something deeper. But after the attacks, some black Americans noticed that whites talked to them more. Others felt less vulnerable to racial profiling. Knowing that suspicion had found a new target, they struggled with their emotions." It is undeniable that crisis and fear drew all Americans together like never before. In the face of adversity, we bridged divides.

My question this morning is:
Why can’t we bridge divides in the face of opportunity?

Historians quickly pointed out that this phenomenon of sudden unity and bridge building is observed in wartime – but that it should not be expected to last long. And indeed, just a couple of weeks after the New York Times article, the Boston Globe reported that many said the shared tragedy "briefly bridged Boston's racial divide." Briefly. And listen again to the statement from the Tampa Tribune – that the African Americans they interviewed felt some relief over improved relations with whites, but struggled with their emotions – "knowing that suspicion had found a new target." Therein lies a huge warning sign. Our nation indeed is at war with terrorism, and we must take unusual care to ensure the safety and security of our land and all the people who dwell within it. But we also must remain an open society, and we surely must maintain open universities. Without openness, there can be no inclusion. And openness means openness not only across American society, but also openness to serious and talented students and scholars who come to our shores from other countries to build a new America.

MIT is very proud of our Nobel Prize winners. Those laureates currently active in our midst were born in the U.S., Italy, Germany, Mexico, Japan and India. No more than that need be said to show why we must guard the grand tradition of welcoming those who come here from every corner of the world to learn, and to advance our institutions and country. But even as we pursue the principle of international openness, we know full well that race remains a deeply troubling issue in America. We must be unwavering in our quest to eradicate this reality of our society. We must accelerate the movement of inclusion from illusion to reality.

So here then are the particular challenges for all of us today:

Not only to fight for gains in mutual respect and understanding, but to sustain them; to make sure they are not brief, sentimental aberrations but permanent improvements of habit and heart. And to understand that if all we achieve is to broaden the definition of "us" – while still indulging our desire to believe in some broad sinister "them" – we have not really grown any closer to what Dr. King called the "Beloved Community."

Now "community" is a word worth pausing over. None of us may be prepared to define it precisely – but I believe that within the larger family of MIT, community is a concept that people understand, think about, and value these days in a way they never have before.

And I believe that was increasingly true even before September 11th. Several years ago, the Task Force on Student Life and Learning put us on a new path of building community into the educational experience of our students – and we have seen it take hold among our students, in the design of our new buildings, and in new programs inside and outside the classroom. These commitments and new opportunities should mean a true living and working together, regardless of race, class, culture, age, field of study, religion, and experience. I wish I could say that were uniformly the case at MIT. But I cannot. Not yet. We have made progress over the years, but we need to rededicate ourselves to the principles of openness and inclusion if we are to have a real community. The fact remains that most American adults live largely segregated lives. Our workplaces may be somewhat mixed, but our neighborhoods typically are not.

For white students especially, their years at MIT may be the most integrated experience of their lives. And yet, we have much to do if our students – all of our students – are to have the real benefits of living and studying in a truly multicultural, multiracial community. This begins with admissions and access. If we are to provide the kind of environment and education that our students deserve, we must reach out to – and be open to – all those who will best contribute to and benefit from MIT.

Without access, there is no inclusion.

We will – let there be no misunderstanding about this – we will continue our commitment to affirmative action in admissions. We will continue to follow the tenets of the Bakke Decision, and we will continue doing the hard work necessary to recruit to MIT extraordinarily talented African-Americans, Latinos and other students of color.

But admitting a richly diverse class each year is just the beginning. We have an opportunity – and, I believe, an obligation – to make the MIT experience as positive, constructive, and transformative as possible for each and every one of our students – individually and collectively.

We truly must get beyond the illusion…to the reality of full inclusion.

It will take time, and good will, and hard work, and faith. But I know that it can be done – that we will reach the place where we can meet each other and know each other simply as human beings, not as distant representatives of any group. And when we do, we will have found the most important route to mutual understanding and equality. Despite our frustrations, I continue to be an optimist – perhaps because I see so many bright signs close by, here in our own community, starting with our four award-winners this morning.

Another undeniably bright sign is here with us too – in the person of Tavis Smiley. As you probably all know, Tavis has launched a new daily audio magazine on NPR, geared to an African American audience. But that was only after he had established himself as a wildly popular institution in a dozen other ways: with a long-running program on BET, as a frequent commentator on several different radio and TV networks, and as the author of five books, including "How to Make Black America Better."

But I must say that my favorite fact about Tavis is that he is currently running symposiums across the country designed to promote the use of technology within the African American community. As he puts it, the subject is "E-inclusion – Making A Digital Difference." E-inclusion, openness and opportunity across the nation and throughout the world are things that are very much on our minds here at MIT – as we work to make virtually all of our educational materials freely available to the world through our OpenCourseWare project. But enough about us.

Ladies and gentlemen, it's my pleasure to introduce Tavis Smiley.