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Using MIT's 29th annual breakfast honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a forum, President Charles M. Vest announced that MIT would file with the U.S. Supreme Court a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the University of Michigan's policy to include race among factors for admissions.
Vowing to keep MIT in the forefront of the move to preserve race as a factor in admissions, Vest said, "MIT for decades has been a leader in building the diversity of our own community and of the engineering and science workforce and leadership of America. And it is not going to lose that edge on my watch."
Vest, 61, devoted about a third of his 20-minute talk to his personal experiences. "My own journey," he said, "is one of direct and meaningful personal benefit from diversity."
He grew up in West Virginia--a "border state not quite of the south but not quite of the north either"--and attended racially segregated schools until junior high.
"Our schools were desegregated in one fell swoop a year or so ahead of Brown v. Board of Education . I came quickly to value and learn from the new classmates who joined us. I remember when our high school football coach drilled us on how to protect our black teammates should they be attacked in some of the more rural towns in which we were to play.
"My first science teacher, who was a big inspiration, was black. My high school physics teacher was a woman. My closest friend in graduate school was from India. My Ph.D. advisor was from Turkey. My closest colleagues as a young professor were from Taiwan, Hungary and Turkey. My own father grew up in a German-speaking household.
"I know that I am richer, that my worldview is more balanced, and that my ability to do my job and live my life has been greatly enhanced by these and by so many more personal experiences that we can file under the heading of diversity," Vest said.
An ongoing inspiration for Vest is the MIT community itself, he said. "When I look around at an MIT student body whose undergraduates are 42 percent women, 6 percent African-American, 11 percent Hispanic American, 2 percent Native American and present a huge range of diversity in so many other dimensions, it seems to me that a miracle has happened," he said.
"But that's just the point. It is not a miracle. It is not a natural occurrence. It is the result of determined, conscientious effort, over more than three decades, often against seemingly insurmountable odds. It is the result of institutional leadership and occasional courage. It is a result of the determination of innumerable families and communities. The goal was as simple as it was profound: to give every young person the opportunity to succeed ... despite the length of the journey, our nation is a better place than it was three decades ago."
Vest's talk ended on a note more determined than optimistic.
"Race still matters in America," he said. "We haven't reached the day when we will truly have a race-blind society. We hope we will, but we haven't. And we must not put our heads in the sand, declare victory and let 30 years of progress slide."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 26, 2003.