Full Inclusion—Illusion and Reality

Excerpts from President Charles M. Vest's remarks at MIT's 28th annual celebration of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., February 8, 2002.

© Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2002. To reprint or excerpt for publication, please contact Laura Mersky at mersk@mit.edu.

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 Kubrick 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:

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.

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