Challenges Past, Present, and Future

Excerpts from President Charles M. Vest's remarks at MIT's 30th annual celebration of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., February 5, 2004.

© Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2004. To reprint or excerpt for publication, please contact Laura Mersky at
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Thirty years. We have been holding this celebration at MIT for 30 years. That’s a large chunk of our history.

And for 14 of those years, Becky and I have had the honor of hosting it. It has become, for us, as for the entire community, a warm, important, moment in the annual cycle of our university—and a powerful reminder of some of our deepest values and most important responsibilities.

We have met and listened to important teachers of America’s history and essence. We have been inspired and renewed. My only complaint is that for several weeks afterward I cannot get the strains of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” out of my mind!

But—as an annual event—there is a danger, and it is captured in this year’s title—“rhetoric or reality.” Annual renewal is extremely important for a long and frustrating journey, but there must be reality as well as rhetoric. Forgive me, it’s MIT: I’m going to talk about numbers—part of the reality.

So what about those 30 years?

Think about MIT in 1974 and it’s hard to imagine that we are the same place. Of course, in so many ways we are not the same today as we were then. In 1974, over 95 percent of the faculty were men, predominantly white men. Fewer than 3 percent of our faculty were African American, Hispanic, or Native American. And what did our students look like in 1974? About 12 percent of the undergraduate and graduate students were women at that time, and about 5 percent of our students (mainly undergraduates) were people of color.

When I came to MIT in 1990, things had changed quite a bit in some respects, thanks to the leadership of Paul Gray and many others. Women had moved from 12 percent to 34 percent of the undergraduate student body, and to 20 percent of the graduate students, and 10 percent of the faculty. Underrepresented minorities had moved from 5 percent to 14 percent of the undergraduates, just over 3 percent of the graduate students…but still under 3 percent of the faculty.

And what about today? In 2004, women are 42 percent of the undergraduates, nearly 29 percent of the graduate students, and just over 17 percent of the faculty. African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans add up to nearly 20 percent of the undergraduates, 4.5 percent of the graduate students, but…just over 4 percent of the faculty.

Looking back at the proportion of women and minorities in our community over thirty years, the picture is pretty clear: great progress for women undergraduates, and good progress for women in graduate programs and some progress for women on the faculty. And what about underrepresented minorities? Good progress at the undergraduate level and very little at the graduate and faculty levels.

In short, even as we move forward with building diversity and success at the undergraduate level, it is clear that improvement in undergraduate enrollment simply does not easily or automatically translate into progress at the graduate and faculty levels.

You all know that I am an optimist, however, so I can’t resist noting that while the proportions may show little growth for underrepresented minorities at the graduate and faculty levels, there has been significant growth in absolute numbers between 1990 and today: A 73% increase in the number of minority graduate students (from 163 to 282) and a 48% increase in the number of minority faculty (from 27 to 40).

And this is important, because every number represents an individual human being, whose life and contributions are precious.

Still, I have to say that the one area in which I feel that I have really not succeeded as your president is that we have not accelerated the racial diversity of our faculty or, for that matter, of our graduate students. We simply must work harder and more creatively to sustain the progress that we have made at the undergraduate level, and to improve our graduate populations and make faculty careers viable and attractive to the full spectrum of people in our society.

This imperative is made even tougher by the turn of events in the past few years. It seems that as the summit of the mountain we climb comes into distant view, the slope gets steeper and others throw rocks in our path:

• First, challenges to universities’ ability and right to select their own students according to the criteria that best support their educational mission.
• Second, challenges to our programs of outreach to younger students.
• And third, international security concerns that translate into barriers for students, faculty and other scholars who wish to come here from other countries.

Now people of good will can and do differ politically and philosophically about how to achieve the goal of a more equitable society, one in which our colleges and universities more accurately reflect the face of America. But I have to say that there is also a mean-spiritedness abroad in our land, one that is given voice and power by people who do not agree with the goal, let alone how to reach it. But the one thing we cannot do is to pretend that the goal has been met and that further explicit work is no longer needed.


When it comes to admissions, the modest gains that have been made in the last few decades are fragile. In my experience they are largely the result of specific outreach, mentoring, and constant attention to seek out, inspire, and support the best minority students. I have seen nothing in my career that suggests that eliminating targeted efforts will produce anything other than a slowing or a reversal of the gains that we have made.

When we gathered last year at this time, our ability to consider race as one of many factors in admissions was totally at risk at the Supreme Court considered the challenges to affirmative action that were raised in the lawsuits against the University of Michigan. In science and engineering, especially, where the number of students entering these fields is declining, it is more important than ever that we be able to draw on the talents of our entire population. And this still requires special efforts if we are to have that ability.

The good news on the legal front is that…we won! Last year’s Supreme Court rulings in the Michigan case were—in my view—a clear endorsement of admissions practices like those here at MIT, in which we use race as one of many factors in selecting our entering classes. When we choose each class, we first narrow the pool to those whose grades, test scores, class rank, etc. show that they have the ability to succeed here. Then we make difficult, subjective choices from among that group to select the approximately 14 percent we admit by assessing as best we can the whole person—where they come from, the challenges and opportunities they have encountered, the contributions they make to their communities and families, their zeal for learning, their creativity, their determination, and so forth. Knowing a student’s race is one of many elements that help to form our understanding.

I have no illusion that there will not be future challenges to affirmative action and other targeted efforts by colleges to admit the best classes for our programs. But I am equally confident that MIT will continue to uphold the principles in which we believe, and that have served us so well.

We can hope that Sandra Day O’Connor was right when she expressed the hope that in 25 years we would no longer need affirmative action programs, but today we still need these particular, targeted efforts if we are to reach our goals.

And make no doubt about it: we must be prepared to deal with continuing tests of our resolve – which are likely to come in the form of referenda in the states and in assaults on our programs of outreach to high school students. Indeed, some of these programs here and elsewhere already find themselves in murky political and legal waters.

Outreach Programs

In the early 1970s MIT established outreach and enrichment programs to attract young Hispanic-American, African-American, and Native-American high school students to the engineering profession—a population that did not tend to view engineering as an obvious or attractive career.

I don’t believe that we saw this task as one of political orientation or ideology. We saw it as part of our responsibility to provide all of our students with as full an educational experience as possible, as well as to help prepare a professional workforce and future leadership that reflects the face of America.

During the last two years, however, we have come up against serious legal challenges to such efforts. As most of you know, a complaint filed against us by two special interest groups caused the Office of Civil Rights to review two of our pre-college summer programs—MITE2S and Project Interphase.

These two programs have served over a thousand promising young men and women very well. In the light of these legal challenges, however, and with the best advice of every legal expert we sought out, we concluded that we should not continue to limit participation in these programs exclusively to underrepresented minority students. We broadened the selection criteria to include other students whose backgrounds may otherwise stand in the way of their studying science and engineering, and who can support the goals of the programs.

In making these changes, we will ensure that these programs continue to serve their original goal. Because hey have created inspiration and opportunity for young people of color. And they have not destroyed opportunity for any one else.

My fear, and presumably the aim of some others, is that over time, such diffusion of effort will wear down the gains that we and others have worked for so many years to establish.

These two areas of challenge—in admissions and in outreach programs to younger students— illustrate a very real dilemma: We are expected by our society, and indeed by the federal government, to advance diversity and opportunity in science and engineering. In fact, in this strange world, we are given mandates by federal funding agencies to reach out and engage minorities, women, and people with disabilities in the work of various research programs and centers, and we are expected to produce results.

But at the same time, we are warned that targeting such efforts to the specific populations we are supposed to advance—in ways that we know work—may not be acceptable under current interpretations of the law.

This ambiguity—this Catch 22—is simply bizarre. We are being told to reach an explicit goal, but not to make explicit efforts to achieve it.

International Students and Scholars

A similar dilemma can be found these days with regard to international students and scholars.

We know that in a great university in the 21st century, there are many dimensions to the diversity that enriches our lives and scholarship. The openness of U.S. research universities to students and scholars from other countries has been overwhelmingly successful in building the excellence of our institutions, enhancing the educational experience of our students, contributing to American industry and academia, and building good will for the U.S. around the world.

Here at MIT, Nobel Prize recipients include professors born in Japan, India, Mexico, Italy, and Germany, as well as in the U.S. And American industry relies greatly on engineers and computer scientists born in other countries. Most of them came here as graduate students.

There are signs, however, that responses to the legitimate heightened concerns for national security may be undermining this great source of vitality. For example:

• International students, scholars, and visitors to the U.S. are subjected to new reviews, interviews, delays, and more frequent denials of visas.
• We are seeing efforts to restrict the involvement of foreign students in some areas of study or research.

During the last year there were some improvements in process and policy, but the number of students and scholars coming to the U.S. is trending downward.

But the more important issue is whether there are any changes in the quality of international students and scholars coming to America. Will our universities continue to be magnets for the brightest students from around the world?

You may ask why bring international politics into a discussion like this, but as Dr. King said, “We all came in different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

Diversity is one of this nation’s greatest strengths—and diversity by its very nature is broadly encompassing. The principles are the same. And what is happening in the name of homeland security represents one of the biggest challenges to diversity in our nation. It puts me in mind of the character in Finian’s Rainbow who said, “An immigrant! Damn! My family has had trouble with immigrants ever since we came to this country!”

So I urge you to be cognizant of—and cherish—the great value to be found in the broad openness of our universities.

And yet, because of the particular history of our country, we must pay particular attention to diversity as it applies to race in America.

Filling the Academic Pipeline

The inroads made by underrepresented minorities into higher education and careers in science and engineering are fragile. They have resulted from deliberate, concerted attention and actions. We must work together to open opportunities and encourage careers in science and engineering to everyone who has the interest and ability in pursuing this path.

And our actions at the undergraduate level must be accompanied by equivalent efforts to bring greater racial and ethnic diversity to our graduate programs and our faculty. We have not succeeded there—plain and simple.

For graduate students, an immediate goal should be to increase the yield from among those graduate students whom we admit. The Graduate Student Council has presented this case in a compelling manner. Persuading more students to accept our invitation requires, above all, a personal touch.

And frankly, the same can be said of faculty recruitment. It is not enough to make an offer and simply expect that someone will jump at the chance to come to MIT. Again, it calls for someone to pick up the phone and make the case for why that person should come to MIT…and to ask what we can do to help him or her choose us. It means inviting them to meet their future colleagues and putting together start-up packages that say, “We want you here.”

Now while I do not hide behind it, the fact is that the national pool of faculty in science and engineering is woefully inadequate, so that even as we struggle to improve faculty diversity, the strategic key is to increase the graduate population in these fields around the country.
The progress we have made can be credited not so much to institutional programs—although they have their part—as to individual commitment and perseverance. Where there has been change, it has been the result of individual leadership on the part of department heads and faculty.

But to really succeed, we must go beyond developing or sustaining admissions and outreach programs for students or recruiting more faculty of color. Those are necessary steps, but they are first steps.

The Challenge Within

The real challenge does not lie outside our walls. It lies within our hearts, and in the expectations we set for our students and ourselves, in the ways we teach, in the amount of time and effort we give to supporting our students and our colleagues.

The progress that has been made has been the result of institutional programs and individual efforts in scores of ways—mentoring a junior colleague, inviting a student into a research project or a study group, providing financial support, extending a hand in friendship, taking the risk to get to know someone from a different culture or religion or race.

We have been through some difficult times on the racial front over the years—and I sometimes get discouraged that we will ever eradicate the ignorance and prejudice that keep us from being all that we can be with and for each other. But we have had some moments of which we can be proud as well. I think about the ways in which this community came together after 9/11—reaching out and supporting one another in that terrible time.

We shouldn’t need a crisis to bring us together, however. In our everyday lives we must celebrate learning about and from each other. As I said in my inaugural address some 13 years ago, “Such change is rewarding, but it is seldom easy. During the years ahead we must refuse to let the centrifugal forces of intolerance and injustice pull us apart. We must be held together by respect for the individual and by a commitment to the values we hold in common.”

That was our challenge then. That is our challenge now. Thank you—for 14 years of inspiration, challenge, and hope.

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