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Affirmative Action is Essential for Society, MIT President Says in Annual Report

MIT President Charles M. Vest, in his annual report, has issued a call for a renewed national commitment to a bold and open society--one that will respond both to the challenge and opportunity of science and technology as well as to the great questions posed by an increasingly diverse population. In the report, he defends the "core concept" of affirmative action as "still essential to move us toward the integrated, cohesive society we will need in the years ahead."

"Effectively addressing issues of race and diversity is too essential to the future of the United States to allow it to be dissipated in partisan rhetoric," Dr. Vest said in his annual report to the MIT Corporation. "Maintaining our momentum is too urgent to allow it to be defined away through narrow, technical judicial decisions. Reinvigorating a national commitment is too demanding to allow it to drown in a sea of red tape."

Dr. Vest said he used the term affirmative action "rather broadly" to refer to programs or actions "that specifically foster access to or participation of minority groups or women in educational programs or jobs."

He said he was not defending "across the board" all federal affirmative action laws and set-aside policies, with their "attendant red tape" and "cumbersome bureaucracies," but said he did want to defend "the core concept that determined, often race-specific consideration and effort are still essential to move us toward the integrated, cohesive society we will need in the years ahead."

His views on affirmative action were in the broader context of a call for a renewal of boldness and openness as qualities "that we as a nation must seek to preserve and advance." He called for the nation to reach its full potential, both in science and in human relations.

"We live in an age that seems to reject bold thought and bold action," Dr. Vest said. "Does boldness imply excess or waste or impracticality? Are we too cynical to embrace visionary new ideas? Or perhaps, at century's end, we have become so concerned with eliminating the budget deficit in order to protect future generations from economic grief that we are blind to the equal importance of making the investments necessary to assure the vitality and quality of their lives.

"As a society we must once again believe that we can envision and generate greatness in our time, and build the foundation for future generations of greatness."


Dr. Vest noted the irony that while "a new national survey finds that the vast majority of Americans want this country to be the world leader in scientific and technological progress as we enter the next century, we do not seem to have the will to stay on this course."

He cited as examples the problems in following through on the country's commitment to such major scientific projects as the superconducting supercollider and the magnetic fusion program. Other major projects, such as the international space station and the Human Genome Project, have fared better, perhaps because these projects more readily capture the interest and support of the public.

When it comes to supporting research, he said, we face a quandary: "Most Americans, when asked, say that they expect science and technology to solve some or most of the problems faced by our society, and that in order for that to happen, we should invest in research and put more emphasis on science in our schools. But at the moment, at least as far as the long-term prospects for research funding go, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction."

"Somehow, as a nation we are unable or unwilling to make the sustained investment or have the confidence that will ensure the kind of future we want--a future made brighter by cures for cancer and mental illness; by clean, renewable energy; by sustainable industrial development; by broadly accessible transportation and information systems; by affordable food and shelter, and by expanded horizons.

"There is legitimate concern about how much we can afford to do. We need to balance the national budget so that future generations will not be burdened with our debt. Fair enough. But we need to distinguish between spending for the moment and investing in the future. Just as we cannot saddle the coming generations with our financial debt, neither can we saddle them with our societal debt through lack of concern for the future. We must invest in that future--through education, through research and through attaining common purpose."


Commenting on education, Dr. Vest noted the following paradox: "We have, by a huge margin, the greatest and most effective system of higher education in the world--in terms of quality, accessibility and creation of new knowledge. At the same time, we have a system of primary and secondary education that is a national shame, one that is a surefire determinant of national decline if it is not corrected."

In this regard, he also made the following points:

  • We must have broad societal recognition of the importance of the teaching profession. We must create a new generation of teachers who are well educated, future-oriented, technologically literate, willing to be accountable, and excited to explore new ways of teaching and learning. They must be given the tools, the resources, the financial rewards and the respect to do the job that must be done.
  • We must continue to provide access, opportunity and welcome to immigrants. America has always been a nation of immigrants and we have always been a land of opportunity. These statements perhaps sound quaint or old-fashioned, but they are true, and we must retain their spirit.
  • At MIT, for example, faculty who have received the Nobel prize include individuals who were born in Japan, India, Italy and Mexico. The current provost was born in Israel. School deans were born in Canada and Australia. Almost all came to the United States as graduate students.
  • If the nation is to thrive--economically, socially and politically--we must do all we can to ensure that all of our citizens are able to reach their full potential. Only then will we realize the full benefits to be found in a society peopled with different cultures, races and nationalities.


On the subject of affirmative action, Dr. Vest said:

"We as a nation determined that we would build a racially integrated nondiscriminatory society, and we recognize that various interim commitments and corrective actions would be required until we reached that goal. We now seem to be backing off in many ways--too ideological, too uncomfortable, too difficult."

He noted that by the year 2015, "the work force will be one-third white male, one-third white female, and one-third people of color. All these workers will be toiling to support not only themselves, but all of us who, as retirees, will be dependent upon them--and they will constitute a much smaller proportion of our population. (In 2015, there will be only half as many people working and supporting the retired population as there were in 1960.) If they do not form a cohesive, productive society, the future will indeed be bleak, especially when combined with the fact that we will need to compete in a marketplace and economy that will be even more globalized and integrated than today.

"Largely because of explicit actions to increase access to our colleges and universities, most have become much more diverse racially, culturally and economically. The presence and role of women on our campuses have improved dramatically. Still, most campuses cannot be judged to be broadly representative of the makeup of contemporary America.

"My sense is that we are losing will, ignoring realities, falling into political partisanship and, not infrequently, introducing mean-spiritedness into the national debate on these matters.

"One need only peruse national statistics regarding wages, crime, education, health and many other parameters to know that we have not achieved anything approaching equality across the racial boundaries of our society.

"Yet we are retreating. The federal district court ruling in Hopwood v. University of Texas declaring that 'any consideration of race or ethnicity by the law school for the purpose of achieving a diverse student body is not a compelling interest' and therefore is not permitted, has already had repercussions around the country--as organized efforts to end affirmative action continue to grow.

"The actions of the University of California's Board of Regents are well known; and in Colorado, the governing board of the university system has cut back on affirmative action programs. Other efforts include legislative moves in Pennsylvania and Arizona to outlaw affirmative action, and more than a dozen campaigns to amend the constitutions of various states."

Equality of opportunity, he said, "should not be a matter of ideology of the left or the right. We should assess where we are, demonstrate what does and doesn't work, and get on with the job."

"My own view is that we must hold to our principles if our nation is to benefit from the full range of talent needed to meet the challenges of a changing world. Our journey is not over. Our goal is not attained."

The text of the President's Report essay is available on President Vest's Web page at .

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