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Baskerville hits affirmative-action opponents in MLK talk

At a breakfast honoring the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., keynote speaker Lezli Baskerville challenged the foes of affirmative action to oppose it for all groups, not just minorities and women, while President Charles Vest urged those foes to join the policy's supporters in eliminating "the terms of concealment" that blur the issues.

Speaking at MIT's 24th annual breakfast celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. King on February 13, civil rights attorney Baskerville noted that affirmative action laws cover "the majority of Americans," including Vietnam veterans, the elderly and the disabled as well as racial and ethnic minorities and women.

The theme of this year's celebration was "'The Same Old Bone': The Campaign Against Affirmative Action." The phrase "the same old bone" was used by Dr. King to describe the tactics of the Kennedy administration regarding racial matters in his book Why We Can't Wait (Harper and Row, 1963). Dr. King wrote: "The Negro felt that the same old bone had been tossed to him in the past -- only now it was being passed to him on a platter, with courtesy."

"Either the nation will recognize and support affirmative action for disenfranchised groups, including those who have suffered most egregious harm at the hands of society and continue to do so, or it will recognize and support no affirmative action -- no set-asides, no goals to include any group," said Ms. Baskerville, general counsel to the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. "If, for example, California ended affirmative action as it relates to racial and ethnic minorities and women, equity dictates that the state eliminate affirmative action for veterans, older Americans and persons with disabilities."

Ms. Baskerville believes affirmative action will endure because "it works, it is still needed and it benefits all Americans."

She recited a litany of statistics to show that affirmative action is still necessary, among them:

��������������������������� Of 6,496 doctorates awarded by American universities in physical sciences in 1993, 41 (0.6 percent) went to African Americans and 89 (1.4 percent) to Hispanics; 2,818 (43.3 percent) were awarded to foreign students.
��������������������������� Of 5,696 engineering doctorates, 41 (0.7 percent) went to African Americans and 56 (1 percent) to Hispanics; 3,249 were awarded to foreign students (57 percent).
��������������������������� Of 18,251 doctorates in natural sciences, 150 went to African Americans (0.8 percent), 252 to Hispanics (1.4 percent), and 8,112 to foreign students (nearly 45 percent).
��������������������������� Of 39,754 doctorates in all fields, African Americans received 1,106 (2.8 percent) and Hispanics 834 (2.1 percent); foreign students received 12,173 (30.6 percent).

Ms. Baskerville called on the audience to honor Dr. King's memory by joining the campaign to preserve affirmative action programs. Quoting Dr. King, she concluded, "'Rise up��������������������������� with a greater readiness, stand up with a greater determination, move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America a better nation."

Noting that he helped shape and supports the Association of American University's Statement on the Importance of Diversity in University Admissions, President Vest acknowledged, "we may have employed -- however unconsciously -- our own terms of concealment" in stressing its value to "all students."

"We may not have made a strong enough link between the promotion of diversity and the deliberate goal of expanding opportunity to students from groups which remain statistically underrepresented at the highest levels of American life," Dr. Vest said. "The extension of these opportunities is a good thing -- in and of itself. We should be forthright in observing this."

On the other hand, Dr. Vest asked the critics of affirmative action to stop using loaded words such as "quotas," "preference" and "unqualified" or "underqualified," which are misleading and can be inflammatory. He noted that MIT graduates of all races and genders, whatever their test scores, succeed in their chosen fields and enhance the Institute's reputation.

"By the pragmatic test of how our graduates perform, I think our admissions policies -- including our policies regarding diversity -- have been enormously successful," Dr. Vest said. "MIT -- and society as a whole -- should be willing to look at any alternative policy which produces the same or better results. But no amount of misleading rhetoric should confuse us into accepting anything less.

"By all means, we should perfect our tools and refine our methods. But we should never turn away from the pressing task before us. We have achieved too much to stand our ground." Dr. Vest also presented Leadership Awards to Dr. Lynda Jordan, a Dr. Martin Luther King Visiting Professor who received the PhD in chemistry from MIT in 1985; junior Eto Otitigbe, an award-winning artist who is co-chair of Chocolate City; and Tobie Weiner, an administrative assistant in the Department of Political Science who directs a course on Community Service -- Experience and Reflection and has placed numerous MIT students with community organizations.

Civil engineering graduate student Casandra Strudwick and freshman Mishone Donelson offered their reflections on Dr. King's life and legacy. Corina Serna, a junior at the Sloan School of Management, was the mistress of ceremonies.

Provost Joel Moses introduced the MLK Visiting Professors in attendance -- Drs. Jordan, Kevin Kornegay, Steven Lee, Pamela McCauley-Bell, Winston Soboyejo and Louis Thomas. The invocation was delivered by Dr. Alice Brown Collins of the MIT Black Christian Fellowship. The MIT Gospel Choir performed and the documentary film "Remembrance of Martin" was shown as the guests arrived. The Rev. Jane S. Gould, MIT episcopal chaplain, gave the benediction.

Dean Leo Osgood Jr. and Professor Michael Feld of physics co-chaired the Presidential Planning Committee for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration. Also on the committee were Special Assistant to the President Clarence Williams; Associate Provost Phillip Clay; Professors Jerome Friedman, Kenneth Hale, Wesley Harris, Philip Morrison and Cardinal Warde; and Assistant Professor Melissa Nobles.

Other members are Karina Claudio, Maureen Costello, Ronald Crichlow, Rev. Gould, Associate Dean Arnold Henderson Jr., Evette Layne, Richard O'Bryant, Paul Parravano and Robert Sales. Assistant Dean Ann Davis Shaw chaired the breakfast subcommittee.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 25, 1998.

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