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The struggle for inclusion

This article by President Charles M. Vest was published Sunday, Feb. 28 in the Boston Globe on the opinion page. It is adapted from a speech he delivered at MIT's 25th annual celebration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on February 4.

It is a matter of profound and disturbing irony that at a time of unparalleled prosperity, many of those who have the most -- the most wealth, the most access, the most skills, the most power -- seem more reluctant than ever to invest those resources in a strong and just society.

In order to bring that strength and justice to our society, all of us must continue to think on, and speak out about, the issue of race-sensitive admissions in American higher education.

"Martin Luther King's legacy," said the late Federal Judge A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., "was not merely to black people or brown people. His legacy was one that embraced all people." This is the most misunderstood and most misrepresented aspect of the ongoing debate over policies designed to promote more equal opportunity and greater diversity in American society.

Society cannot progress unless it progresses as a whole -- with no one left behind or pushed away. Today, this fundamental principle is again under direct assault.

This is the college admissions season, when colleges are making their decisions on the future of America. The decision of the University of Massachusetts to decrease emphasis on race in admission is the latest development on the issue of race and admissions.

Through referendums such as Proposition 209 in California and Initiative Measure 200 in Washington state, public universities are losing their ability to utilize race-sensitive admissions, or even the ability to mount outreach programs to minority youngsters in primary and secondary schools.

More dangerous still are successful attacks in the courts, especially the Hopwood case regarding admission to the University of Texas Law School. The case involving undergraduate admissions at the University of Michigan, currently pending in the courts, may be the most important to date.

Since 1978, our colleges and universities have designed and administered admission policies under the guidance of the Bakke decision, which was forged in the Supreme Court by Lewis Powell.

This guidance is clear -- race may be one of several factors considered when we select students for admission to our campuses. This simple statement, in my view, is the appropriate one.

Under it, as William Bowen and Derek Bok have clearly demonstrated in their recent book, The Shape of the River, our institutions have contributed substantially to the establishment of a strong black middle class, and therefore to the strengthening of America as a whole.

Yet many argue on behalf of these new referenda and court challenges that it is discriminatory to make race a consideration in admissions, and that students should be admitted only on what they consider to be merit.

There are two quite elementary flaws in this argument. First, in making admissions decisions and in building each freshman class, MIT, a private university, considers several factors: grades, rank in class, test scores, geographic distribution, breadth of interests and accomplishments outside the classroom, race, economic status, international mixture and so forth.

Those who challenge diversity remove from the table only one factor -- race -- and say, "thou shall not consider this."

Second, their underlying assumption is that we can accurately measure the quality of our applicants by a simple number or two. They seek a world in which we are each ranked at age 18 by some easy indicator like an SAT score, which thereby determines our breadth of opportunity for the next half-century.

We believe that building a class for a great university by using a range of factors promotes a better educational experience for all our students. It increases our ability to contribute to building the strong, coherent, productive society this nation will need in the next century.

The logic underlying this belief should be -- to use a favorite MIT phrase -- "intuitively obvious." Yet far too many among us still cannot seem to understand that the old patterns of exclusion and separation did not work and must not be restored. They don't work for society, and they really don't work for individuals.

Unless all of us help each of us to make our own way, we will never realize our highest potential for excellence and achievement.

A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 23).

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