A cross-section of the MIT community discussed their own experiences and attitudes regarding racial and gender insensitivity Monday at a forum entitled "Building a Better MIT Community: Learning from the ATO Incident."
President Charles M. Vest set the tone for the midday session, which attracted about 100 participants.
"Recognizing the powerful warning signs of racism and intolerance is what has brought us together today," said Dr. Vest. "I believe we have come not to vilify but to learn, grow, protect and improve. We are, above all, a place of learning. And racism, sexism, homophobia, national or cultural chauvinism have no place in an institution devoted to learning. I am confident that we can, and will, use this occasion well. We will not just engage in emotion or empty rhetoric, but in commitment and forward motion."
Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict reviewed the events of Spring Weekend during which a member of Alpha Tau Omega (ATO) shouted racially offensive and gender-insensitive remarks from the fraternity house roof deck that set off a confrontation with African-American musicians scheduled to play at a concert that evening.
Dean Benedict then noted that ATO had suspended two members, that a Dean's Panel hearing was scheduled for this week regarding the incident, that the fraternity had apologized and suspended social activities, and that the InterFraternity Council was investigating possible alcohol violations and would keep the Cambridge Licensing Commission informed. He added that ATO planned to hold sensitivity training sessions and other activities and campus-wide events would be scheduled during the fall semester.
Zhelinrentice L. Scott, co-founder of the Undergraduate Association (UA) Multicultural Awareness Committee and the UA's "Diversity of Thought" symposium, noted several incidents during her MIT career in which white students, in actions and words, made African-Americans feel alienated from the majority of the student body.
"Students of color like myself have this majority-imposed stigma that some 'bar has been lowered' to let us into MIT," said Ms. Scott, a senior in management. "This perception allows our peers to shun us in academic and social settings." Ms. Scott, who has pondered diversity issues since high school in Long Beach, CA, was a key organizer of the "Speak Out!!" diversity rally last week.
"In engineering and management classroom settings, when the professor calls for individuals to form their own groups, students of color who know each other already will agree not to work together and find new groups," Ms. Scott said. "However, their informal pact is futile because everyone forms groups without inviting any of them to join. White and Asian students form their groups and the students of color, particularly the African-American students, are left in their own group."
Erik M. Glover, president of ATO, apologized again for the Spring Weekend incident and looked to the future. "As I look forward I am both hopeful and overwhelmed," said Mr. Glover, a junior in mechanical engineering. "I am hopeful that some real growth can be made across the campus, but I am overwhelmed by the responsibility that seems to be placed on the shoulders of the students. I am now looking to the leaders of today at MIT to help direct the course of action that we, as a community, must take. This is a time for the entire MIT community to work hand in hand for a common goal. By fostering this cooperative relationship we will set a precedent for improvement and growth that will enrich everyone's lives."
Professor Steven R. Lerman, chair of the faculty, invoked the spirit of the 1998 Task Force on Student Life and Learning's 11 principles, one of which was entitled "The Importance of Diversity." The task force acknowledged that "part of what we as a university are about is the development of a community that not only tolerates diversity, but more importantly celebrates it," he said. "We need to see our diverse backgrounds not as something to cope with, but rather as a core strength that we have not yet learned to fully exploit."
GROUPS OF THREE
The moderator, Professor Thomas A. Kochan, chair of the Committee on Campus Race Relations (CCRR), asked the audience to break into groups of three to discuss the race and gender issues and then report back.
Freshman Kasetta V. Coleman, who was in a group with President Vest and materials science and engineering graduate student Aimee L. Smith, said they discussed posters at MIT that degraded women. "Symposiums are good," she said, but there should be mandatory retreats. "Our first requirement is to create good people."
Lynn Roberson, program administrator in Counseling and Support Services, said, "MIT is known for excellence in academics. Excellence in character -- not!" She said that at Northeastern University, there is a program for men focusing on an end to violence. MIT needs training for faculty and staff on how to be better role models, she said. "How do you deal with a racist or sexist situation? There needs to be mutual accountability."
Ayida Mthembu, associate dean for counseling and support services, urged the funding of an office, such as a multicultural center, and urged the involvement of support staff people.
Senior Peter A. Shulman, outgoing president of the UA, said faculty members must be the primary role models. He also noted that it was easy to find on the web the Dartmouth code of conduct following a sexist incident at a Dartmouth fraternity. MIT has no such code, he said.
Ms. Scott closed the participation segment with a plea for greater accountability when racist and sexist incidents occur. She noted that MIT has a General Institute Requirement (GIR) for swimming and said there should be a GIR for pluralism.
The last speaker, Regina A. Caines, affirmative action and equal employment officer for diversity, said there will be diversity awareness at the incoming freshman class this fall. Her office is assembling a library of resources that will be made available on the web. Members of the community were urged to e-mail the Campus Committee on Race Relations.
"I was extremely pleased with the rich mix of staff, faculty and students who participated in the forum," said Professor Kochan. "If we can just keep the type of cross-cutting discussions going that occurred today, we will make MIT a model for how to learn from diversity. That, I believe, is an achievable goal and one we should set for ourselves."
The event was sponsored by the CCRR, the UA, the Graduate Student Council and ATO.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 16, 2001.