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In MLK talk, Vest notes efforts to advance minority opportunities

President Vest addresses the crowd in Morss Hall at the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebratory Breakfast.
President Vest addresses the crowd in Morss Hall at the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebratory Breakfast.
Photo / Donna Coveney

"Triumph and failure."

Those were the words President Charles M. Vest used to describe MIT's record for diversity and inclusion at all levels last Thursday at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebratory Breakfast.

President Vest was addressing the theme of MIT's 27th annual celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. King, "Confronting the Gap: Building and Sustaining Inclusion," on February 8. The keynote speaker at the breakfast was Professor Lani Guinier of the Harvard Law School.

"MIT was a pioneer in educating and advancing minority students," President Vest told a capacity crowd of 425 at Morss Hall. "We do have a triumph in our undergraduates, although we have some hard work to do if we are to spiral this success even higher. But we are failing at leadership in diversity at the graduate level and within our faculty and staff.

"We must expect more of ourselves. We must realize our goals and vision... we must create an environment that not only fosters professional success, but one that eliminates marginalization and extends respect in every dimension to talented people of color."

President Vest noted various actions underway to achieve these goals.

He said the Task Force on Minority Student Achievement, headed by Professor John M. Essigmann and staffed by Karl W. Reid (SB 1984, SM), has been conducting interviews and gathering data since September.

"On the basis of these investigations, the task force, with input from the community, will design programs to help make MIT a more vibrant, stimulating and supportive educational environment -- not only for our minority students but for all of our students," President Vest said.

The task force is "working on a fast track," he said, and plans to present a report with recommendations this summer. "The group is operating in the classic MIT tradition of working together to design solutions to tangible problems. In the case of this design project, the stakes couldn't be higher."

President Vest reported that the Council on Faculty Diversity is working to develop a plan to increase the number of minority and women graduate students who plan a career in academia, to recruit women and minority faculty members, and to provide mentoring and career guidance for faculty. The Council is led by Professor Nancy H. Hopkins, Associate Provost Phillip L. Clay and Provost Robert A. Brown. "We are in this endeavor for the long run," President Vest said.

He also noted that Human Resources has launched a diversity initiative whose first project is to develop strategies designed to increase minorities in administrative and support positions. Those recommendations are expected by the end of the spring term.

"MIT is not about plateaus and gaps," President Vest said. "It is about leadership. We want to be the best in all that we do. And that must mean being the best in realizing our vision of a proud, accomplished and mutually respectful community."


Before his remarks, President Vest presented MLK Leadership Awards to alumnus Harvey Gantt (MCP 1970), Professor Wesley Harris and junior Desiree Ramirez. Each reflected on Dr. King's legacy.

"The genius of Martin Luther King was his humanness," said Mr. Gantt, a civil rights leader and former mayor of Charlotte, NC. "He cared about people genuinely, and he was just like you and me with fears and ambition and concerns, but he had this thing about him, this gift, this caring about society in such a way that he moved ordinary men and women... to do something, to being about positive change, and that's a conviction that I moved forward from."

Professor Harris, who spent a day and a half with Dr. King while an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, said, " It was an amazing experience to be around him." He admires Dr. King for his courage and his sense of community, traits he has observed in the diverse group of graduate students he has worked with at MIT. "They respected each other and they respected our community... I believe Dr. King would approve of that community," he said.

Fighting back tears, Ms. Ramirez said, "I'd like to accept this award not for myself but on behalf of the entire Chicano community at MIT," all of whom she said come from working-class families in Texas and California. Ms. Ramirez, who is from Carmichael, CA, continued, "Although my family doesn't really know what MIT is or or what I could possibly be doing here, it hit home when I told them that I got this award in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King... My stepfather, with a seventh-grade education, said it best: that if I, as a Mexican-American woman, can receive an award in the name of Dr. King, his dreams are coming true."

Two other students addressed the breakfast.

Junior Maria M. Otero said, "Martin Luther King fought for all of us, and let me say this: he did a fine job... He did a great deal, yet we are not satisfied. Let us not be satisfied until integration is not seen as a problem, but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity." She said the key to closing the gap is communication. "It must start with each and every one of us... It must start with understanding."

Graduate student Christopher M. Jones said that Dr. King "challenged America to look face to face with real change." He called the small number of minorities on the faculty and among graduate students at MIT "an institutional embarrassment" and challenged the audience to tackle that gap. "Without the help of everyone in this room, inclusion is not possible," he said. "We must all attack this monster together. Our roles are different, but our goal the same: inclusion."

Musical interludes were provided during the breakfast by the MIT Gospel Choir and the South Central Massachusetts Choir. The invocation was offered by the Rev. John Wuestneck and the benediction by the Rev. Constance Parvey of the MIT Board of Chaplains. The mistress of ceremonies was junior Huanne T. Thomas.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 14, 2001.

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