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Remarks by President Charles M. Vest

MIT's 29th Annual Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. La Sala de Puerto Rico, Stratton Student Center, MIT, February 14, 2003

Friends and Colleagues, Thank you all for joining us in this annual MIT tradition. It is always a highlight of the year.

We are delighted to have with us this morning many distinguished representatives of the local community. In particular, I would like to recognize Mayor Michael Sullivan and Director of Economic Development Estella Johnson, representing the City of Cambridge. We welcome State Representative Paul Demakis. And we are also joined by the Presidents of the Boston and Cambridge chapters of the NAACP, Leonard Alkins and Kathy Reddick.


As we gather on this morning in February 2003 to celebrate the life and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, there are many things I would like to talk about.

But one topic is of such timeliness and importance to this institution, and to the values of American higher education as I see them, that I shall limit my remarks to addressing it.

Recently, I asked a friend of mine who had attended the World Economic Forum at Davos what his reaction had been to Colin Powell's well-publicized speech there. Here is his answer:

"Whether or not I agree with his arguments regarding Iraq, I am really proud that Colin Powell is our Secretary of State."

And as each of us watched as the heartbreaking tragedy of the Space Shuttle Columbia played out, I suspect we had a common reaction: "This group of astronauts looks like the students in the hallways of MIT. It looks like America in 2003." For us, the tragedy was compounded because seeing their images was like looking in a mirror -- with pride.

How did Colin Powell become Secretary of State?

And how did Michael Anderson or Kalpana Chawla or Laurel Clark come to be voyagers in space?

They each achieved their goals by talent, determination, and drive -- the same way that Rick Husband or Pete McCool or David Brown did it.

They achieved their own goals the same way that MIT alumnus and earlier Secretary of State George Shultz did it. The same way that Buzz Aldrin, Ron McNair, Ken Cameron, Franklin Chang-Diaz, Janice Voss, Cady Coleman, or any of the other 31 astronauts who are MIT graduates did it.

But all of these wonderful people -- the pride of our nation -- had the opportunity to develop their talent and to translate their determination and drive into accomplishment.

In America education is our primary vehicle of opportunity to develop human talent, to bring coherence to drive, and to convert determination into accomplishment.

It was not long ago that access to America's opportunity, and in particular access to our great system of public and private universities, would not have been readily available to Colin Powell or Michael Anderson or Kalpana Chawla or Laurel Clark.

Today it is.

But will it be tomorrow?

Hanging by a Thread

The answer to that question lies at the heart of a landmark legal battle that will be settled within a few months by the Supreme Court of the United States.

Bankrolled and spurred on by two so-called "watchdog groups," a lawsuit has been brought against the University of Michigan regarding its policies and processes for admitting students to its Law School, and to its undergraduate College of Literature, Science and Arts.

The goal of this suit, now before the Supreme Court, is to remove from colleges and universities their freedom to consider race as one of many factors in admitting their students.

On the thread of that seemingly simple phrase, "race as one of many factors," hangs the fate of opportunity for many future American citizens of color.

On the thread of that seemingly simple phrase, "race as one of many factors," hangs the ability of MIT to explicitly pursue the goal declared in our Mission Statement:

"MIT is dedicated to providing its students with an education that combines rigorous academic study and the excitement of discovery with the support and intellectual stimulation of a diverse campus community."

On the thread of that seemingly simple phrase, "race as one of many factors," hangs the freedom of the faculties of American universities to apply standards and principles of their choosing to the most basic of academic decisions -- the decision of who shall study in their university.

That thread -- that seemingly simple phrase "race as one of many factors" -- was spun by Justice Powell when he wrote the majority opinion of the Supreme Court in the 1978 case Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke.

In the next few months, the Rhenquist Court must decide whether that thread will remain whole, or whether in one snip of the judicial scissors they will sever it and let educational opportunity for many students of color crash back to the floor -- the floor from which it had been raised with such effort over many decades.

Friends, we must preserve the legal right and moral authority to consider race as one of many factors in college and university admissions, and in other programs and dimensions of our life and learning.

Why I Care

Why do I care?

I care because of what I have experienced and learned in a lifetime as a student and educator.

And I care because MIT must be a leader and a moral force.

I care because when I look out at the members of the MIT community gathered here, I know where we are and how we got here.

When I began my career as a Teaching Fellow and then as a young assistant professor at the University of Michigan in the 1960s it was extraordinary if I had more than one African American student in my classes every couple of years.

In fact, it was extraordinary if I had more than one or two women students in a class. And if I had either, it was a lead pipe cinch that they would be one of the best two or three students in the class, because only through unusual drive and commitment would these students have come to study engineering.

In that context, when I look around today at an MIT student body whose undergraduates are 42 percent women, 6 percent African-American, 11 percent Hispanic American, 2 percent Native American -- a student body that is remarkably diverse in so many other dimensions as well -- it seems to me that a miracle has happened.

But that is just the point. It is not a miracle. It is not a natural occurrence. It is the result of determined, conscientious effort, over more than three decades, often against seemingly insurmountable odds. It is the result of institutional leadership and occasional courage. It is a result of the determination of innumerable families and communities. The goal was as simple as it was profound: to give every young person the opportunity to succeed.

I can only conclude that despite the length of the journey, our nation is a better place than it was three decades ago.

But my own journey and experience is not just one of watching numbers move slowly in the right direction. It is one of direct and meaningful personal benefit from diversity.

I grew up in West Virginia -- a border state not quite of the south, but not quite of the north either.

I attended racially segregated schools until I was in junior high school. Our schools were desegregated in one fell swoop a year or so ahead of Brown v. Board of Education. I came quickly to value and learn from the new classmates who joined us. I remember when our high school football coach drilled us on how to protect our black teammates should they be attacked in some of the more rural towns in which we were to play.

My first science teacher, who was a big inspiration, was black. My high school physics teacher was a woman. My closest friend in graduate school was from India. My PhD advisor was from Turkey. My closest colleagues as a young professor were from Taiwan, Hungary, and Turkey. My own father grew up in a German-speaking household.

I know that I am richer, that my world-view is more balanced, and that my ability to do my job and live my life has been greatly enhanced by these and by so many more personal experiences that we can file under the heading of diversity.

Most of these things may seem to the students with us today to be like the air you breathe or the water you drink. "What's the big deal?", you might ask.

Well, it is a big deal because it hasn't always been that way.

It got that way, as I said, because of determined, conscientious effort, over more than three decades, often against seemingly insurmountable odds.

But race still matters in America. There are still forces that drive racial isolation. We haven't reached the day when we will truly have a race-blind society. We hope we will, but we haven't. And we must not put our head in the sand, declare victory, and let 30 years of progress slide through our fingers.

Experience in California and elsewhere shows that when race is removed as an explicit factor among many in admission decisions, minority opportunity in the most competitive institutions suffers.

That is why I care about preserving the right of colleges and universities to consider race as one of many factors in our admissions and in our ethos.

Why do I care?

I care because MIT for decades has been a leader in building the diversity of our own community and of the engineering and science workforce and leadership of America. And it is not going to lose that edge on my watch.

MIT has historically been a leader. And more broadly, across U.S. universities it was engineering schools that tended to lead the way. In the early 1970s we established outreach programs like MITE2S to attract young Hispanic-American, African-American, and Native American high school students to the engineering profession -- a career that tended not to benefit from a high degree of awareness in their communities.

I don't believe that we saw this task as one of political orientation or ideology. We saw it as an important duty to the nation. We saw it as a problem to be solved -- a design to be improved. It flowed naturally from our connection to industry. And industry provided, and continues to provide, much of the financial support and summer experiences that make these programs work.

In supporting these programs and our admissions policies, corporations have not done so because they are liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans. They support them because they understand the world is racially diverse. And if they are to understand their customers, produce well-designed, relevant products, and market them effectively, they need the perspectives and experiences of a diverse workforce and leadership.

But we also must contend with today's legal landscape -- with the law of the land.

During the last several months, we at MIT have learned this the hard way.

A complaint filed against us led to a review of two MIT pre-college summer programs by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. The two highly-valued programs are well known to all of you -- MITE2S (Minority Introduction to Engineering, Entrepreneurship and Science) and Interphase.

MITE2S is an outreach program that provides intense education and career inspiration for high school juniors interested in science, mathematics, and engineering. Interphase is a bridge program for incoming MIT freshmen.

We at MIT are very proud of the decades of accomplishment of these two programs. They have served hundreds of promising young men and women very well.

We pledge to you that they will continue to serve promising minority students in the future.

But, our rigorous examination, and the best advice of every legal expert we sought out, was unequivocal -- and led us to conclude that we should not continue to limit participation in these programs only to underrepresented minority students.

Therefore, we will broaden the selection criteria to include other students whose backgrounds may otherwise stand in the way of their studying science and engineering. But as we do so, we will find ways to continue to meet the underlying goal of fostering the education and opportunities of as many bright under-represented minority students as possible. This is MIT, after all, and I am confident that with the help of our faculty and students, we will continue to exercise the leadership and build the programs that will do just that. And we will be as proud of these programs in the future as we are today.

Much has been written about the value of diversity to the education of all students on American campuses. Its value is well documented by serious social science as well as by the more anecdotal, experiential testimony of students and graduates. But most such studies have tended to focus on the liberal arts, and on the professions of law and medicine.

But what do we think here at MIT, with our pervasive environment of science and engineering?

We know statistically what students at MIT think.

Our surveys find that almost 70 percent of the MIT Class of 2002 believed that relating well to people of different races, cultures, and religions is either very important or essential. Less than 5 percent considered it not important.

Furthermore, 53 percent of the Class of 2002 felt that their ability to relate well to people of different races, cultures, and religions was stronger or much stronger than when they arrived at MIT as freshmen. Less than 2 percent felt weaker in this regard than when they arrived.

Does this mean that all students at MIT hold the same beliefs about affirmative action and race conscious policies in admissions, and so forth?

Of course not.

Our community has a wide range of views, and I would have it no other way. But the data show that we have an extremely strong consensus on the goal and value of diversity.

Achieving the Goal

How do we achieve that goal?

Schools like MIT or Stanford University first establish which of their applicants cross a high bar of quality, based on measures such as grades, test scores, and class rank -- regardless of their race or any other characteristics.

Then we make difficult, subjective choices from among those applicants who crossed the high bar by assessing as best we can the whole person. Race is one of many factors considered at this stage to build an understanding of who each person is, and the context in which they have demonstrated accomplishment, creativity, and drive.

Imagine, if you will, that you are working on admitting the MIT class of 2008. You are preparing to read and evaluate the folders of thousands of applicants. You have the task of selecting only about 15 percent from a pool of young men and women who virtually all have outstanding test scores and grades.

To focus your thinking about selecting the class from among these outstanding applicants, you take many slips of paper and on each one write a characteristic of the class that you consider to be important. You then array them on the table in front of you. The slips have characteristics such as grades, class rank, standardized test scores, geography, gender, economic status, creativity, race, leadership, nationality, risk taking, musical talent, life experiences, cultural background, type of high school, special skills, quality of admission essay, ability to work in teams, evaluations of teachers and counselors, reports of educational counselors, etc.

Suddenly, the arm of the federal government reaches in, grabs the one slip that says "race," slaps you on the wrist and sternly says "You can consider all of those other factors, but you dare not take race into consideration."

How can you not consider race? It is an integral part of the individual identity of each applicant and helps us to understand the context of their accomplishments and goals.

That is the world that we will enter if the Bakke decision is overturned.

In such a world we will dramatically slow our journey to create a nation that is fair and full of justice for all. It would be a world in which higher education cannot contribute maximally to developing our nation's workforce, its scholars, or the leaders of its next generation across the full sweep of its society.

Where Were You?

Next week MIT will enter a brief as a friend of the court in order to help persuade the Justices of the Supreme Court that for the good of America, our colleges and universities must retain the freedom to consider race as one of many factors when admitting students.

You see, that is what MIT can do.

That is how MIT can state "We are present and accounted for."

That is how we can and will put our oar in the water.

Our brief will make four primary points:

1. The interest of colleges and universities, including those with strong focus on science and engineering, in achieving diversity of our student bodies and academic communities is compelling in many critical respects.

2. We must retain our freedom to consider race as one of many factors when admitting students in order to achieve this diversity.

3. This is true for both private and public institutions.

4. A diverse workforce and future leadership in science and engineering will be essential to our economic strength.

Will our brief have an impact?

Is it an important statement?

I think so.

Indeed, last week the CEO and leadership team of one of America's largest and best known corporations sat in a room discussing the importance of the University of Michigan case.

One of the group said "No matter which way this case is decided by the Supreme Court, in the future people will look back at our company and say 'Where were you?'"

They then decided to take a public joining the amicus brief drafted and organized by MIT.

Indeed, our arguments will be strengthened enormously by the small but extremely important group of amici who will join with us as signators to our brief. Joining us will be Stanford University, NACME (National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering), DuPont, IBM, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Engineering.

Two great universities...the largest national consortium for advancing engineering careers for minorities...two of the largest and best known technology-based companies in the world...and the two most prestigious academies in science and engineering will be standing together in a highly public manner.

When the question is asked, "Where were you?," MIT's answer will be clear.

Thank you very much.

Introduction of Julian Bond

It is a great privilege to introduce our distinguished guest speaker. He has been a leading light in the struggle for civil rights and racial equality in America for more than four decades.

Julian Bond's career as an activist began while he was still a student at Morehouse College, where one of his teachers was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The protests Julian Bond organized as an undergraduate played a pivotal role in desegregating movie theaters, lunch counters, and parks in Atlanta. He himself was arrested for sitting in the segregated cafeteria in Atlanta's City Hall.

In 1960, he helped create the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and then proceeded to work in voter registration drives in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Mississippi.

Mr. Bond was elected to the Georgia legislature in 1965 and again in 1966, but on both occasions he was denied his seat because of his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War. He finally took his seat after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Georgia House had violated his rights. He went on to serve a total of twenty years in the Georgia House and Senate.

In 1968, he co-chaired a successful challenge delegation from Georgia to the Democratic Party national convention. He himself was nominated for vice president, but withdrew his name because he was too young to serve.

In 1971, Mr. Bond became the founding president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Today, he serves as chair of the NAACP and teaches at American University and the University of Virginia.

Many of you know Julian Bond for his thoughtful comments on "America's Black Forum." Others among you will recognize his voice, for he narrated the extraordinary documentaries "Eyes on the Prize" and "A Time for Justice." Wherever and whenever he speaks, he seeks to tell America the truth about race relations.

Please join me in in welcoming Julian Bond.

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