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MIT celebrates legacy of Martin Luther King

Much has been done, much work remains

At the annual breakfast celebration to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. held Feb. 21, hundreds of members of the MIT community listened as speakers echoed a similar theme: much has been done to realize the slain civil rights leader's vision of equality and opportunity, but much work remains--in America, in Greater Boston and at MIT.

In a speech titled "Diversity and Inclusion: Building a Solution Worthy of MIT," President Susan Hockfield said many MIT administrations, including her own, had made sincere efforts to create the kind of diverse and inclusive community envisioned by King. But such efforts, she said, have "failed to create the serious, meaningful change" that the Institute desires.

"If this were any other kind of problem--an engineering problem, a scientific problem, an unsolved problem in mathematics or a problem of national defense--we would not be satisfied with well-intentioned but only incremental progress," Hockfield said. "We have not yet made our community what it should be, and, to borrow a phrase from Dr. King, we cannot be satisfied until we do. I can tell you plainly: I will not be satisfied until we do."

Hockfield noted that promoting diversity at MIT is more than just a moral obligation: it is central to MIT's responsibility to prepare leaders for an increasingly interconnected world.

"In the end, we cannot be satisfied until, to everyone who earns a place at MIT, we are a community that says not, 'You're lucky to be here,' but rather, 'We're lucky you came,'" she said.

"We need to make diversity work at MIT because it will make us better at what we do: broader and deeper as thinkers; more effective as collaborators; more creative as teachers; more understanding as friends; and wiser, less complacent and more self-aware as human beings," she said.

To that end, Hockfield announced she would convene a Diversity Leadership Congress comprising some 300 academic and administrative leaders at the Institute. The group will serve as a forum where experiences can be shared and where best practices from other organizations can be considered.

"From this shared understanding, we will develop goals for changing the way we operate, and we will come away with a vivid sense that each of us bears direct responsibility for creating this kind of change," she said, adding that she welcomed suggestions from the community on the goals and objectives of the congress.

The president told the breakfast audience that MIT was fortunate that it was not starting from scratch. Among notable highlights, Hockfield pointed out that the Institute had recently admitted the most diverse freshman class in its history, and that a recent study of America's top-ranked colleges and universities by The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education found that MIT had for the first time earned the highest yield for African-American students.

Hockfield also hailed aggressive efforts in the School of Architecture and Planning to attract and support underrepresented talent. She also credited Karl Reid, Steve Lerman and Christopher Jones for their efforts to recruit more underrepresented minority students and to improve their experience here.

Hockfield's message regarding unfulfilled progress on issues of opportunity and inclusiveness was a theme expressed by many of the speakers at the breakfast.

In a passionate, intensely personal address, senior Jamira Cotton questioned whether MIT had created an environment that successfully nurtures the type of education deemed vital by Dr. King--an education that cultivates both intelligence and character.

"I appreciate what MIT has done for me, and what I have been able to do for it. But I know there is more to be done," said Cotton, a chemical engineering student. "Our challenge as a higher institution is to ensure that every student is receiving the best education they need for what they must do."

Kenneth Kweku Bota, second-year graduate student in the Department of Chemistry and the Whitehead Biomedical Institute, pointed out glaring inequalities between Cambridge's twin academic towers--MIT and Harvard--and dilapidated public schools across the river in Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury.

"Here at MIT, we have literally thousands of books, computers and resources at our immediate disposal. However, no matter how smart and innovative we are in using them, we will not achieve and witness the full spirit of Dr. King unless we begin to commit ourselves to helping those who are less fortunate than we are," Bota said.

Keynote speaker, Boston community activist and Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology alumnus the Rev. Dr. Ray Hammond, a physician and founding pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston, told the breakfast audience that much had been done to achieve the change envisioned by Dr. King, but much more work remained.

Hammond spoke in detail about ways in which colleges and universities can and must create more diverse and inclusive environments. He cited a model developed by Uri Treisman at the University of California in the late 1970s aimed at reducing the rate of failure among black and Hispanic students in calculus courses. The model, which involved creating multi-ethnic student workgroups, dramatically improved academic performance among black and Hispanic student participants.

"It's a model that suggests we are cheating all of our students when we fail to work hard at developing diversity in the research university." Hammond said.

Hammond, a native of Philadelphia, is well known in the Boston area for his leadership and involvement in community and youth activities. He is chair and co-founder of the Ten Point Coalition, an ecumenical group of clergy and lay leaders working to prevent violence and mobilize the Greater Boston community on behalf of at-risk youth. He also serves as executive director of Bethel's Generation Excel program, chair of the Boston Foundation and vice president for membership of the Boy Scouts Minuteman Council in Boston.

Audience members reacted positively to Hockfield's call for greater change and to her plan for a diversity congress.

Newly appointed Associate Provost for Faculty Equity Wes Harris, Charles Stark Draper Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said Hockfield's remarks "captured very well where we are today in terms of MIT's faculty of color" and showed the potential for "substantive change" on matters related to diversity at the Institute.

"I have not seen MIT with this level of activity directed toward--and these are my words--transformational behavior when it comes to faculty of color in my 30-odd years of serving here in this community," Harris told the MIT News Office.

Paula Hammond, the Bayer Professor of Chemical Engineering and member of a special committee investigating faculty race issues at MIT, said she was very encouraged by Hockfield's acknowledgment, which she described as a necessary first step toward progress.

Hammond also said she was excited about the president's proposal to bring together a broad group of leaders from MIT in the form of the Diversity Leadership Congress.

"[The congress] will bring together people from different leadership levels and will make the issue of diversity a key topic of discourse on campus. I really think she is putting this issue at the forefront of the ones we need to tackle at MIT, and this essentially initiates that process," Hammond told the News Office. "It will become something that we can all unify around and begin to address as core to MIT's intellectual capital."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 27, 2008 (download PDF).

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