On the evening of Nov. 17, MIT faculty, staff, and students came together to affirm — through words and music — the enduring values and purposes that unite the community. Some 150 people gathered in Lobby 10 for a program of music from many traditions, interwoven with reflections from faculty and students. Against the backdrop of a changing political landscape, themes of mutual respect, inclusivity, and dedication to making a better world echoed through the evening.
Melissa Nobles, the Kenan Sahin Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, whose office sponsored the event, opened the evening saying, “At this time of change, it is important that we lift up and celebrate our commitment at MIT to our ongoing values of discovery, freedom of expression and thought, and respect for all people.”
MIT Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88, the next of six speakers, said, “We are actively uniting around our determination to educate, advocate, and care for every member of our community so that together we can continue our urgent work of making a better world.”
“At MIT,” she added, “we respect and celebrate our diversity. We seek the facts, believe in science, and roll up our sleeves to solve hard problems. We are open minded, inclusive, and kind. We listen intently and we speak up for what is right. We embrace our responsibility to invent a brighter future for all of humanity. These are MIT’s values and MIT’s path. They always have been — and I can promise you that nothing will change our course.”
Many students in the audience welcomed these statements of solidarity around MIT’s guiding values. “I have people in my life who currently don’t feel safe and don’t feel wanted,” said Riley Clubb, a second-year graduate student at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “That makes me sad, and I’m hoping that people will stand up [to protect others.]”
The musical program began with a performance of the majestic “Andante Festivo,” a single-movement hymnic work by Jean Sibelius. The tone poem, composed to give his country moral support, was performed with flowing, melodic nuance by members of the MIT Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Adam Boyles.
Members of the MIT Chamber Chorus and Concert Choir, under the direction of William Cutter, performed “The Reason Why the World,” composed by Professor Peter Child for MIT’s 150th anniversary, with text from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature.” “I chose the passage,” Child said, “because it extols the virtue of combining a sense of spirituality with scientific exploration, and says that each is incomplete without the other, that humans cannot be ‘naturalists,’ until we satisfy ‘all the demands of the spirit.’”
The MIT Vocal Jazz Ensemble, coached by Liz Tobias, performed “Thou Shalt,” by composer Naomi Crellin, a mesmerizing a cappella work of sustained vocal harmonies that were, by turns, hushed and full, with clear sweet sounds over a deep resonant rumbling.
Between the musical performances, students reflected upon the strengths of the MIT community and on how valuable it is to listen to one another in a spirit of mutual respect.
“Students of every historically oppressed group are scared and face outspoken threats,” said Billy Torres, sophomore in electrical engineering and computer science and head of Spanish House. "And yet at MIT, I see people smart enough to acknowledge the issues, and strong enough to overcome the fears facing them.”
Jonathan Hurowitz, a junior in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences and president of MITGOP, noted that “Some students are afraid to even voice their opinions without fear of discrimination.” To bridge ideological divides, Hurowitz urged everyone to “find one or two people with different political or social views than yourself and listen to them. Commit to an honest discussion and work to understand your peers.”
First-year graduate student Amro Alshareef also expressed confidence in the strength of the community's bond. "We here at MIT are a family of innovators, and that’s not going to change just because some of us voted one way or another," he said. "We will still remain humans; we will still remain collaborators; and we will still remain MIT."
Caroline H. Mak, a junior in electrical engineering and computer science and a member of MIT Democrats, offered a unique take on the Institute’s core values, speaking as if MIT itself were applying to attend the Institute. Responding to actual Admissions Office essay prompts such as "Which program or major appeals to you?" and "What personality attribute you are most proud of?,” Mak’s “MIT” replies were: “I am now 145 years old and I want to major in diversity. I want to continue making history in ways I can’t even imagine right now.”
Introducing the Turkish-American, Grammy-nominated composer and performer Mehmet Ali Sanlikol and his duo partner Beth Bahia Cohen, Nobles observed that “MIT values immigrant voices, and, in fact, all the music we hear tonight comes out of a merging of one tradition or another into what we think of as American music. As we know, the Boston area and the MIT community are extremely rich in multicultural traditions, and we're fortunate to have a wonderful example of that with us here tonight, with our guests."
For the gathering, Mehmet, whose compositions merge Turkish themes, jazz, and classical music, transported the audience with a soaring performance from the meditative Turkish Sufi Mevlevi tradition. Afterwards, Mehmet noted that the reverberant Lobby 10 space helped produce the immersive listening experience this rich, moving musical tradition can generate.
Mark Harvey of MIT Music introduced the final musical performance, by the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble, led by Fred Harris, with guest musician Evan Ziporyn, MIT professor of music. The ensemble delivered Harvey’s composition “No Walls,” an anthem to inclusiveness inspired by Duke Ellington’s credo of living and making music “beyond category.” In “No Walls,” Harvey fuses musical acumen from South Africa, New Orleans, the classic American songbook, and some points unknown, into an original voice. The composition, he said, “seeks to inspire all of us toward what Ellington fervently hoped for: A new sound of harmony, common respect, and consideration for the dignity and freedom of all people.”
Abdie Dirie ’16, a master's candidate in computer science and electrical engineering, said the “No Walls” performance was one highlight of the evening for him. “It was pointed, with a very good message,” he said. Dirie said he had received a lot of heartfelt calls recently from family and friends who are Muslim. While feeling “anxious for himself and people I know,” Dirie said he was reassured by the evening’s messages, and found “every bit of the event beneficial.”
Helen Elaine Lee, professor of writing and head of the MIT Women’s and Gender Studies Program, brought the evening to a close. “I want to say something to you today about love and struggle,” she said, “about resilience, and the power of art to heal.” With readings from three American writers — James Baldwin, Denise Levertov, and Toni Morrison — Lee encouraged the audience to “love and change the world.”
And what is love? Lee invoked Baldwin, “who reminds us that love is a matter of commitment, grueling self-interrogation, discomfort, hard and ongoing work. And that’s what we must do now,” she said, “Do your transformative work, make and seek out art, and fight for the values you believe in.”
“Uniting through Voice and Song” was sponsored by the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences Dean's Office and MIT Music and Theater Arts, with support from the Office of the Chancellor and MIT Events. The event was organized and shaped by Fred Harris Jr., Agustin Rayo, Evan Ziporyn, Clarise Snyder, and Joe Coen, in collaboration with Adam Boyles, Gayle Gallagher, Mark Harvey, Lianne Scott, Meredith Sibley, the MIT Campus Activities Complex, and MIT SHASS Communications.