MLK Celebration Lunch

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

As prepared for delivery

This morning, we come together to celebrate, in the spirit of Dr. King, the value of activism – especially student activism – in driving social change.

So I begin by congratulating all the winners of this year’s MLK Leadership Award.  The staff and faculty who work on these issues play a profound role in our community. But in the context of today’s event, I offer special admiration to the student winners:

  • Rasheed Auguste of the Black Students Union
  • The Black Graduate Student Association
  • George Chao, an activist for graduate student concerns
  • And Fossil Free MIT.

In terms of student activism on our campus, this has been quite a year – an extraordinary year. On topics from race, inclusion and social justice to climate change, this year, our students have, in many ways, become our teachers.

That has been true on campuses across the country. But our students have done things differently, in a way that I particularly admire.

I want to share just one example – an image I will never forget. I chair a group at MIT called “Academic Council,” about 30 of MIT’s top academic and administrative leaders. We meet Tuesday mornings.

One Tuesday in December, for the first time I can remember, a group of students were invited and came to our meeting: The leaders of the BSU and the BGSA presented their ideas for making the MIT community more diverse and more welcoming for all.

Many of you know these students. I am telling you, they were magnificent!

They were thoughtful, creative, persistent, specific, collaborative, constructive and serious. They went out of their way to incorporate the views of students from other underrepresented groups, as well. And with Academic Council, they set the tone for mutual respect – and they earned tremendous respect in return.

The students brought their recommendations to address issues specific to MIT today:

  • Improving orientation, and adding “booster shots” of inclusion education after freshman year.
  • Enhancing financial aid.
  • Collecting and publishing new types of data about the student experience.
  • Hiring more diverse mental health staff.
  • Providing training to overcome unconscious bias. And the list goes on.

Today, these students are collaborating with Academic Council’s brand-new “Working Group on Inclusion.” Together, they are addressing these recommendations and the problems they aim to solve. The working group will share a public progress report in time for spring break. And I am confident that we are on a path to sustained and meaningful change. (And I think you may be interested to know that Academic Council has volunteered to be the pilot group for unconscious bias training!)

For this exceptional example of student activism, of initiative and constructive leadership, I would like to publicly say here to them: Thank you and bravo! As one of our student leaders put it recently, “It is wonderful to see the gears of MIT go to work on a problem,” and I could not agree more.

One last observation:  When these students spoke to Academic Council, they made it clear that some of what needs to happen has to do with human values. They are asking us to say out loud that we value the diversity of our community. I do. They are urging all of us at MIT to maintain a human perspective, and to remind each other that while the quality of our students’ work is important, their mental and physical health is most important. I agree! And finally, they are making a powerful case that a more welcoming, more inclusive MIT would be better for absolutely everyone. 

They are right! And I look forward to working with them to make this vision real.

And now I am honored to introduce this morning’s keynote speaker.

Freeman Hrabowski is president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He has held that job for 24 years!

(I have been president here for three-and-a-half years. I must tell you, Freeman’s record will be tough, if not impossible, to beat! But I take comfort in the knowledge that he had a tremendous head start over me: He was born eight days before I was.)

As many of you know, through his leadership of UMBC, Freeman has accomplished something deeply important.

At MIT, some of the work we admire most comes at the intersection of theory and practice: when a powerful idea translates into effective solutions in the real world.

President Hrabowski has become the leading theorist and the most accomplished practitioner of the science of empowering students of color and women to succeed at the highest levels in STEM fields.

UMBC is a predominantly white institution. By living up to his vision, it has become a national leader in the number of its minority graduates who go on to earn doctorates in medicine, in the sciences and in engineering.

What’s more, his efforts have become models for colleges and universities across the country. For example, in 1988, Freeman helped launch UMBC’s widely recognized Meyerhoff Scholars Program for young black men interested in science and engineering. The program provides each Scholar with academic support, as well as personal advising and mentoring, year-round, through the first two years of college.

Their success rates are through the roof! And a very high percentage of them go on to graduate school in STEM fields. At MIT, we were so impressed that four years ago, we adapted key features of the Meyerhoff model for a program we call Interphase EDGE.  It serves about 70 MIT undergraduates a year, and the first Interphase EDGE cohort will graduate this June. (And we have Freeman to thank for the model and the inspiration!)

Freeman has also co-authored three books on how to help young people succeed. And he has won a great many honors. In 2009, TIME magazine named him one of America’s Best College Presidents. Three years later, they declared him one of 100 Most Influential People in the world. And in 2012, President Obama asked him to chair the newly created President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

Freeman’s awards and achievements are remarkable – and I would like to mention just one more. In 2015, US News and World Report named UMBC one of the “most innovative national universities.” MIT made that list, too. In fact, our two institutions came in third ­­– and fourth. (Never mind which was which!) Number one was Arizona State. Number two was Stanford.  So I am planning to strike a deal with Freeman for us to stick together and earn the two top spots next time.

In short, as our diverse community seeks a path that combines the highest level of intellectual achievement with a warm sense of welcome and inclusion for all, we could not ask for a better guide and friend than this morning’s speaker.

Please join me in welcoming President Freeman Hrabowski.