MLK Celebration Lunch

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

As prepared for delivery

Good morning! 

When we came together a year ago, I spoke with admiration and excitement about a new effort, inspired by the remarkable leadership of the BSU and the BGSA, to make our community stronger and more inclusive.

That effort led to the creation of the Academic Council Working Group on Community and Inclusion. Since then, this team of student, faculty and administrative leaders has helped drive important progress. For example:

  • This year, MIT recruited Dr. Karen Singleton to spearhead MIT Medical’s Mental Health and Counseling Service. Karen is a recognized leader in providing multicultural mental health care – most recently at Columbia University. And this year, MIT Medical further deepened its expertise in race-based trauma by adding three additional clinicians.
  • Our orientation for all undergraduates now includes an important new interactive session on diversity, facilitated by 30 specially trained faculty and staff.
  • To help inform our decision-making, we are gathering, and posting, new diversity-related data, from the Senior Survey to new “diversity dashboards” for students, faculty, and staff.
  • The provost asked all departments to develop and post a statement of departmental commitment to health, diversity, and inclusion – and nearly all the statements are either posted or in the final stages.
  • And MIT’s financial aid budget is on the rise, showing a 10.4% increase for this past year alone.

In making these gains, this team has made MIT stronger and better for all of us. So please join me in expressing our appreciation for their dedication and their leadership.

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Last year, our focus was on making progress in our own community, for our own community.

But today – in a very different time – I want to focus my remarks on the larger context we are all experiencing. I want to reaffirm our community’s core values. And I want to challenge us to think about one way that we – as a community – can help serve the nation now.

*          *          *

We live in a moment when some fundamental assumptions seem to be in question – assumptions about how we should conduct ourselves as individuals, and as a society.

At the most basic level, even familiar standards of decency and open, respectful discourse are no longer something we can take for granted.

In that context, I would like to try to articulate a few of the “unwritten rules” of our own community, so we can reflect on them together.

At MIT, when our community is at its best, racism, bigotry and discrimination are out of bounds, period. Diminishing or excluding others because of their identity – whether race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, social class, nationality or any other aspect – is unthinkable and unacceptable.

It's also out of the question to bully others, period. Such behavior is simply beneath us – because we value each other as members of our community and respect each other as fellow human beings.

Intellectually, we are a community where prejudice – pre-judging – is anathema. In the MIT community I love, our personal interactions benefit when we behave as we do in our intellectual work: Assume less and ask more, to learn more. Refrain from jumping to conclusions on superficial evidence. And listen as closely and as much as we can.

In the best American tradition, the MIT community is also open to talent from every part of our society. Our students, faculty and staff come to us from every faith, culture and background, and from all fifty states. At the same time, like the United States – and thanks to the United States – MIT gains tremendous strength by being a magnet for talent from around the world.

The mission we pursue together is too important, and too difficult, for any of us to spend time erecting artificial barriers to anyone else's achievement! We welcome and embrace all the great talent we are fortunate enough to attract!

And the truth is that people who love discovery and problem-solving typically love to collaborate and work with people who see things from a different perspective.

The beautiful result, as we have discovered at MIT over decades, is that when people of many backgrounds work together to address big human challenges – whether it’s climate change or fresh water access or Alzheimer’s – they come to value each other as human beings, united in a struggle larger than themselves.

*          *          *

I believe these are some MIT ideals that we can agree on: civility, respect, openness.

But I want to highlight one more – an ideal that demands even more of us, especially in these times.

At MIT, the free expression of ideas is also a fundamental value. It is a value completely in line with our passion for boldness, big ideas and real-world problem-solving, and with our insistence on analytical rigor and on seeking hard facts.

In my experience at MIT, valuing free expression means accepting each other's right to express deep disagreement and candid criticism, sometimes in very strong terms, whether the subject is science or philosophy or politics. The capacity to listen to each other through passionate disagreement is an indispensable tool for learning; we shouldn't trade or compromise that for anything.

As long as such arguments are governed by mutual respect, they are part of how we make each other smarter and wiser. Within our community, I believe we can almost always count on that mutual respect, and we should insist on it.

In these unsettled times, however, we may find, as other campuses have already, that our commitment to free expression can be tested by voices and forces from outside our community, and from outside our circle of mutual respect. If we face such a struggle, I hope and believe we can stay true to our MIT values.

*          *          *

As we have seen clearly in recent weeks, our nation contains deep divisions. And those divisions of opinion are part of our MIT community, too.

When I wrote to the community about the recent Executive Order restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority nations, many people told me they were grateful that MIT was standing up for our students, our colleagues and our values.

But others wrote to tell me that they disagreed with our taking a public stance, and that they see the measures in the Executive Order as a reasonable path to make the country safer.

I disagree with them. Many of you may disagree with them. But the fact remains that they are members of the MIT community, too.

The coming months and years may put great pressure on us as a community. Whatever we face together, it is of the utmost importance that MIT remains a place that can endure, and grow from, the challenge of dissenting views – a community that makes room for us all.

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Nearly 150 years ago, in a speech in Boston, the legendary American statesman Frederick Douglass made a remarkable speech – at the time, a shocking speech – in support of immigration from China.

His larger point was that the United States is, in his words, a “composite nation.” The American nation is by definition composed of many parts. Douglass argued that this fact makes us stronger. Just as with a composite material, our separate strengths enhance each other, and together they form the great new strength of the whole.

With this idea in mind, Frederick Douglass also urged us – always – towards unity:

As he wrote,

“In a composite nation like ours, as before the law, there should be no rich, no poor, no high, no low, no white, no black, but common country, common citizenship, equal rights and a common destiny.”

*          *          *

In this heated moment in America, I believe that we must avoid, with all our might, the forces that are driving our nation into two camps. If we love America, and if we believe in our nation’s best possibilities, we cannot allow those divisions to grow worse. We need to imagine a shared future together – a “common destiny” – if we hope to have one.

As Dr. King once observed, the ultimate measure of our character is not where we stand “in moments of comfort and convenience,” but where we “stand at times of challenge and controversy.”

I am certain our community can help work on this great challenge for the nation. I invite you to help us think how we might tackle it, in practical terms. And I believe we can start right here, by living up to the ideals of our own community, caring for it – and making it better, too.

I ask us to commit ourselves – mind, hand and heart – to rising to the challenge of this difficult moment, together.

*          *          *

And now it is my great pleasure to introduce our keynote speaker – a wonderful example of MIT values in action.

Our speaker today is Dr. Aprille Ericsson, a distinguished aerospace engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center – who also happens to be a 1986 Course 16 graduate of MIT.

In fact, we’re excited to have with us two faculty members who worked with her in the department:

•          Her undergraduate advisor, Institute Professor Sheila Widnall
•          And Professor Wesley Harris!

Dr. Ericsson was the first woman, and the first African-American woman, to earn a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from Howard University, and the first African-American woman to receive a PhD. in Engineering at NASA Goddard, so she is used to breaking new ground.

Through more than 25 years at NASA, she has worked on a wide range of advanced technology projects. In 2017, she assumed a new role as the New Business Lead for the Instrument Systems and Technology Division.

Among her many honors, in 2015, “Business Insider” ranked Dr. Ericsson 8th on its list of the most powerful women engineers in the world. And in 2016, she was inducted into the Washington, D.C., Hall of Fame.

According to those who knew her best at MIT, Dr. Ericsson is very intense, very focused –and very, very caring. In particular, we are grateful for her service to our community. As a member of the Industrial Advisory Council of our Office of Minority Education, she often comes back to campus to mentor young women and students of color considering aerospace careers – and in the process, she inspires us all.

As one of her admirers put it, “Aprille is a true MIT product – and a true credit to MIT.”

With that – please join me in welcoming our keynote speaker, Dr. Aprille Ericsson.