MLK Celebration Lunch 2018

Thursday, February 8, 2018

As prepared for delivery

Thank you, Josué.  Good morning, everybody!

And many thanks to everyone who helped to bring us together this morning, including the MLK Celebration Planning Committee, the Committee on Race and Diversity, and our Institute Community and Equity Officer Ed Bertschinger.

And I want to express my deep admiration to our student speakers – our incredible student speakers!  Tori and Josué, you make me, and all of us, very proud.

Today’s celebration is focused on a subject of great importance and of persistent urgency: How can we best contribute to “sustaining the struggle for equity”? 

Tori and Josué have already expressed several dimensions of this challenge. Tori spoke of the strain of persevering, day after day, through the smog of racial injustice.

Josué described the inspiration that keeps him going: knowing that, in fighting for action on climate change, he is fighting for communities that might otherwise have
no voice.

In a moment, I will touch on some ways we are working to make MIT more equitable and more inclusive.

But first, I would like to offer an observation about the current atmosphere in our society – because I believe it has great bearing on the overall struggle for equity.

                                                                     *          *
We live in a noisy time.

A time that favors instant opinions – as if 280 characters were the best thinking that humans are capable of, and all the attention that any subject deserves.

An angry, cynical time, in which many people are careless with the truth.

I expect that you will agree with me when I say, it feels awful! And it’s exhausting!

And sometimes it nearly breaks your heart.

But when I feel worn out by all the terrible noise, I take great inspiration in thinking about our community at MIT, because, I would like to believe, MIT is different.

MIT can be noisy, too. But it’s mostly the noise of bright, curious people testing old assumptions, coming up with new ideas, and trying to understand each other.

At MIT, we have lots of opinions, but they are usually thoughtful, sometimes even wise. And we’re interested in hearing what other people think, too!

Sometimes we get frustrated, even angry. (I am certain plenty of people get frustrated with me!) But the sound of all that, for the most part., is a wonderful noise – because it’s the sound of all of us, together, working to serve MIT’s meaningful mission.

As for cynicism – to me, cynicism could be a sign of defeat. It could be a sign that you have lost faith in human goodness and possibility, and lost faith in our creative power to make a better world.  By that definition, MIT is the opposite of cynicism! And I am grateful for, and proud of, this community’s practical optimism, every day.

And finally, perhaps for this home audience I do not need to explain that, at MIT, we are very careful with the truth. And we keep on believing in facts!

In saying these things, I am not proposing that the MIT community is perfect. (In fact, today we have heard some ways in which it is not perfect.)

But I am very grateful to belong to a community that, I would like to think, is willing to face its imperfections, to talk honestly and openly about them, in a spirit of mutual respect, and to work together to make things better.

For our nation, in the struggle to advance the cause of equity, I am deeply concerned that the current harsh atmosphere presents a terrible obstacle.

But I am very optimistic about what is possible at MIT. And the positive changes on our campus in the last two years ground that optimism in reality.

At this event two years 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 worked with many others, all across campus, to help drive important progress:

  • We now have interactive sessions on diversity in our undergraduate orientation – and this year in graduate orientation, too.
  • Every academic department has now created and posted a statement affirming their commitment to diversity and to caring for students as human beings above all.
  • We have a team of mental health staff recruited and trained to offer “culturally competent” care.
  • Our community surveys now gather data on whether students feel culturally included in their residences and their majors.
  • And over the last two years, we have raised MIT financial aid by $23.4 million dollars…and decreased student “self-help” requirements by nearly 40 percent.

In making these gains, this team has made MIT stronger and better – for all of us.

And I want to offer my deepest appreciation for their dedication and their leadership.

The harder, more systemic issues now become our central focus. This includes the long-term challenge of recruiting more graduate students and faculty from underrepresented minority groups, and making sure they are positioned to succeed.

But we have the right people pursuing the right strategies, so I am optimistic that we can steadily turn these aspirations into action, too.

                                                                        *          *

I would like to close my own comments with a few lines from Isabel Wilkerson, a journalist known for her brilliant reporting on the “Great Migration” of African-Americans from the South to the North.

In her words,

“Our country is like a really old house.
I love old houses. I’ve always lived in old houses.

But old houses need a lot of work.
And the work is never done.”

MIT is an old house too – but I am confident that we have the tools and the strength for all the work we must do together.

                                                            *          *          *

And now it is my great pleasure to introduce our keynote speaker.

Ten years ago, if you had told Wade Davis that one day he would travel the country speaking about feminism, inclusive communities, and toxic masculinity,
he would definitely not have believed you.

Because at the time, he was playing in the National Football League. And he had not publically shared his identity as a gay man.

Today, Mr. Davis is the NFL’s first “LGBT inclusion consultant,”and he has lectured at universities around the world on the intersections of race, sexuality, gender, and sports.

A frequent guest on major networks, including MSNBC, NPR, ESPN, and BET, he has published essays in the Los Angeles Times, the Advocate, the New York Times, Ebony and the Guardian.

He also recorded a powerful TED talk on his experience as a boy who loved football – and who did not dare to understand himself as gay

A native of little Rock, Arkansas, Mr. Davis earned his bachelor’s in business administration from Weber State University in Utah.

In 2014, Northeastern University granted him an honorary Doctor of Public Service for his leadership in combatting homophobia and sexism in athletics.

As we seek inspiration in “sustaining the struggle for equity,” I believe we could not ask for a better guide.

With that, please join welcoming our keynote speaker, Wade Davis.