PRESIDENT CHARLES M. VEST

Acceptance remarks upon receiving the Reginald H. Jones Distinguished Service Award from the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering ACME/GEM Conference Houston, Texas, 29 May 2003


Receiving this award from NACME means more to me than any of you can imagine. But I accept it on behalf of the many people who have shaped my understanding, who have done the hard institutional work at MIT, and also at the University of Michigan, that is the basis for your recognition.

In doing so, I recognize all those who provided me the very opportunity to live the American Dream that we in NACME and GEM strive to make available to others.

And I accept it knowing that this is a complicated time -- as we await the decision of our Supreme Court in the critical University of Michigan admissions cases, and when MIT has had to take some controversial steps into a new legal landscape in response to attacks by the U.S. Department of Education on our minority outreach and bridge programs.

During the last decade, the federal government has diluted its commitment to creating opportunity for minority citizens, but by and large, America's great corporations have stood strong and filled the leadership gap. Corporations have long supported both our admissions policies and our outreach programs. They have not done so because they are liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans. They support them because they understand that the world is racially diverse - and that if they are to know their customers, produce well-designed, relevant products, and market them effectively, they need the perspectives and experiences of a diverse workforce and leadership.

So it is fitting that the Reginald Jones Award memorializes a visionary leader from American industry, and that it is funded by the General Electric Foundation. GE is a company long committed to diversity and opportunity.

As I stand before you today, I would like to give you a sense of where I have come from. I attended racially segregated schools until I was in junior high school. Our schools were desegregated in one fell swoop a year or so ahead of Brown v. Board of Education.

I came quickly to value and learn from the new classmates who joined us. I remember that our high school football coach drilled us on how to protect our black teammates should they be attacked in some of the more rural towns in which we were to play.

My first science teacher was black. My high school physics teacher was a woman. My closest friend in graduate school was from India. My PhD advisor was from Turkey. My closest colleagues as a young professor were from Taiwan, Hungary, and Turkey. My own father grew up in a German-speaking household.

And yet, when I began my teaching career as a graduate student teaching fellow and then as an assistant professor at the University of Michigan in the 1960s, it was extraordinary if I had more than one African American student in my classes every couple of years. In fact, it was extraordinary if I had more than one or two women students in a class. And if I had either, it was a lead pipe cinch that they would be one of the best two or three students in the class, because only through unusual drive and commitment would these students have come to study engineering.

In that context, when I look today at an MIT student body whose undergraduates are 42 percent women, 6 percent African-American, 11 percent Latino, and 2 percent Native American -- a student body that is remarkably diverse in so many other dimensions as well -- it seems to me that a miracle has happened.

But it is not a miracle. It is the result of determined, conscientious effort, over more than three decades, often against seemingly insurmountable odds. It is the result of institutional leadership and occasional courage. It is a result of the determination of innumerable families and communities.

I know that I am richer, that my world-view is more balanced, and that my ability to do my job and live my life has been greatly enhanced because of my own experiences that can be filed under the heading of diversity. We must all work to ensure that the generations to come can experience the value of diversity as I have, and that they have a field of opportunity as broad as I was given.

But race still matters in America. We haven't reached the day when we truly have a race-blind society. We hope we will, but we haven't. So we must not put our head in the sand, declare victory, and let 30 years of progress slide through our fingers.

NACME, GEM, MIT and all of American industry and academia must continue the hard, day-to-day work that will provide for a diverse science and engineering workforce -- and leadership -- in the future. We must do so in order to provide our next generation with a wide field of opportunity, but we also must do so because it is essential to our future economic strength, health, security and quality of life.

Thank you.


Topics: Administration, MIT presidency

Comments

Back to the top