Hundreds of members of the MIT community gathered Thursday at the annual breakfast celebration to honor the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and to reflect on the importance of using the Institute’s gifts to serve what President Susan Hockfield called the “highest human purposes of connection, compassion and kindness.”
Titled “Deploying Our Gifts for the Betterment of Humankind: What Would Dr. King Say About Us?,” the event highlighted the gifts—in the form of creativity, innovation and problem-solving abilities—that MIT bestows on its students, faculty and staff, and on the imperative that they be used for the greater good.
“MIT itself is a gift, one that we have a duty to use, in service to the world,” Hockfield told a crowded Walker Memorial. Still, much work remains in order to bolster the value of that gift, she said.
“As wonderful a gift as the Institute may be, intrinsic to its value, and our understanding of its value, is a perpetual striving to be ever better,” Hockfield said.
Keynote speaker Gerry Hudson, the international executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, the country’s fastest growing labor union with more than 2.2 million members, echoed that call, imploring audience members to use their gifts to “try to realize the possibility of a more just America.”
“Knowing what I know about the gifts in this room, if you put them on the table, we’ll get there,” said Hudson, who has been involved with MIT for about five years. Hudson recalled his work with J. Phillip Thompson, associate professor of urban politics in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and other MIT faculty and students in New Orleans on the rehabilitation of public housing after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation.
‘The real King message’
In November 2008, Hudson and Thompson, as well as Joel Rogers of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy and a number of national partners, including MIT’s Community Innovators Lab (CoLab), co-founded the Emerald Cities Partnership to advance “fair opportunity, shared wealth and democracy” in the nation’s cities, according to the organization’s website.
Hudson explained that although King inspired him to become a labor organizer, he had declined to speak at King celebrations in recent years because he did not recognize the King he “knew and loved” in the speeches he heard at these events. Hudson agreed to speak at MIT because “I think you get it, the real King message.”
He spoke about King’s rarely quoted “If the Negro Wins, Labor Wins” speech, given before an American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organization convention in 1961. During the address, King explained that his vision for America’s future was not only about civil rights but, more broadly, about freedom and jobs. Hudson believes it was the failure of the labor movement to respond to this speech and join King’s call to action that “gave rise to an ugly politics that has swept this country for more than 40 years,” and that contributed to income inequality.
It was in 2008 when President Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Party nomination that Hudson was persuaded that “maybe, just maybe” his generation had picked up the baton that had been passed from King’s generation. A year after Obama’s inauguration, Hudson expressed frustration over what he said was a lack of progress on healthcare or labor law reform — and made clear his belief that it takes more than a president to bring about significant change.
“I say to you, MIT, we need your gifts put out there one more time,” he said. “It won’t happen unless you put them on the table.”
Building on a tradition of excellence
In addition to the speakers, Thursday’s breakfast featured passionate performances by the MIT Gospel Choir and Jermaine Tulloch, a guest soloist from the Harlem Gospel Choir.
Recent Rhodes Scholar winner Ugwechi Amadi, a senior majoring in brain and cognitive sciences and literature, moderated the celebration, which was dedicated to the memory of Leo Osgood, the former MIT basketball coach, associate dean and director of the Office of Minority Education who passed away in November. Hockfield praised Osgood for his commitment to the community.
“Leo was a guiding force behind this celebration for many years, and we are all very much the beneficiaries of his compassionate vision,” she said.
Citing that vision, the president stressed that there was room at MIT for improvement to harness the tools of modern technology and science to bring about more change. She called the recently released report from the Initiative on Faculty Race and Diversity a “constructive tool” to help MIT fully tap into and strengthen its gifts, while upholding its nearly 150-year-old tradition of excellence.
The product of 2-1/2 years of research and analysis by a team of nine MIT faculty members, the report concluded that while MIT’s efforts to hire and retain under-represented minority (URM) faculty have produced some gains in recent years, the results are uneven across the Institute, and that more effective policies and practices are necessary. Moreover, the study said the experience of URM faculty at MIT can be different from that of their majority peers, and that MIT must do more to foster a culture of inclusion.
Hockfield said she disagreed with the notion that the report’s findings and recommendations might “somehow threaten to erode or compromise the excellence of MIT.” asserting instead that the report “is not about compromising those standards — it is about reaching them.”
Hockfield praised the report for offering practical steps to accelerate positive change, and she noted that Provost L. Rafael Reif and Paula Hammond ’84, PhD ’93, the Bayer Professor of Chemical Engineering who led the committee that prepared the report, have already begun strategy meetings with Academic Council, school councils and the heads of academic units.
In addition to the report and its recommendations, Hockfield pointed to another example of MIT using its gifts to serve the world, acknowledging the efforts of students, faculty and the Public Service Center in responding to last month’s catastrophic earthquake in Haiti.
One of those students, Dylon Rockwell, a junior majoring in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, spoke about his concern that even though he helped raise thousands of dollars through his involvement in MIT’s Jan. 29 Haiti Relief Benefit Showcase, it might not be enough.
“What would Dr. King say about me?” Rockwell asked. “What would Dr. King say about MIT?”
Zenzile Brooks, a graduate student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, spoke of another gift widely abundant at MIT: talent. She said she recently embraced her gift for playing the piano after an organizer from her church told her she had a responsibility to use that gift, much like King had a responsibility to use his gift to organize for change.
“You say thank you, and you use it,” Brooks said, noting that “sparks really begin to fly” when MIT community members combine their individual gifts with the larger gift of MIT. “We are obligated to put this gift to good, good use.”