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49th Annual MLK Celebration

MIT President Sally Kornbluth

Thank you, Myles, for the introduction! And thank you all for the warm welcome!

As we get started, I’d like to offer a special welcome to the local officials who are with us today – Cambridge City Councilors Mark McGovern, Paul Toner and Quinton Zondervan

And although I’m “officially” your host for this event…your true hosts – the ones who did all the amazing work! – are the members of the MLK Planning Committee.  So please join me in a huge thank-you to all of them!

I know this effort also had support from the office of our ICEO, John Dozier – so John, thanks to you and your team for that.

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I’m truly delighted to be with you this morning; I understand that this celebration is one of the oldest and most important events on the MIT calendar.

Although I’m still a newcomer, I do have some brief thoughts to share with you.

But as Myles said, I’m spending the next several months on a listening tour.  I’ve had a few of those meetings already, and we’re actively scheduling more, all across MIT, this spring.

I have to say, I’m learning so much, every day – it’s thrilling.

And it feels very fitting to me that this wonderful group is where I start learning about MIT in community. So, in that spirit: This morning, I’m here to talk less and listen more!

But let me start, just briefly, by giving you a sense of how I approach things – and what I’ve heard from the people of MIT so far.

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I grew up in New Jersey. I was educated in New England – and old England! – and in New York City.

I spent several years as a postdoc in San Diego.

And then, about 30 years ago, my husband, Danny, and I made a big move: to Durham, North Carolina.

Six weeks ago, we made another big move. This time: North Carolina to Cambridge.

Do any of you hail from the South, or have family there? You know what it feels like to move back and forth between cultures? You notice things you never would otherwise.

When I first moved to Durham, I was so struck by the easy friendliness of a small Southern city. I noticed that people did great work – but somehow always made time to ask about your family and friends.

And I noticed what a difference it made to live in a place that was incredibly diverse – where the demographic balance between whites and people of color was actually about 50/50 – including a thriving Black middle- and upper-middle class. Indeed, historically, Durham was home to North Carolina’s version of “Black Wall Street,” a hub of African American-owned businesses.

And I learned quickly to revel in that diversity – and to understand how un-diverse my experiences had been up to that point.

In coming to MIT, I’ve noticed a few things too. I won’t lie: The weather is ridiculous! (What was that 24-hour polar invasion last weekend?!)

In just the past two days, I’ve also noticed what it looks like, at the top of every hour, to have this incredible global community pouring both ways down the Infinite Corridor. I’ve also noticed that there’s still real discomfort in parts of this community with issues around diversity and inclusion.

I’ve already heard, especially from students, that sometimes, individuals from groups that have historically been excluded can feel unwelcome here – somehow both invisible and hyper-visible at the same time.

Let me pause here and speak directly to the members of the Black Students Union: I know that in Lobby 7 this week, your “Black Hack 2023” banners asked a pointed question about what the Institute actually values.

I also know that someone crossed out your messages and replaced them with their own.

I was sorry to see this.  If we’re going to live together, work together and learn from each other, in community, I’d like to see a respectful dialogue across differences.

To the students of the BSU: I would very much like to meet with you – and I will follow up with an invitation shortly. 

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So…our community certainly has some challenges to work through.

Yet I’ve also been glad to hear, from John Dozier and others, that MIT has taken some significant steps in the last few years – very often with leadership from people in this room.

As you all know, MIT committed to an Institute-wide Strategic Action Plan for Belonging, Achievement and Composition – and, in its “Foundation Year,” units across MIT are developing their own strategies for change. I know a number of you were involved in developing that plan – so thank you!

In the next week or so, we’ll announce the first projects to win support from MIT’s new Racism Research Fund.

And the Institute has also made significant investments in professional staff whose roles expressly center on supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion. That includes a range of appointments in academic and administrative units. A special highlight are our assistant deans, directors and departmental diversity officers. They offer advocacy, support and community-building – and they work closely with the ICEO to keep students, staff, faculty and postdocs connected across MIT.

Would our wonderful assistant deans, directors and diversity officers out there please let us know where you are?   Thank you for all you do!

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I’m too new to this community to offer any serious diagnosis or solutions now.

But I can outline the philosophy I’ve tried to live by, and to articulate consistently, throughout 17 years as an academic leader.

Let me try to compress it into three overreaching themes:

The first is that our community can only succeed if we operate with the understanding that everyone at MIT is here because they deserve to be here: every staff member, every faculty member, every post-doc, every student. Every one of us is a full member of this community.

And every member of our community is valued as a human being – and valued for what they contribute to the mission.

The second theme is that, as an institution of higher education, we have an obligation – both to our own members and to the larger society we serve – to educate!

And that has to mean seizing every opportunity, from our classrooms to our public conversations, to make sure everyone in the community is familiar with and alert to the history and the present of racial injustice in America.

And the third is that we need to learn from the numbers – but recognize that the numbers don’t tell the whole story. As we can see from the numbers on MIT’s online Diversity Dashboard, we still have a ways to go, in many areas.

But at the same time, beyond the numbers, we can’t ignore the underlying cultural issues.

For instance, I don’t want to just hire Black faculty – I want them to want to retire here! I don’t want them to feel like guests ­– I want them to feel this is their home. I want them telling their friends and colleagues that they should come to MIT too!

That’s going to take more than simply increasing the numbers.

And – whatever the numbers say – we have to listen hard to what members of the community tell us about their own experiences at MIT. I look forward to hearing these kinds of reflections from our community speakers today.

I know that an approach like this can help drive real progress. I’ve seen it in action – and it’s the spirit I intend to bring to my work here.

And I want to highlight one more element that will be key to lasting change: The fact that real progress will depend on how well we can engage those of us at MIT whose identities have typically brought them one or more steps up the ladder of privilege.

Each of us needs to reflect on how we might be contributing, intentionally or unintentionally, to perpetuating the great societal burden of racial injustice. Here at MIT, how can we each contribute to fostering a positive environment, for those who feel pushed to the margins? How can we make MIT better by our actions?

Fixing these deep, enduring problems cannot be only, or even primarily, the responsibility of the people who are injured the most.

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The sense of warmth and community and fellowship in this room is palpable. It’s as glorious as sunshine in February.

But I expect that, for many of you, coming together at this event is particularly important because behind your warm and welcoming smiles is the shadow of a long exhaustion. An aching frustration with the slowness of change. The repeated pain of relentless incidents of injustice and violence against Black people. And the longing for a “someday” when you wouldn’t have to keep fighting against racial injustice – so you could focus freely on all the other things that interest you in this world.

I wish I could erase that shadow – and relieve that exhaustion.

But I want you to know that I see it – and I believe that one of my main responsibilities as a leader is to make sure you don’t have to tend the fire for greater justice and understanding on your own.

I’ll be there with you – and I look forward to learning from you all.

Thank you.