Values of a university community

In the days since the US presidential election of 2016, uncertainty and unease have gripped many communities, especially college campuses. MIT is no exception. Students shared hopes and fears in Lobby 7, President Reif reassured community members that “Whatever may change in Washington, I believe there is great power in remembering that it will not change the values and the mission that unite us.” Students proposed a MIT Statement of Values and faculty delivered A message reaffirming our shared values. What is going on?

MIT has changed a great deal in the last five years. It has become more people-focused and values-driven. This has not diminished its role in science, technology or innovation; it continues to attract some of the best people in many fields, and to produce ground-breaking research. I’ve heard a lot of conversation, especially in the last year, about the need to synthesize different modes of thought, to be inclusive of diverse perspectives and peoples, to value people and to lead by values. I believe this combination is what will enable MIT to best fulfill its mission, and it has been very satisfying to see this evolution.

A historical marker: yesterday MIT held its first large (more than 200 people) activist rally that I can recall in more than 25 years. Organized by students, the MIT Solidarity and Values Rally brought together many different student groups. While there was a focus on values, there was also some rhetoric that felt divisive and uncomfortable. Often I say that my job as a faculty member is not to make people comfortable, it is to teach, and learning is sometimes uncomfortable. Now I am one of the students, learning that being fully inclusive requires building relationships with those of different views before we can learn from those differences. Harsh rhetoric is a difficult growth medium for relationships. I would like to see, hear, and learn from those with views different than my own. I think many of us would at MIT. First we have to build relationships based on mutual respect. Is there an opportunity here for future events?

Here are the remarks I gave at the rally, as prepared for delivery:

We love this Institute. We love it for the good it has done and for the even better that it will do. We love it as a place that empowers students not only to excel in technical fields but to bring their mind, hand and heart to the service of others. We love it for the MIT Police, the MIT EMS, MIT Facilities, and others who keep us safe and able to do the great work we do here. We love it for our international scholars, our Muslim community, our undocumented students. We love it as the most diverse and inclusive organization most of us have ever experienced.

This period in history calls for all of us to recognize the privileged positions we have working for, studying at, or just hanging around MIT. Make a better world is a powerful vision for us following a bitter and divisive election. But who is the subject of this declaration, where do we find the object, and what does the verb really mean?

Begin with the who and the what: Students are challenging all of us to think about the principles that we hold dear, which define what it is to make a better world. All of us. When President Reif wrote us following the election, he gave the following guidance both for the Institute as an institution, and to every individual in the community:

“As an institution, we do some of our best work when we turn outward to the world. Let’s continue to do that now. And, following our students’ lead, let us find ways to listen to one another – with sympathy, humility, decency, respect and kindness.”

And now the object of the sentence “Make a Better world.” The world is not just far away, not just in cities that are economically distressed by loss of manufacturing industries or in countries that suffer natural or man-made disasters. It is here, in Cambridge, in Boston. Making a better world invites us to start in our back yard. That is why I’m so pleased that MIT Professor Ceasar McDowell co-facilitated the Conversation on Race in Boston this past weekend. His example invites us all to think of how we can think globally and act locally.

I also want to speak about the role of the individual, and how we treat each other. Students have set a great example of how to value difference and be respectful, even across strongly divided beliefs. We should all learn from their example. We decry hate speech and vilification of whole groups. We stand up for science. For those of us with greater power by virtue of our position, race, gender, age, and so on, let us take greater responsibility for upholding MIT values.

To my faculty colleagues, I urge you to discuss in your departments the values students have advanced, not only the Black Students’ Union last year, but in the current discussions. Students are looking up to you for your leadership.

To all of us, let us learn how our minds filter experience in ways that distort our values. Acknowledging this is not an attack; I have never lived inside a woman’s body nor been the target of insults hurled at Muslims or transgender people. Unconscious bias is a scientific fact, not a character flaw. I invite all community members to have an open mind about the mind, and to join me in a workshop.

Our community has done well the last few years in showing the value of diversity and inclusion and the need to care for one another. We have the opportunity to build on that progress now. Thank you for joining me to help advance a respectful and caring community.

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