Shirley Jackson (SB ’68), one of the first two black women ever to attend MIT, remembers times during her undergraduate days that she would sit in the cafeteria, only to have others get up and leave the dining table, even if they hadn’t finished eating. She remembers being refused to join study groups. She remembers being continually mistaken for “the other black woman” enrolled at MIT that year.
Today, Shirley Jackson is president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a member of the MIT Corporation, and one of 175 people profiled in Technology and the Dream: Reflections on the Black Experience at MIT, 1941-1999 (MIT Press). Authored by Clarence G. Williams, special assistant to the president, ombudsman, and adjunct professor of urban studies and planning, the book is a 1,000 plus-page compendium of oral histories chronicling the evolving experience of blacks — students, faculty, and administrative staff — at the Institute. The volume “gives voice to members of the MIT community, both black and non-black, whose reflections on race at the Institute are sharp, poignant and instructive,” says Williams, who has been at MIT for nearly 30 years. The myriad reflections, he notes, “have much to teach us about past, present and future strategies to deal with race and racism in the academic context.”
Included in the mix of reflections are in-depth interviews with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan (SM ’72), former MIT professor of physics James Gates Jr. (PhD ’77), Bernard Loyd (PhD ’89), a former member of the MIT Corporation, Paul E. Gray (ScD ’60), president of MIT from 1980-90, and President Charles Vest. Commenting on the book, Vest said “it is about both triumph and failure. It is about the complexity of life and race… It simultaneously gives us hope, pride and inspiration, yet says how slowly many important things have changed. It displays the gap between where we are and where we ought to be in our quest for an inclusive, just society.”
In Williams’ vision of a just society, diversity benefits all. The demographic increase of minorities in our country “points to the need to work effectively with people of different racial and cultural backgrounds. If we don’t deal productively with diversity, we will not be competitive in the global marketplace and we will lose as a nation,” he says. On a more fundamental level, he quotes Nobel Prize-winning physicist and Institute Professor Jerome L. Friedman, who is profiled in his book: “The goal has to be to provide equal opportunity for all people to do in society what they can do best… This is the fundamental rule, and until we get there we haven’t completed the job.”
At MIT, the job is partially done, says Williams, adding that MIT deserves praise for its ongoing commitment to recruit and support minority students at the undergraduate level. “The story of black undergraduates at MIT is one of a very determined group that had to reach for opportunities, who seized them, and have gone on to achieve great success. They are at the top of the heap, wherever they are,” he says.
In considering the black faculty who have been successful at MIT, Williams credits “bridge leaders” — senior faculty who identified, encouraged and supported promising blacks early in their careers. “Bridge leaders have played pivotal roles in the success of a few promising minority faculty. We need to nurture talented students of color, give them hope, and show them how to compete to become graduate students and to become faculty,” says Williams, who is confident MIT will succeed in this process. “MIT does not shy away from challenges.”
Where MIT needs to focus attention, he adds, is with black and other minority faculty and graduate students. Only two percent of both graduate students and tenured professors are black. In an effort to increase the percentages, MIT has undertaken several formal programs to support diversity; recently the Institute established a new council to mount a focused and sustained effort to increase the number of minority and women faculty members at MIT.
Crucial to increasing the minority presence among MIT faculty is dialogue, says Williams. “Some say we have talked ourselves almost to death on this subject and gotten nowhere. My response is… we have to move our dialogue on race a notch higher, getting more non-black faculty members involved and working towards a clearer understanding of racial diversity issues, a plan of action, and a strategy for immediate implementation. Our community will be richer if we seize the opportunity.”