By David L. Chandler
At this year’s annual MIT celebration of the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr., keynote speaker Eddie S. Glaude Jr., the James S. Donnell Distinguished University Professor at Princeton University, invoked King’s memory in an impassioned appeal for confronting the realities of the United States’ history and the country’s racist beliefs and actions, in order to achieve a more just and equitable nation.
Glaude, a prominent political commentator and author of books including “Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul,” said at the Feb. 10 event that “ours is a moment shadowed by fear and ghosts. America is changing, and the substance of that transformation isn’t quite clear.” Many people are afraid of the changing demographics of the nation, what has been described as “the browning of America,” and of cultural transformations they see taking place, he said.
Although these are words she wouldn’t have expected to string together, “I love MIT,” said Ufuoma Ovienmhada, a graduate student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Media Lab, and former president of the Black Graduate Student Association. She cited M. Scott Peck’s definition of love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Based on that definition, she said, “I was forced to admit that through these labors, I am committed to the spiritual, and moral, and ethical growth of MIT. And thus I do, in fact, love MIT. It’s an agape love, an ongoing, unconditional concern for the well-being of MIT, the community inside it, and those it impacts.” She added that “to love well, we must be willing to tell the truth.” In that spirit, she outlined three “inconvenient truths about the chasm between King’s values and MIT’s actions.”
First, she said, the MIT Corporation “resists any change that would redress severe power imbalances.” She described serving on committees where she was one of only a handful of students among 25 or 30 members. “At MIT, we aren’t sharing nearly enough power or responsibility,” she said. Second, the Institute’s Climate Action Plan does not include divestment from fossil fuels “that continue to produce climate impacts disproportionately affecting Black, brown, and indigenous people.” And third, though there has been progress in working with graduate students from underserved groups, this work “often moves at a snail’s pace” and “ignores inconvenient truths and inconvenient recommendations.”
She concluded that “if you love MIT too, to love well, we must be willing to tell the truth, then take palpable measures to bend the arc of MIT’s history toward justice.”