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MITES Controversy Attracts National Media Attention

By Stacey E. Blau
Staff Reporter

The experiences of a Washington D.C. high school senior in an MIT summer program for minority students has enveloped the program in a controversy with racial overtones, gaining attention in the national media.

Cedric Jennings, who is African American and lives in a poor and drug-ridden section of the city, attended the Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science program last summer.

MITES is a rigorous program that crams into six weeks what MIT freshmen go through in one semester, said Professor of Aeronautics and Astrophysics Leon Trilling, who is the academic adviser to the program. Students take classes in calculus, chemistry, physics, robotics, and writing, he said.

Trilling met with Jennings and other students toward the end of the program to advise them about college plans, in particular about applying to MIT. Trilling advised Jennings that his chances of admission to MIT were not good, and he should consider applying elsewhere, Trilling said.

Jennings charged that Trilling's remarks were racist and one of several articles about Jennings in The Wall Street Journal suggested that MITES catered to privileged minorities, prompting a response from President Charles M. Vest.

Jennings' life and experiences at the MITES program were chronicled in the articles and on a segment of the ABC television newsmagazine Nightline on Oct. 6.

The program is "designed for and open exclusively to minority students" who are going to be high school seniors, Trilling said. About 50 students participate in the program each year, he said. The racial composition of the group is about "half black, half hispanic," Trilling said.

Students are "picked on the basis of good [Scholastic Aptitude Test] scores or good transcripts," said William H. Ramsey '51, the administrative director of the program.

Ramsey, who is also the executive director of engineering special programs at the Institute, estimated that eight out of the past summer's 50 students "could have come from inner city backgrounds" or "inferior schools" as did Jennings.

Jennings' high school is "a snakepit of homicide and drugs," Ramsey said. In spite of disadvantaged backgrounds, these students perform equally to the rest of the students in the program, he said.

Approximately one third to one half of each MITES class goes on to enter MIT the following year, Ramsey said.

Admission influenced by publicity

Jennings' admission to MITES was partly influenced by the publicity generated by the first article in The Wall Street Journal, according to Trilling. Jennings "was a marginal applicant," Trilling said.

"With some hesitation, we accepted him. He was far and away the best student in a not-very-good high school," Trilling said. "His SAT scores were low," Trilling said. Jennings scored a 910 out of a possible 1600 on the SAT.

Despite the low score, "we thought he had potential [and it was] worth taking the chance," Trilling said.

Ramsey, however, said that Jennings was accepted "before the first [Wall Street Journal] article."

At the beginning of the program Jennings had "adjustment difficulties" but was eventually "acculturated and accepted by the others," Trilling said.

Jennings agreed that the adjustment was difficult at first but that he learned about "getting along with different personalities," something which helped him gain "more of a sense of who I am," he said.

Academically, Jennings "had his struggles," Ramsey said. "His expectations were very high, and he discovered that it wasn't as easy as he thought it might be," he said.

Jennings said that he had the most difficulty with physics and did best in calculus. He said that he wants to pursue mathematics as a career.

Warned against admission

During the fifth week of the program, Trilling met with students individually for "20 minutes of conversation" to discuss their performance in the program. "I don't look at academics except in a very general way," Trilling said. He said he often does not evaluate the students.

Jennings "was so focused on coming to MIT," Trilling said. "I had the option of encouraging him" but chose instead to "warn him his chances of admission were not very good," he said. "His academics were not very good."

"I didn't expect him to say what he was going to say," Jennings said. "He told me, Your records aren't good enough. Your college boards aren't good enough,' " Jennings said. "I was angry."

Trilling suggested that Jennings apply to the University of Maryland and Howard University "because they are the two best engineering schools in the greater Washington [D.C.] area." Jennings had expressed an interest in going to a college near his home if he could not attend MIT, Trilling said.

Trilling also said that he made the suggestion because the two schools are involved in a project with MIT called the Engineering Coalition of Schools for Excellence in Education and Leadership. Because of MIT's partnership in the program, "it would be easier to transfer from them" to MIT, Trilling said.

Jennings said that there were racist overtones in Trilling's suggestions, but Ramsey disagreed. "[Trilling] gave similar advice to several students," Ramsey said. Jennings was "the only one who reacted thinking it was a racist remark."

Vest responds to controversy

Vest wrote a letter to The Wall Street Journal in response to the newspaper's Sept. 22 article. "Professor Trilling has told me how sorry he is about the hurt and misunderstanding generated by his conversation with Cedric," Vest wrote.

"Acceptance to the MITES program does not mean that a student will be admitted to MIT," Vest wrote. "MIT will continue to seek out the Cedric Jennings of America in our efforts to bring talented minority students into the nation's colleges and universities."

"I don't accept Professor Trilling's apology," Jennings said. "I don't think that he should be the academic adviser [of MITES] for next year."

Though Jennings said that he liked the MITES program overall and "mainly liked the people there," MIT is no longer his top choice school. In addition to the meeting with Trilling, Jennings said, "I was turned off by the campus."

Jennings is planning to apply to 17 schools, including MIT, "to see if I can get in," he said. MIT is now "somewhere around number 10." His first choice is Brown University, where he is applying for early action, he said. "I'm going to prove them wrong," Jennings said on Nightline. "I can get into MIT."

"MITES should be more geared towards people who are in disadvantaged environments," Jennings said. "The city schools are overlooked. There should be more focus on those who really need [the program]," he said.