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MITES dispute attracts national media attention

By Stacey E. Blau

The experiences of a Washington D.C. high school senior at an MIT summer program for minority students attracted national media attention over a controversy with racial overtones.

Cedric Jennings, a black resident of a poor and drug-ridden section of the nation's capital, attended the Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science program last summer.

MITES is a rigorous program that crams into six weeks what most MIT freshmen go through in one semester. Students take classes in calculus, chemistry, physics, robotics, and writing.

The controversy centered on a conversation between Leon Trilling, a professor emeritus of aeronautics and astronautics and academic adviser to the program, and Jennings. Trilling met with Jennings and other students at the end of the program to advise them about college plans. Trilling told Jennings that his chances of admission to MIT were not good, and he should consider applying elsewhere, Trilling said.

Jennings claimed that Trilling's remarks were racist, and one of several articles in The Wall Street Journal suggested that MITES catered to minority students who come from affluent families, prompting a response from President Charles M. Vest. Jennings' life and experiences at the MITES program were also chronicled on the Oct. 6 ABC television news show Nightline.

Program specifically for minorities

The MITES program is "designed specifically 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.

Applicants are picked on the basis of good Scholastic Aptitude Test scores or good transcripts, according to William H. Ramsey '51, the former director of MITES. Ramsey died last month of a heart attack at the age of 67.

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

Jennings' admission was partly influenced by the publicity generated by the first article printed in The Wall Street Journal, according to Trilling. Jennings "was a marginal applicant," he 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," he said, explaining that Jennings scored a 910 out of possible 1600 on the SAT.

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

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."

During the fifth week of the program, Trilling met with students individually for "20 minutes of conversation" to discuss their performance in the program, he said.

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

Jennings didn't expect warning

"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."

Jennings said that there were racist overtones in Trilling's statements, but Trilling called the charge unreasonable. "All the other students were also minority members, and none of them reacted in this way," Trilling said.

"MIT is a competitive, performance-oriented institute," he said. Prospective candidates must "give some evidence that they can hack it. The performance of Mr. Jennings did not give us that sense."

"If I meant to put him down, I would have had a perfunctory interview," Trilling said. "I tried as honestly as I could" to advise Jennings about his chances, Trilling said. "The objective was probably the right one. The execution turned out to be inadequate."

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 Jenningses of America in our effort to bring talented minority students into the nation's colleges and universities."

Jennings goes to Brown

"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."

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

After MITES ended, Jennings changed his opinions about the colleges to which he was planning to apply. MIT was no longer his first choice. Jennings applied early to Brown University and was admitted in December.

Jennings plans to major in mathematics and minor in computer science and receive teaching certification. His experiences at the MITES program and his conversation with Trilling "are not important. I don't think about it anymore," Jennings said.

"I didn't even apply to MIT," he said.