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Meeting Discusses MIT Race Relations

Community Leaders Search for Solutions

By Shankar Mukherji


About 80 members of the MIT community gathered in Wong Auditorium Monday for a forum entitled “Building a Better Community: Looking Beyond the ATO Incident.”

The forum, sponsored by the Committee on Campus Race Relations (CCRR), was arranged in response to a racially charged exchange between the hip-hop band The Roots and members of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity on April 27.

Professor Thomas A. Kochan, chairman of the CCRR, opened the discussion by calling the confrontation between ATO and The Roots “unfortunate, inappropriate, and one that deserves our time to reflect on.

“It is important for us to come together [and] continue our rich discussion,” Kochan said.

According to Kochan, who served as moderator of the forum, the express objective of the event was to carry a message that “[the MIT community] can live together, work together, and most importantly learn together and make [the incident] a teachable moment.”

Vest stresses value of diversity

MIT President Charles M. Vest offered his welcoming remarks to those in attendance, saying that “[MIT] must draw strength and joy from our diversity.”

“At MIT we are part of a community, and we must protect every member of the community,” Vest said.

Vest noted that the campus has witnessed two controversies marked by racial overtones this academic year. In addition to the incident at the ATO house, Cambridge License Commission Chairman Benjamin C. Barnes took issue with a characterization published in The Toke, a satirical publication released by several members of The Tech last December.

“We are, from time to time, guilty of plain thoughtlessness,” Vest said. “We can and must recognize these powerful warning signs. Racism, sexism, national chauvanism, and homophobia do not belong at an institution devoted to learning.”

Institute leaders discuss views

Following an informational update from Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict, several leaders from the Institute community spoke to the forum about how they perceived the April incident and what they felt needed to be accomplished.

Professor Steven R. Lerman, Chair of the Faculty, was the first to speak. “It reflects on the best traditions of the MIT community that we are having this forum,” said Lerman. “The goal is to see this single event as part of the larger context ... [and] we are capable of being much better than we are.”

Lerman, referring to the final report submitted by the Task Force on Student Life and Learning in 1998, noted that one of the core principles important to students was “the value of diversity.”

“We must not just tolerate diversity but celebrate it,” Lerman said. “Diversity is not something we should cope with but draw strength from.”

Alpha Tau Omega President Erik M. Glover ’02 offered the support of his organization for activities such as the forum.

“Hopefully we can use these events as a catalyst for positive change and heightened cultural awareness,” Glover said.

The fraternity president outlined some of the changes the house made in response to the incident, including fall term sensitivity training and the suspension of the two brothers responsible for the inflammatory remarks.

Associate Dean for Counseling and Support Services Ayida Mthembu spoke to the audience as “a person who has worked very hard on this issue.”

“We’ve done some innovative programming,” Mthembu said, “but [sometimes] ... I felt like I was in this alone.” Mthembu, who is one of the original members of the Campus Committee on Race Relations commissioned in 1994, she was saddened by the Spring Weekend incident but that it inspired her to challenge the MIT community to discuss issues of race and equality more openly.

“Sometimes I felt minimally supported [when I brought these issues up]. We have to find a way to overcome these attitudes in which people feel entitled to do this. We need to build a structure which gives support [to minorities on campus].”

Echoing some of the concerns brought up by Dean Mthembu, outgoing Undergraduate Associate Vice Chair Zhelinrentice L. Scott ’00 said that she has “experienced resentment of [her] presence here as a black woman.

“These issues have been on my radar screen for a long time,” Scott said. “MIT has come a long way toward encouraging pluralistic values ... [and] I hope you all become ambassadors and stand up for what is right.”

Graduate Student Council President Dilan A. Seneviratne G continued on a theme raised by other speakers when he said, “Let [MIT] be a model for the rest of the world.

“We need to develop a meta-awareness, if you will,” said Seneviratne, “that our diversity has on our daily lives and development.”

Other speakers included Undergraduate Association President Jaime E. Devereaux ’02 and Vice President of Human Resources Laura Avakian.

Attendees given chance to speak

After the opening speeches, the audience was divided into small groups which discussed possible avenues of improvement in areas of racial sensitivity.

Sergeant Cheryl N. Vossmer of the Campus Police said, “We need to get to those who aren’t willing to listen. We also need to reassess the freshman housing situation, especially regarding the role of diversity during orientation.”

Continuing on the housing theme, Lynn A. Roberson, a program administrator with the Office of Counseling and Support Services, said that “at MIT we’re not known for excellence of character, fraternities in particular.” Roberson also emphasized the need for faculty and staff training, especially for those who wish to serve as role models to the student body.

Among the more provocative ideas floated by the forum attendees included waving tuition in order to increase diversity on campus and drafting a central code of conduct, similar to Dartmouth College, by which the student body would abide. “Is there any way to put this central vision [of what is expected of an MIT student] on paper?” asked outgoing UA President Peter A. Shulman ’01.

Forum attendee Annamarie Bautista ’03 said that “there was communication at all levels, and that we were forced to engage in self-reflection and to redefine our priorities for our community.

“This is just a first step,” said Bautista. “We must have an plan for action and mobilization.”