Opinion guest column

On Love, Truth, and Justice at MIT

Truth-telling is a foundation to Love MIT well

These remarks were originally prepared for MIT's 48th Annual Martin Luther King Celebration Luncheon held on Feb. 10, 2022.

I Love MIT. Those are three words that I would usually never string together into a sentence. 

Yet, at this moment, I find myself at the two-and-a-half year mark of dedicating my labor to MIT as the former president of the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) and as a student representative on not one but two different institute committees working on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and public safety, respectively. I’ve organized events on these topics. I’ve been in dozens of meetings with President Reif, Institute Community Equity Officer John Dozier, Chancellor Nobles, and others whom I all respect. In reflecting on the theme for this event, I honed in on the words “truth” and “love.” I found quotes from the late feminist author bell hooks that read, “The heart of justice is truth-telling,” and “There can be no love without justice.” She uses a definition of Love from M. Scott Peck: “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” With these definitions in mind, 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. 

Ruminating further on “truth” and “love,” I came to the conclusion that to Love well, we must be willing to tell the truth. MIT’s own value statement writes that we must be willing to “speak plainly about failings in our systems.” So, it is in this spirit that I convey three inconvenient truths about the chasm between Martin Luther King Jr.’s values and MIT’s actions.

Truth number one: The truth is MIT is an institute of higher learning and a global leader in research with a well-intentioned community, BUT,  quoting MIT professor Ed Bertschinger (who was the first institute community equity officer), MIT is also comprised of a board of trustees known as “The Corporation” with its own agenda and internal politics that resists any change that would redress severe power imbalances. In my experiences working with senior administration, I’ve often been one of less than a handful of students on 25–30 person committees, despite students making up nearly half of the MIT population. My peers and I have fought for increased decision-making power as committee co-chairs, but even in the case where we do have a student as a co-chair, we are not privy to relevant documents nor do we have decision-making power or influence on meeting times. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of an integration that was not merely a “romantic mixing of colors” but a “real sharing of power and responsibility.” At MIT, we aren’t sharing nearly enough power or responsibility.

Truth number two: The truth is MIT released its boldest Climate Action Plan in 2021, BUT it is still a shareholder in fossil fuels that continue to produce climate change impacts disproportionately affecting Black, brown and indigenous people. I’m Nigerian by heritage. Since 2010, the Shell oil company, which MIT has received donations from, has leaked over 17.5 million liters of oil into the Niger Delta region, where my mother grew up — that’s roughly seven Olympic-size swimming pools of oil. This is personal, and this is just a snapshot of the global devastation caused by fossil fuels. How can MIT hope to achieve its mission to “make a better world” while actively engaging with companies that poison the water and land in communities all over the world? This is an overt complicity in unbridled capitalism, which King despised and believed has “outlived its usefulness.”

Truth number three: The truth is MIT does have a model of working with graduate students that has produced some positive change, BUT this model often moves at a snail's pace to accommodate those with the most privilege or ignores inconvenient truths and inconvenient recommendations. I’ll offer the example of the yet-to-be-completed five year Strategic Action Plan to address DEI for the years 2021–2026. Wait … isn’t it 2022? The pace of change and mistreatment student leaders have experienced  using existing MIT models have left over 2500 grad workers with the conviction that we need a graduate student union to secure legally-binding, lasting change. On Feb. 1, the chancellor and provost sent out an email communicating MIT’s stance, that they believe “MIT’s long-standing partnership with graduate students is a better path forward than unionization.” To that, I will paraphrase King, who was enthusiastically pro-union. In fact, he was assassinated at a labor union-organizing campaign. He says “our needs are identical with labor’s needs. That is why the labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.” As anti-negro epithets may not be as common today, I’ll summarize the core of King’s stance in a different way — rhetoric that is not enthusiastically pro-labor union cannot be enthusiastically anti-racist.

These three truths may seem unrelated, but they are all connected through issues of capital and hierarchy. The truth is, the bottleneck to progress at MIT is not a lack of knowledge or resources; it is an administration infatuated with wealth and intoxicated by power. It’s an aversion to truth-telling, and a scarcity of agape love; it’s power without love, which, in King’s words, is “reckless and abusive.”

I Love MIT. Those are three words that I would usually never string together into a sentence. But, I am committed to the spiritual, and moral, and ethical growth of MIT. I’m practicing my love by telling these inconvenient truths. 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 towards justice.

Ufuoma Ovienmahda is a fourth-year graduate student-worker in AeroAstro and served as a co-President of the BGSA for two-and-a-half years.