Mar 7 / Karith Foster

Throwback Thursday: MIT Debate

A year ago this week I was on my first ever holiday in Hawaii. It was supposed to be a week of relaxation and rejuvenation.

Like we all do (tsk tsk tsk), I checked my email, crossing my own boundaries of my OOO (out of office) decree.

I was surprised to find an urgent email from an acquaintance who led the MIT Alumni group and The MIT Free Speech Alliance. I was shocked that he was requesting that I take part in an Oxford University style debate regarding the topic: Should academic DEI be abolished?

My stand was a resounding AGAINST. While I do think serious reformation is in order I do not believe that ALL DEI should be abolished. (💥Remember this was ONE YEAR AGO - obviously so much has changed in this short time.)

Given this was with only a few short weeks' notice, I was incredibly hesitant. I hadn't debated since high school. Also why me? Sure, I created INVERSITY™, and yes, I’m a speaker and media personality, but weren't there a million other academics and active members of the higher education world that should be taking the stage instead of me?! Isn't this the hill that so many are willing to die on?

There weren't and it wasn't. And this was the problem.

There was no one from MIT or any other institution within higher education willing to stand up for DEI. No one was willing to defend their stance on it. No one was willing to risk their name, career or reputation to address a topic they are "allegedly" such staunch supporters of.

The irony was prodigious. My mind was blown. This was one of those scenarios in life when you look around expecting someone else to say something or do something then you realize they're looking at the floor or the ceiling hoping someone else will raise their hand. No one raised their hand.

So I did.

Without question this was a feel the fear and do it anyway moment. I've had plenty of those in my life. Performing stand-up on Showtime at the Apollo; agreeing to be Don Imus's co-host on his national radio and TV show "Imus in the Morning" after his grandiose faux pas with the Rutgers women's basketball team.
It was clearly a matter of, if I don't do this who will?

Fortunately, there was one other soul, Pamela Denise Long who (also not an academic) but a prolific writer Newsweek, political commentator Fox News and Principal of YouthCentrix®, who was willing to take on this task by my side.

Our opponents were two seasoned university professors who had written books and white papers on this very topic. Nothing to be intimidated by. Everything's fine.

Tensions were incredibly high the night of the event. There was concern that the very topic, which drew a full in-person crowd and thousands of virtual viewers, would be disrupted by vitriolic protesters. Should more security have been arranged? Was someone going to attempt to shout any of the panelists down? Was everyone going to be respectful of this controversial conversation?

All fears were assuaged midway through the program. It was a beautiful thing. Adults modeling for students the process and act of disagreeing peacefully and respectfully - sometimes even finding common ground and agreement with one another. That shouldn’t be a foreign concept, but it’s certainly taken a backseat in a number of academic settings.

This was an experience that reinforced three powerful life lessons for me:
1.  When no one else is willing to be the voice of what you know is right, that's a sign from The Universe that you are supposed to be that voice.
  Everything seems scarier before you do it. This rings true for EVERYONE.
Thoughtful conversation, even on the most controversial of topics will lead us to mutual respect- not necessarily agreement- but respect and a better understanding of one another.