September/October 2021Vol. XXXIV No. 1

Mens, Manus et Cor

James H. Williams, Jr.

In 2004, to honor retiring MIT President Charles M. Vest, I published an MIT Faculty Newsletter (FNL) article entitled “A Formal Recommendation to the MIT Corporation.”  To celebrate the transcendent Vest presidency, I proposed a new MIT motto: “Mens, Manus et Cor” (Latin for “Mind, Hand and Heart”).

President Vest replied to me with a hand-written, deeply generous note of gratitude (below), followed by an emotionally stunning telephone call. 

Letter From Charles M. Vest

In 1970, by virtue of my initial faculty appointment, I had become the only native-born black American faculty member in the MIT School of Engineering. In 1990, the first year of the Charles M. Vest presidency and by means of a few comings and goings, I would soon become the only native-born black American faculty member in the combined MIT School of Engineering and MIT School of Science.

My 2004 article was a heartfelt proposal, with rights I have sought to protect and goals I have sought to pursue, including through visits to a former MIT Corporation member, dozens of emails, meetings with faculty and MIT News staff, and repeated citations, such as the dedication of one of my recent textbooks, Fundamentals of Applied Dynamics. My commitment to the priority of my proposed motto has been driven not by any benefit of my own but rather by my desire to honor a rare former leader of MIT.

Within a year of publication, my proposed motto was being widely quoted, misappropriated, and even plagiarized, notably by MIT faculty in various appearances and by MIT administrators and invited guest speakers at MIT’s annual commencement. (Except for a lone casual acknowledgment coaxed by a thoughtful former Head of Mechanical Engineering, those numerous uses and misuses were invariably, indeed doggedly, without a formal reference.) Very notably, by omitting a proper reference for the motto, the user/misuser was also omitting and undermining my objective to honor former President Vest. My 2004 article was being plundered so frequently that the MIT Faculty Newsletter Editorial Board, in its September/October 2013 edition, chose to publish a front page note to remind the MIT community of the motto’s origin and my designated goals for the motto.

Plagiarism [pley-juh-riz-uhm]; noun:
An act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author. []

Notwithstanding the 2013 FNL statement, the déclassé trickery persisted, especially at MIT Commencements – some violations of which have been deleted from the Internet. I am choosing not to cite specific examples because of likely major embarrassment to individuals and especially the Institute I cherish. Still, the totality of this misuse is a ghastly specimen of diminished academic integrity.

I have endured more than 15 years of this sick and dirty business, with obstacle after obstacle strewn along my pathway. An institution that differentially appraises the contributions of its members – even to the extent of committing coordinated theft – will increasingly radicalize those members.

Extending the current MIT motto beyond “Mens et Manus” has been a protracted and often contentious endeavor. Nonetheless I believe President L. Rafael Reif has graciously led with mind, hand and heart throughout his decades of leadership at multiple administrative levels within the Institute. On June 2, 2020, during the MIT Community Vigil, President Reif outlined his impassioned vision of a more DEI-based MIT, and on July 1, 2020 in his monumental email “Addressing Systemic Racism at MIT,” he laid the foundations of MIT’s historic opportunity to seize and implement his ardent vision.

Thus, I implore the MIT Corporation to formally amend the MIT motto in honor of Charles M. Vest and L. Rafael Reif to “Mens, Manus et Cor,” at which time, the motto that I created in 2004 will belong to us all.