The BSU at 50
The Black Students' Union marks a half-century of making MIT more diverse.
Alice Waugh | MIT Alumni Association
October 30, 2018
Published by the MIT New Office
In 1968, the black student community at MIT was small and needed a way to amplify its voice. Formed during that tumultuous year in political and racial history in the U.S., the MIT Black Students’ Union (BSU) launched a journey of advocacy and community that now continues 50 years later.
In the late 1960s, about 11 percent of Americans were black, but each 1,000-member class at MIT had perhaps half a dozen black students. Galvanized by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., black student groups were forming at overwhelmingly white college campuses across the country, and MIT was no exception. The students who started MIT BSU had two goals in mind: to support each other and to bring more black students to the Institute. “Surely there were more than three blacks in the high school class of 1965 who could belong to the MIT tribe,” says Linda C. Sharpe ’69, one of the BSU founders, who is a past president of the MIT Alumni Association and a former MIT Corporation member.
In fall of 1968, the new group drew up and presented a list of recommendations to the MIT administration: increasing the number of black students, creating a pre-enrollment summer program for minority students, and hiring more minority faculty members. In response, MIT established the Task Force on Educational Opportunity (TFEO), which was made up of a group of BSU representatives and MIT administrators and chaired by associate provost (and future MIT president) Paul Gray ’54, SM ’55, ScD ’60. Through a series of often intense discussions, the TFEO designed the summer program, called Project Interphase, and came up with more inclusive approaches to things like recruitment, admissions, and financial aid.
“The Institute rolled up its sleeves and attacked [the recommendations] in the MIT way — that is, being very analytical about what the challenges and problems were, and then trying to figure out solutions to those challenges,” says founding BSU co-chair Shirley Ann Jackson ’68, PhD ’73, who went on to become the first black woman to earn a PhD from MIT and is now the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a life member of the MIT Corporation. “That doesn’t mean there wasn’t great emotion around it, because there really, really was on all sides.”
Other key players in the birth of the BSU were founding cochair James Turner, PhD ’71, Jennifer Rudd ’68, Charles Kidwell ’69, Nathan Seely ’70, Sekazi Mtingwa ’71, Fred Johnson ’72, and Ronald Mickens, who was a postdoctoral associate in physics.
(This is only an excerpt from the main article which can be found at the MIT News web presence.)