Campus Life

Reflections of a BSU Co-Chair

Every BSU Co-Chair pioneered at least one major innovation during their tenure, and I had no idea what mine would be. Then came the wave of events across college campuses such as the University of Missouri, Yale University, and Ithaca College. I felt exposed as the MIT bubble burst and the real world slipped in — social media posts of personal friends now mirrored national news headlines. This wave hit a bit too close to home.

The BSU Political Action Committee (PAC) decided to respond with solidarity. We organized a photo for a “Blackout at MIT.” I was proud of MIT as folks gathered in Lobby 10 dressed in black on short notice, despite the drizzle, and stood silently for a photo.

Unexpectedly, an email from President Reif dinged into my inbox, asking to meet with executive board members of the BSU and Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA). It was validating to vent to the President of MIT about microaggressions, the pressure to defy stereotypes, and the seemingly numb indifference of our campus. His message was clear: “I [and by extension MIT] care deeply about the well-being of minority students.”

He left us with a call to action: “Is there any way you can send me a list of things I can help you with?” I brought the story to my best friend and fellow Chocolate City brother Alberto Hernandez, the BSU PAC, and the minority community (via email).

After some digging, Alberto found a report from January 2010 containing some ICEO recommendations from 2015, and interestingly enough, a cover letter by Reif himself. Why had MIT gone to such lengths to commission a study on the advancement of diversity and inclusion and not implemented all the institute-specific solutions, twice? The plot thickened.

We referenced the two reports as we revised our list into recommendations. Alberto presented the unfinished list to the rest of the Committee on Race and Diversity (CRD). Afterwards, he was charged up. “Bro, we gotta make sure the things we ask for are feasible, specific to MIT, and someone will actually be responsible for making them happen!”

The next few days, we started playing Infinite Corridor pinball. Between classes, Alberto and I bounced from office to office and asked MIT staff, faculty, and students how to make sure specific recommendations would be most effective. Many meetings ensued:

Lydia Snover (Institutional Research) offered snacks with her decades of expertise in creating insightful surveys.

Dean Melissa Nobles (SHASS) told us of the wealth of existing classes that cover themes of diversity and inclusion.

Dean Stu Schmill ’86 (Admissions and Financial Aid) filled us in on financial aid and minority recruitment efforts.

The PAC gave a more formal presentation on these recommendations to groups such as the BGSA, Latino Cultural Center, and LBGT@MIT.

The BSU, BGSA, Black Alumni at MIT recommendations were still unfinished when Professor Bertschinger emailed us and the BGSA, asking us to formally present them to Academic Council, the most senior leadership council at MIT. Gulp.

At the meeting, administration was encouragingly supportive. Vice President Kirk Kolenbrander went so far as to say, “Over the course of my career at MIT, there have been a few moments when I have said to myself, ‘This is going to be really important for changing the future of MIT.’ Your presentation to Academic Council was one of them.”

With this in mind, the Black Students’ Union List of Recommendations for MIT Administration went public on December 9, 2016, complete with a URL and News Office story.

Afterward, we worked with many offices to implement solutions. Chancellor Barnhart worked with Alberto, Lydia Snover’s office, and I to expand questions on diversity and inclusion into Institute-wide surveys. MIT Mental Health hired a full-time mental health clinician specializing in the African Diaspora. Department heads of math, physics, and history started writing commitments to health, diversity, and inclusion.

At times, I was afraid I had lost sight of the big picture. Professor Wes Harris asked, “What is MIT supposed to look like when the recommendations are addressed?” I still struggle to answer this question substantively. Professor Harris also warned Alberto and me, “I’ve seen students lose their minds over this. Make sure you take care of yourself.”

After all, they say MIT is a journey, but this year felt more like a voyage. Commissioned by President Reif himself, we set out on S.S. Recommendations. The sails were driven by gusts of MIT community feedback, waves were filled with self-doubt, and our trusty crew comprised friends, supporting staff, and faculty. Navigating through new spaces and working with new people left us with invaluable communication skills that could not be learned in a classroom. All this time, we struck a difficult balance between hard work and self-care.

My mother says, “You gotta love people where they’re at.” As MIT is swiftly moving to address the BSU recommendations and more, I remember her words to remind myself to advocate for collaboration across all levels, not negotiation. MIT has the opportunity to become the example for diversity and inclusion efforts in research environments and higher education. I look forward to fall 2016, eagerly waiting for what we, MIT, do next.