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Minority numbers lead to feeling of isolation

By Michael J. Garrison

Second in a series examining minority issues at MIT.

The small percentage of minority students and professors at MIT creates an atmosphere which makes many minority students feel isolated, according to Lynda M. Jordan G, chairman of the Black Graduate Student Association.

"If a minority student has to go in to a department where there are no minority faculty members, [the student will probably] have a much more difficult time trying to adjust," explained Clarence G. Williams, special assistant to the president and assistant equal opportunity officer.

"You walk into a classroom and you are the only black person there," Jordan said. "Not only are you dealing with culture shock but also ... the pressure of being an MIT student.

"It's hard to be accepted ... into study groups ... until you either prove yourself very good academically or they can get to know you as a person," she added.

Prospective minority students are often frightened away by MIT's financial aid package, according to Nelson Armstrong, associate director of admissions. "It is initially perceived as not being competitive; the self-help package looks very large."

MIT's public image presents another major barrier to minority recruitment, Armstrong said. "When the black faculty members ... , it is very easy to see MIT as being `lilly white.' "

"We're not doing as well as we would like to" attracting minority professors, Williams said. "The problem goes way beyond MIT; the numbers [of minority PhD graduates in the country] are so small."

"Who does the American Indian see to make him feel that he is not the very first to go [to MIT]?" Armstrong asked. "It's always nice to see somebody like you -- to not feel alone."

MIT's long-term plans should be based on the production of more minorities who are qualified to be professors both "here and at other institutions," Williams said. He added that the younger professors who are here now seem to be "frustrated; ... they lose their vitality and don't tend to stay."

Some departments have done better than others, Williams explained. He noted that the Physics Department has been particularly open to minorities. Others, however, "are still saying the same things they said fifteen years ago" about why they have few minority professors, he said.

"This year has seen a concerted effort with the ODSA and other groups trying to address the problem," Jordan noted. The Office of the Dean for Student Affairs held a series of public meetings on the quality of life at MIT last term. One of them focused on minority and women issues.

"I don't know if the meetings are a sign of things getting better or ... [whether the Institute is] at least recognizing the fact [that problems exist]," Jordan added.