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Interphase amrks 20th anniversary

By David P. Hamilton

Project Interphase, an eight-week summer program that provides newly-admitted minorities with academic and social preparation for MIT, celebrated its 20th anniversary last weekend in an event that brought an estimated 120 Interphase alumni, students, administration officials, and faculty to the Julius A. Stratton '23 Student Center.

Founded in 1969, Interphase invites fifty students to MIT each year, where they receive free room and board and a stipend for expenses. The participants divide their time between a fairly rigorous academic schedule, which includes mathematics, physics, chemistry, and writing, and a more leisurely and informal introduction to MIT and the Boston area.

The program had its origins in a set of proposals formulated by the Black Student Union in early 1968. One of the founders of the BSU and the first black woman to receive a doctorate at MIT, Shirley Jackson '68, told a panel discussion at the anniversary that one of the primary concerns of the BSU was the extraordinarily low minority representation among the student body. At the time, each class included only three to six minority students.

As a result of what President Paul E. Gray '54 called "this very concrete set of proposals," then-President Howard W. Johnson formed the Task Force on Educational Opportunity. After a year of intensive study, the task force proposed a new admissions formula, a concentrated effort to recruit minorities, a minority scholarship program, and a summer program based on an existing program, Project Epsilon. This last proposal became Project Interphase.

These efforts led to a nearly tenfold increase in the number of minorities admitted in 1969. Forty-four students attended Interphase that summer, in what task force chairman Albert Hill called "an attempt to let out the clutch gently over the summer rather than with a bang in September."

The Interphase alumni attending the anniversary generally agreed on the importance of the program and the increased self-confidence it gave them. Karl Reid '84 remembered an "exhilarating sense of accomplishment" at solving challenging problems. Others, such as Richard Williamson '85, spoke of the closeness they found in the tightly-knit Interphase community. "These people became part of my life," he said.

On the other hand, some felt that the closeness came at a price. Beverly Herbert '75 said the Interphase academics were "rougher than any regular MIT class" and that the session felt "like boot camp -- we were thrust into this position and just had to survive."

Two guest speakers provided context for the event, extending the scope of their remarks to the racial climate of the nation and the classroom. First was Julianne Marie Malveaux PhD '80, an economics graduate and a visiting scholar at Berkeley. Malveaux spoke on the economic difficulties faced by minorities after the civil rights reversals of the Reagan years.

The current bout of economic prosperity is only an illusion, Malveaux suggested, pointing out that a time when one-third of blacks and 28 percent of Hispanics live in poverty can scarcely be called "prosperous."

These conditions are the result of "deliberate" policy decisions made by governmental and business leaders, she continued. "These political decisions are slamming doors on our opportunities," she said.

Innovative programs like Interphase are the key to reversing these trends, Malveaux said. The necessity of bringing minorities into the workforce must lead to other innovations, she continued.

Gayle Pemberton, a professor of English at Bowdoin College and author of a book on teaching minority students, discussed the "image-driven assumptions" that affect classroom dynamics. She argued that professors often make one or more of the following common assumptions regarding minority students in their classrooms:

O+ that a student lacking opportunity or skill lacks ability;

O+ that ethnic students are authorities on ethnic matters, even if they are attending class in order to learn this subject matter themselves;

O+ and the corollary, that ethnic students have nothing to contribute on topics other than race and ethnicity.

Only continuous dialogue among faculty members and students can expose these assumptions and correct them, Pemberton said.