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Institute Committee Addresses Race Relations in Guide

By Daniel C. Stevenson
Associate News Editor

"Race relations is everybody's business, not someone else's responsibility," wrote Associate Provost for the Arts Ellen T. Harris in the introduction of the recently released Guide to Studies in Racial, Ethnic, and Intercultural Relations.

Harris serves as chair of the Committee on Race Relations, which was established last spring by President Charles M. Vest. The committee grew out of an ad hoc working committee on race relations which had been meeting for several years, according to Mary E. Ni, a committee member and assistant dean for residence and campus activities.

"As a first step in our efforts, the committee offers this guide of subjects at MIT dealing with racial, ethnic and intercultural relations, or providing background information useful to these relations," Harris said.

The guide includes a listing of 52 courses including foreign language classes and freshman advisor seminars which address these issues.

Small grants program started

Along with the course listing, the guide also describes a new small grants program designed to "assist members of the community in planning activities to enhance racial and cultural relations at the Institute," Harris said.

The committee is particularly interested in proposals for projects "containing new, creative, and innovative approaches to improving race relations," the guide said. Projects could include curricular enrichment, residence-based activities, small workshops, artistic events, and outside speakers.

One goal of the small grants program is "for us to start soliciting ideas from the MIT community to see what kind of interests people have" regarding race relations, Ni said.

Projects funded by the grants should try to "promote goodwill and encourage people to interact and be willing to hear things from another perspective," said Christopher M. Gittins G, a member of both the current committee and its ad hoc predecessor.

"I think people need to have things of common interest to bring them together," Gittins said. There is a need for activities "where people can talk and exchange ideas so they end up developing mutual respect," he said.

"I'd like to see things changed concretely" as a result of the work the committee sponsors, Gittins said.

PBE incident sparked committee

Following a national video conference several years ago, Susan D. Allen, assistant dean for residence and campus activities, worked with others to form an ad hoc group "to look at the issue of race relations because we knew there were some problems," Ni said. The group met every few weeks on an informal basis, she said.

"And then, the PBE incident happened and race became more of a campus issue," Ni said, referring to an incident on March 13, 1993 when racial slurs were shouted at four black students from a PBE window.

The idea to form a committee was proposed to Vest and was officially created last spring, Ni said.

Although plans to create a more formal group were already in the works, the PBE incident created "a greater sense of urgency," Gittins said. "The timing of that incident was ironic."

Ni to teach new course

An important aspect of the committee is that many of the members work with race relations in their current administrative capacities, Ni said.

As an example, Ni is teaching a new freshman advising seminar entitled "The Asian-American Experience." Ni said she is teaching the seminar because she feels that "the issues of Asian students have sort of been neglected by the Institute."

While Asian students make up about 30 percent of the student population, "there are really not a lot of resources for them to look at their own experience," Ni said. "They only learn about sort of a Western, white-Anglo historical perspective."

The course will be most helpful for "students who would be interested in looking at what it means to be Asian and Asian-American in America and at MIT," Ni said.