As the number of international students surges at major Boston colleges, the percentage of black students remains small by comparison, a trend that black students say leaves them feeling isolated on campuses that trumpet diversity.
At Boston University, MIT, Northeastern, and Tufts, only 3 percent of students are black, according to the most recent federal data. The numbers are slightly higher at Harvard University, Boston College, and Suffolk University, while nationwide, 15 percent of college students are black.
The emotionally fraught subject of racial diversity surfaced on one local campus this week with news that BU plans to shutter its African Presidential Center, prompting the center’s director, Charles Stith, to charge that the school lacks commitment to issues concerning black people. The college denies the assertion, and says the 14-year-old center has failed to sustain itself financially.
At campuses in and around Boston, the universities say they are striving to attract diverse student bodies, saying a broadly representative campus fosters deeper social connections and preparation for the global economy. But they contend it is difficult to recruit significant numbers of black students to dramatically increase the percentages.
Some black students describe a “culture shock” as they discover they are an extreme minority. In interviews on several local campuses this week, students said they are often the only black students in class and feel a duty to represent black people as a whole.
“I definitely felt my skin color and that I was different like never before,” said Rahel Tebo, a sophomore at Boston University of Ethiopian heritage who graduated from an Atlanta high school where white students were the minority.
“It’s very easy to feel uncomfortable,” said Jaisun Lewinski, a fourth-year Northeastern student from New Jersey.
Lewinski and others at Northeastern said they rely on the African-American cultural center on campus as a safe space to discuss racial issues, especially this year amid protests in Ferguson, Mo., and other cities following the deaths of black people at the hands of police. The events have prompted more genuine dialogue — and activism — about race on campuses, they said.
“It was hard at first to have this campus be my second home,” said Northeastern freshman Henoss Taddesse.
At BU, the alma mater of Martin Luther King Jr., some black students, alumni, and faculty say the city’s largest university should better reflect the make-up of the city, where 24 percent of residents are black. Tebo and other black students say the racial makeup of the college has indeed prepped them for the “real world,” but not necessarily in ways they imagined.
“You have to kind of force yourself to make friends with different types of people,” said Tebo, the Atlanta native.
Because there are so few black students on area campuses, the students say they often seek camaraderie off-campus, leading to the creation of a group called the Boston Black Student Network. The group holds events aimed at uniting black college students.
“The lack of diversity on campus really led us to go to those other schools and try to connect,” said 2009 BU graduate Andrew Jones, who came from a diverse high school in Brooklyn. “It was frustrating.”
Race also affects social situations, said Harvard sophomore Sidni Frederick. Parties are often unofficially segregated, causing members of minority groups like Frederick, who is black, to question whether they will feel comfortable in events their white friends attend.
Over the past year, however, Harvard students began to discuss race more openly, Frederick said, launching the “I, too, am Harvard” photo campaign and a magazine, Renegade.
Black students at Boston College described similar difficulties, both academic and cultural, on campus. They have pressed for African diaspora studies to be offered as a major instead of a minor, and for classes in that department to count toward general education requirements.
A review of enrollment statistics also found the portion of international students at eight area schools ranges from 8 percent to 29 percent.
Administrators at area colleges and universities say they are devoted to increasing diversity, and that they are working to improve it. BU devotes two admissions officers to recruit students deemed to be “under-represented minorities” — which includes Hispanic and Pacific Islander students. It has forged relationships with community groups in urban areas to identify talented students and encourage them to apply.
As a result, the number of BU students from under-represented minorities more than doubled over the past decade, to 24 percent of students.
Since 2013 the percentage of black undergraduates at BU has risen to 4 percent, according to BU, and 4.6 percent of the incoming Class of 2019 are black.
“The data shows important progress,” said Jean Morrison, BU’s provost and chief academic officer.
The challenge, Morrison and other administrators say, is that the pool of academically qualified black students is slim, and competition for them is fierce among top institutions in Boston and elsewhere.
“It is a pipeline problem,” Morrison said.
Critics also point to the low representation of black full-time faculty at BU, which has risen less than one percent over the past three decades and now stands at 2.8 percent. Overall, 7.4 percent of BU faculty are considered members of under-represented minority groups. Among local large private colleges, only Boston College had a smaller percentage of minority faculty.
BU administrators attribute the minimal increase to a widening job market that pulls minority faculty to more lucrative, private sector jobs.
Shaun Harper, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies diversity in higher education, questioned the notion that there are not enough qualified black students or minority professors to recruit.
He said the problem for many colleges, not just in Boston, stems from poor recruitment and lack of encouragement from high school guidance counselors, who might tell students that “kids from here don’t go to places like Harvard.”
Local universities could also do more, Harper said, to scrub away racist stereotypes about Boston lingering from the busing crisis in the 1970s and ’80s, which might deter some students from applying.
Other schools are also showing results.
At Suffolk University, the percentage of black students increased over the past five years, from 3 percent to 6 percent, federal data show. That took intention and legwork, said Nicole Price, the college’s chief diversity and inclusion officer.
Suffolk recruits in Boston public schools and two-year colleges and has created programs to help minority students succeed once they arrive on campus, since many are the first in their families to go to college. Law school students also teach in local schools, giving youths a chance to mix with college students. “You have to plant the seed,” Price said.
At Harvard, the number of black faculty increased by a quarter, or 10 people, in the past decade, and overall faculty diversity grew by 50 percent, according to the college. Twelve percent of undergraduate students at Harvard are black.
Northeastern’s president, Joseph Aoun, in 2013 created a special council to foster discussion about diversity and encourage interaction on campus.
“We as a university wanted to do more,” said Uta Poiger, co-chairwoman of the council and dean of Northeastern’s College of Social Sciences.
Boston College accepts some minority students with lower scores and invites them to a six-week summer boot camp to prepare them for college, said BC spokesman Jack Dunn. The school is also able to compete for minority students by not considering students’ financial situations, thus in many cases guaranteeing more aid than other schools can, he said.
At BU, Stith’s recent allegation was not the first time the college had faced questions about diversity. In an unusual public spat last year, Councilor Tito Jackson compelled President Robert Brown to testify before the body about student and employee diversity. Jackson says he plans to examine diversity at all local universities because they should be institutions that help city residents.
Professor Linda Heywood, who teaches African-American studies and history at BU, said some of her black students express a sense of alienation even as she tries to engage them about the city’s rich black history, including its role in the Underground Railroad.
“We have to do more to make them feel part of the university,” she said.
Contact Laura Krantz at firstname.lastname@example.org.