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Facing a difficult history

Francis Amasa Walker, MIT’s third president, played a key role in advancing the American reservation system. The Institute is now grappling with his complicated legacy.

August 24, 2021
MIT President L.Rafael ReifMIT President L.Rafael Reif
Simon Simard

I have always admired the way the MIT community confronts a hard problem. We face it, study it, listen to those whose expertise and experiences might differ from our own, and develop a thoughtful solution.

For some time, we have been grappling with the legacy of MIT’s third president, Francis Amasa Walker, who led the Institute from 1881 until his death in 1897; Walker Memorial was built to honor him. A former US commissioner of Indian affairs, Walker played a major role in advancing the American reservation system, and in 1874 he published The Indian Question, a diatribe about Indigenous peoples, whom he described as “an obstacle to the national progress.” In this issue of MIT News, Simson Garfinkel ’87, PhD ’05, documents Walker’s vitriolic words and damaging policies. I urge you to read his piece as an introduction to Walker’s world view, which also included harsh rhetoric against the European immigrants of his day.

The question we are working through now is what to do with these facts, as well as other aspects of the history of MIT and Native communities.

Last year, MIT launched a class to examine the Institute’s connections to Native nations and tribal lands, the histories of Native communities in the region, and the history of MIT’s Indigenous students, faculty, and staff. Professor Craig Wilder, who also leads an exploration of MIT and the legacy of slavery, taught the class, and I attended the last session to hear directly from the students about what they had uncovered. 

What became clear to me is that addressing Walker’s legacy is an essential step in our commitment to our Native American students, alumni, and communities—but it is not the finish line.

This fall, we welcome Indigenous scholar David Lowry ’07 to fill a newly created position; he will lead this semester’s class in this ongoing exploration. In the months ahead, we will find ways for the students to share what they are learning with the whole community.  

After last spring’s students presented their work, Professor Wilder observed that we need a model for the future that will help us live up to our institution’s promises. 

I could not agree more; while we aspire to make a better world, we must also strive to make a better MIT. I look forward to learning and working with you on this hard, worthy problem in the months ahead.