When Boston College denied former professors Ed Reynolds and Charles Smith tenure in 1973, the BC Black Forum crafted a petition that called the decision “an extension of racist policy.”
“The university only has four black faculty and will lose two of them,” the petition read. “Last year there were seven and with only four this year there was a net loss of three. Boston College has displayed increasing neglect in luring and recruiting of Black faculty. The denial of tenure to Dr. Ed Reynolds and Dr. Charles Smith were the last of a series of racial insults.”
Despite the University’s decision, Smith did not leave BC. He went on to work at BC until 1996, when he became the first-ever Black faculty member to retire from BC as a tenured professor.
Throughout his career, he pioneered new programs and advocated for his peers by founding the Black Faculty, Staff and Administrators Association (BFSAA)—an affinity group with a vision to “promote the well-being and advancement of employees of African descent at all levels of the Boston College community,” according to the association’s website.
Since 1973, the number of Black professors at BC has substantially increased. The BFSAA continues to carry out Smith’s vision by providing professional and emotional support to all of BC’s Black employees. This academic year marks the group’s 50th anniversary.
“I think that even though life may be different now than in the 1970s, Black faculty and staff at BC are still a small percentage of the employees at BC, so that same sense of isolation is possible,” Akua Sarr, former co-chair of the BFSAA, said in an email to The Heights. “We are still very aware of ourselves as being Black at a predominately white institution—so the association responds to that reality.”
The group hosts monthly meetings, speaker series, a yearly retreat, and its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Breakfast. These events are guided by the BFSAA’s goal to foster Black excellence and leadership, the association’s website reads.
“BFSAA strives to create an inclusive community where the perspectives of employees of African descent are valued,” the website reads. “We aspire to promote a culture of Black excellence and leadership at BC.”
Claire Johnson, current co-chair of the BFSAA, said that the monthly BFSAA meetings last about an hour and highlight a different topic or guest speaker each time.
“Sometimes we bring in folks from other departments of the University who have information that we think could be useful, sometimes we want to spotlight one of our own if they’re doing something like really neat and unique,” Johnson said. “If there’s an event or something we want to cover, or get ideas on, that’s what we’ll do.”
While the BFSAA focuses on professional resources, Sarr emphasized the benefits of the group’s emotional support when it promotes Black employees’ careers at BC.
“For many of us, we may be one of the only Black people in our department, so it’s nice to get to know other Black employees across campus,” Sarr said. “This kind of emotional support, we think, helps to promote the advancement, retention and well-being of Black employees.”
According to its website, the BFSAA upholds seven values, including care, collaboration, commitment, community, development, integrity, and leadership. The association espouses its values in all that it does, Johnson said in an email to The Heights.
“Whether it is the care extended to new members of the BFSAA, the commitment community found in our yearly retreat, or the leadership opportunities offered through serving on the executive board, our values are intrinsic to who we are and how we connect with one another,” Johnson said.
The BFSAA is open to any University employee who identifies as having Black ancestry, Johnson said. As a new BC employee, Johnson said she intentionally joined the BFSAA, as she had prior experience with the benefits of affinity groups in professional settings.
“I realized as a professional, I have to be much more intentional in seeking out and creating spaces for myself,” Johnson said. “So, I knew coming into BC that I needed to see what affinity groups were offered—if there were affinity groups offered—and then very much took it upon myself, and I was like ‘Oh BFSAA, say less.’”
Karen Miller, who taught African American history at BC from 1990 to 2022, said that when she joined the BFSAA, she was looking for a source of advice, but appreciated the group’s networking opportunities and tips on how to advance her career.
“I would never expect to know the president or the various chief financial officers, or various people in the hierarchy of BC administration, but BFSAA would invite those people to come and talk about the University,” Miller said. “They would also talk about, ‘Well these things are going on,’ or what they suggested for people looking for promotions.”
Miller said that during her 30 years of employment at BC, she saw the BFSAA evolve through its advocacy work.
“At first it was just sort of building the organization and grooming leadership, and then it was ‘What are the limits?,” Miller said. “Then we advocated for all levels of people within the University to bring their concerns to people who were in a position to do something about them.”
Johnson said that the BFSAA has allowed her colleagues to make new connections and strengthen old bonds, especially as BC has grown in size through the years.
“I think certainly as the University has grown obviously, everybody’s needs grow—student needs grow, professional needs grow, faculty needs grow, and you know, certainly all the organizations from every level from students all the way up,” Johnson said. “Everybody’s always trying to adjust to what’s new or what’s salient, and the BFSAA is no different.”
Reflecting on the association’s 50th anniversary, Sarr said she finds it hard to believe that the BFSAA was established half a century ago.
“BFSAA has gotten a tremendous amount of support from the university and we’ve been a model for other affinity groups on campus,” Sarr said. “So, I feel a sense of pride and gratitude that we’ve been going strong for 50 years.”
Johnson attributed the BFSAA’s 50th anniversary to its dedication to others—both in and out of the group.
“As support for Black students and other students of color have been essential to their success, so too has support for Black faculty, staff, and administrators,” Johnson said. “Our anniversary is a testament of our commitment to not only the Heights community, but also to one another’s success.”
Karyl Clifford contributed to reporting.