The sciences at Brandeis: Why we must do better
An open letter to the Division of Science:
About one month before the world changed, still in the midst of my final semester as a student and as the Division’s first Lead Undergraduate Departmental Representative, an associate dean had emailed me in regards to a workshop she attended about efforts to reform undergraduate STEM education, hosted by the Association of American Universities. The initiative is driven by a mission to improve the quality of instruction in science courses and to enhance student retention in STEM fields. Drawing experts from the many niches of higher education, the workshop saw educators from a Midwestern flagship university present the results of an exercise in which students responded to the following prompt:
Take some time to reflect on some of the concerns you may have about taking [introductory biology]. What do you think will be difficult or challenging for you? These concerns may be about course content, navigating resources, working in groups, interacting with your TA or professor, and so on.
A similar activity had asked graduating seniors to look back on having completed introductory science classes. Students expressed both positive and negative feelings, of feeling burnt-out, overwhelmed, or embarrassed to ask questions, and reported learning from mistakes, having an “aha!” moment, and becoming an advocate for oneself. Equally illuminating was a task posed to course instructors:
Imagine that one year from now, a freshman student who is enrolled in [introductory physics] says to you: “I’m really worried that I’m going to struggle in this physics course. How can I do well in this class?” Please write a paragraph to this student that includes at least three concrete suggestions that you believe will help them succeed in [introductory physics].
The workshop also discussed the use of an intervention to cultivate a sense of belonging in college, with mention of the potential difficulties associated with living in a new place, making friendships, and finding one’s way in a new academic environment. I did not immediately respond to the dean’s email that February, or to her question of whether I had observed any of our faculty incorporate attitudes of inclusive excellence in their pedagogy. That is not to say that I had no answer. In fact, taken as a reply to that message, this letter will state that I have found such attitudes few and far between at Brandeis.
Later, as the nation roiled from an ongoing public health crisis and many were forced to confront the dreadful consequences of racism that persist even today, I was led to reconsider the subject of equity and inclusivity in STEM subjects, as well as its particular relevance to Brandeis. We assert a sense of community due to our small size, yet I ask just how attuned to each other — and to our students — we as a university actually are. My hope for this letter is that it will be one of many stimuli that will empower us to get to grips with issues of race, diversity and inclusion, both in the Division and across the institution.
Of course, words matter. So an exegesis of our problem would be incomplete without defining terms like “minority” and “underrepresented.” It is useful to define the first of these labels according to a federal statute on the Department of Education’s Minority Science and Engineering Improvement Program (20 U.S.C. §1067k), as “American Indian, Alaskan Native, Black (not of Hispanic origin), Hispanic (including persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Central or South American origin), Pacific Islander or other ethnic group underrepresented in science and engineering.” The term “underrepresented” can more expansively refer to these populations as well as women, persons with disabilities and those of lower-income and other disadvantaged backgrounds. In more contemporary usage is the acronym BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color).
That said, I can now cut to the chase: we are letting down many of our underrepresented students in STEM. The underlying illness, insofar as I have diagnosed it, is twofold: first, due to bias, lack of awareness and misguided views about competency in science, we are precluded from establishing anti-racist policies, extensive support structures or inclusive practices of the kind that the dean brought to my attention; second, the importance of this support is yet to attain an acceptable level of recognition or appreciation among our faculty. Higher education has the added virtue of coercing into passive silence these same students, who cannot, after all, unleash their impatient frustration because they feel — as I often have — a sense of being indebted to professors and staff, whom, unless proven otherwise, we are led to assume are acting in our best interest as students. But opportunities are rarely advertised as coming with an under-informed academic, let alone one humble enough to admit to being under-informed. It does not help that we are so inclined to mention these students in press releases or in grant applications so that we can keep telling ourselves that we are doing a good job.
The problem runs deep. It is rooted in what has often been called the meritocracy myth in science. Few would disagree with the position that good work should be rewarded and that competition can be healthy, yet this is precisely what has buffered the most damaging aspects of the myth from fair criticism, as though to call them into question would amount to slander against the integrity of science. The branch of this myth that extends into the training of undergraduates, which I call the “meritocratic extreme” in science education, includes the following: (1) a set of loosely related approaches that emphasizes traditional lecture-heavy instruction, immoderate competition and high-stakes exams combined with high stress; (2) the belief that high attrition is desirable because it means that incapable students are disallowed from further progress in science and, moreover, that this exclusion is necessary to sustain a capable scientific workforce; (3) an inability to link unsatisfactory student outcomes to anything other than a deficit in aptitude or diligence. These features have contributed to an unwelcoming climate in many STEM programs across the country, including those at Brandeis.
Consider, for example, a statement that appears on the Chemistry department’s website: “Student success in introductory chemistry depends primarily on two things, skills and commitment. The latter is up to you, but we can help you with the former.” Both factors stress the agency of the student, and although success may depend inalterably on them, a more austere interpretation would suggest that the successful student’s experience can be reduced completely to these two factors and that “we” bear little or no accountability to promote an environment where student engagement can be better cultivated. If we accept this assessment and then were to observe that a disproportionate number of Brandeis students from underrepresented groups do not fare well in General Chemistry or in some other course, it becomes all too tempting to conclude that this is due to some “natural order” in which privileged white men are intrinsically better able to show skill or engagement in STEM subjects. Purporting to produce top scientists only after everyone who is ostensibly incapable has been purged in a “culture of high standards and high stress,” the meritocratic extreme is injurious to the retention of students from all performance levels, and ends up doing a special disservice to women and minority students, a detriment to the scientific enterprise. In passing remarks, I have seen our professors pay homage to this unhealthy culture and I have found it highly disconcerting when, for instance, a professor would compare missed points on an exam to “lost blood,” or state that a particular course is something to be “suffered through.” Rather menacingly, this culture also plays into the hands of the terribly common directive for “Black students, fellows, staff and faculty members to simply ‘fix’ their feelings [in response to anti-Blackness], rather than demand transformation of the institution.” Who among us is taking notice of this disgrace? Why haven’t we done anything substantial about it?
The meritocratic extreme presents a barrier to positive faculty-student interactions and the adoption of more inclusive, engaging, and nurturing teaching practices. Aside from the fact that the classroom is not the controlled setting some think it is, one phenomenon that eludes simple explanation is that even actions professors consider beneficial to minority students can be considered, not unreasonably, examples of hostile intent. In a study of Black, Latina and American Indian women, “[subjects] felt that professors who asked difﬁcult questions without ﬁrst establishing a rapport were trying to trap them; mentors who focused their interactions on the processes of science (rather than on the students’ needs and questions) were uncaring and possibly racist; and silence about race, gender, and ethnicity reinforced an assumption that these characteristics do not belong in science.” At Brandeis, there are those — even instructors of entry-level courses — who have turned office hours into nothing short of an ordeal. That’s disappointing, because it has been suggested that the introductory chemistry sequence strongly affects whether underrepresented students persist in STEM. Students have described to me the slightings they have endured — one went so far as to report being “traumatized” — by such a course, sometimes attributing the anguish directly to a poor relationship with the professor, and raising the question of why we still have faculty who subscribe to the notion that “rigor is correlated with how many people are weeded out.” Friction also arises from a lack of patience or an unwarranted use of language that abases students for not understanding the very material that they believed office hours could help them learn. Some are told tactlessly that they should reconsider aspirations of medical school. Why is this dynamic allowed to persist? Why aren’t incidents of this kind adequately addressed?
Some faculty put their own peculiar spin on the meritocratic extreme in order to motivate and to prompt, almost relentlessly, students to evaluate for themselves what exactly they need to work on. When applied carelessly — that is, with minimal attention given to the history, character or learning modalities of the individual student — this strategy will lead you to ignore that there exist very real structural inequalities that influence whether a student continues to pursue science. Who exactly is the meritocratic extreme supposed to benefit if the underrepresented may already enter your classroom with a heightened sense of inadequacy and insecurity, a nagging hypersensitivity to the idea that one is not doing as one should?
In truth, some of our departments are in need of a serious, searching conversation about how they engage with students and how to make that engagement healthier. With a frequency too great to be ignored, students have expressed to me that they found one or multiple members of the faculty unapproachable. I remember meeting with a department chair to discuss a possible major, in addition to my career plans after Brandeis. I betrayed a very conspicuous apprehension during our chat because I had worried about my performance, and I stated something about the need to pursue an unconventional path in science. The wiser response would have been to probe further into why I felt that way, not to shut down my concerns in a blustering cry that “there is no conventional path” to such advancement. Still other interactions, involving even those whom I would otherwise consider capable instructors, were abrasive and really rather unpleasant. A few indicated no interest in an engagement that was more than transactional or one which would foster meaningful conversation about my aspirations and reasons for pursuing them. It is therefore clear to me that certain faculty take their sense of fellowship with science for granted and, moreover, that we have yet to cure ourselves of those features of the meritocracy myth which have long excluded underrepresented groups from participation in STEM fields.
The problem is also seen in the glaring paucity of professors who demonstrate the ideals of diversity and inclusion that we so dutifully proclaim in job descriptions and grant proposals. Enabled by a dysfunctional campus climate, this issue continues despite years of concern. It would be wise to transcend lip service and commit more seriously to recruiting diverse individuals. Read and acknowledge the harm that is wrought by their absence, including the perception that a minority student’s success somehow depends on the extraordinary altruism of a white male academic. Of the professorial positions filled by our departments that start this academic year, I can identify only one that has gone to a person of color. “Well, we’d like to have more, but they just don’t apply.” Where are you searching? Are you being strategic or merely posting the listing to HigherEdJobs? Are you intentionally scouting Black and other POC talent by asking colleagues, attending conferences or any other means? I have no official statistics on this, but an informal count taken from department websites finds that the tally of professors with Black, Hispanic/Latinx, or American Indian backgrounds currently looks like this: Neuroscience (zero), Psychology (one), Computer Science (zero), Mathematics (zero), Biology (zero), Chemistry (zero), Biochemistry (zero), Physics (zero, one having just left). If that is accurate, it would mean that these groups are represented in 1.7% out of an estimated 117 tenure-track faculty. Breathtaking in its audacity is the troubling message we may be sending — that what it takes to become a scientist is, apparently, to come from a certain kind of background. The barrier to positive faculty-student connections is all the greater given this institutional shame. Is it any wonder that students of color may complain of lacking support or of having few role models among your ranks?
I emphasize what is arguably the most straightforward way of helping to close the opportunity gap in the Division — bringing in more Black and non-Black POC faculty — because studies have convincingly argued that greater diversity among faculty leads not only to more innovative research but also to better outcomes for students. It would be marginally less objectionable if our existing faculty were on the same page when it comes to issues of diversity and inclusion. Unfortunately, that also seems too much to expect. The burden of these problems is haphazardly distributed, resting only on a select few while the rest seem to find the matter inconsequential. The result is a patchwork mesh — a sieve rather than a watertight mantle — that most prominently surrounds the few support structures we have in place and the influence of those faculty who verifiably recognize the importance of the cause. Here is my point: you cannot outsource the burden of these issues to these programs or these few professors, nor to Academic Services or the Counseling Center, which are too far removed from your activities as scientists and science educators. Adherence to the meritocratic extreme is no harmless folly; it is an abetment to privilege.
At present, the onus of advocating for underrepresented students in our Division lies overwhelmingly on the students themselves (this letter is one example), with alarmingly few faculty or administrators who are demonstrably willing to step up to the plate and become more proactive in offering assistance and working to counter biases in themselves or in others. The sustained failure of the Division to properly deal with our problem has allowed for instances of tokenism, stereotype threat and gatekeeping. It’s still too common for Black and Brown students to be arbitrarily grouped together during recitation sections, a failure to recognize their individuality. The weight of these issues — often invisible to over-represented groups in academia and science — is exhausting, and continued inaction will only prolong feelings of anxiety and isolation among our students. I always found it peculiar that, during my summer research fellowships, I was expected to complete workshops on diversity and cross-cultural communication while no comparable requirement existed for my professors.
I will take that step here: I demand that our Division’s leadership and professoriate be held accountable to measurable action. Let us, as the founders of #BlackInTheIvory might recommend, require training on issues of diversity and inequality in science, and tie eligibility for promotion and tenure to action on these same issues. Respond with greater urgency to acts of racism and bias. If faculty and advising offices as a whole cannot provide effective mentorship, establish a buddy system between upperclassmen and underclassmen. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter how prolific or esteemed a researcher you are, whether you’ve had 10 years of tenure or less than one: without an actionable commitment to change, you are actively forestalling the advent of equity in science. Unless you engage directly with eliminating inequality, you are perpetuating it. Whereas science departments at many other universities took the initiative to declare solidarity with #ShutDownSTEM on front pages and internal memos, we seemed hesitant, if not averse, to make the same simple move. Please don’t let us feel like we are going through our educational journey alone, or worse, that we have to pit ourselves against you in order to get our degrees.
Institutions with smaller endowments and less research output have managed to accomplish what we have long eschewed. In concert with the action plans President Ron Liebowitz has called for, it would be valuable to discuss in future department meetings what concrete changes ought to be implemented and what they require. But like any well-written research or grant proposal, a plan to bring about these changes must state clear goals and aims, and describe what metrics will register progress made in these goals. In case you seek to better grasp the complexities of the issues at hand, allow me to recommend The Time is Now: Systemic Changes to Increase African Americans with Bachelor’s Degrees in Physics and Astronomy, a report published by the American Institute of Physics. To be sure, the report focuses specifically on the success of Black students in physics. Applicable to an appropriate extent for other underrepresented students, however, are certain key factors noted by the report to influence student success: (1) Belonging, (2) Physics [or other discipline] identity, (3) Academic Support, (4) Personal Support and (5) Leadership and Structures. The picture is plainly more complicated than the “skills and commitment” platitude to which some of our faculty still adhere.
What does a sense of support and belonging look like? In the aftermath of recent incidents like the refusal to acknowledge racism in Yale University’s astronomy department or the publication of an anti-diversity screed in a leading chemistry journal (this causing over a third of the journal's international advisory board to resign), how can we help turn the tide? A recent STEM graduate of a college with about one-tenth the endowment of ours said the following about their educators and mentors: “They listened to my career goals and offered guided support through weekly check-ins, they personally found and recommended scholarships, fellowships, and grants … they heard my story in their office hours and they made my voice feel heard in predominantly white classrooms.” Would that this become the prevailing sentiment among students at Brandeis.
Whatever your discipline, there’s no shortage of literature that examines the racial and socioeconomic disparities that plague academia and science, Brandeis unfortunately being far from an exception. Resistance to change often comes in the form of a sorely misguided position which implies that the status quo — including the present structures for recruitment, achievement and advancement in science — is fine as it is, not something to be tampered with for the sake of some agenda. It would be well worth one’s time and energy to learn more about how this disposition has been harmful to science and has exacerbated the cultural, institutional and academic inequalities that movements like #ShutDownAcademia and #ShutDownSTEM made visible earlier this summer.
In this missive, I have avoided drawing much attention to any one department because although I received a degree that required me to complete graduate-level coursework in the departments of Biology, Biochemistry, Chemistry and Physics, I can point with less clarity to issues outstanding in other departments. Besides, I make no claim to have captured all the nuances of our problem, and there is room for improvement everywhere. Each department should evaluate for itself what it needs to work on, to the full extent that this evaluation can be informed by the experiences of our student body. Ally with initiatives like the Sloan Equity and Inclusion in STEM Introductory Courses project. Solicit feedback from fewer vague and easily ignored surveys but more town hall meetings — via Zoom if necessary — to engage directly with student opinion on known issues. Practice a social-belonging intervention to foster a sense of identity and belonging in STEM. Use relevant resources and appropriate use of language to develop better course structure and inclusive teaching practices. Traditional lecture-heavy instruction can be engaging to a point, but to enhance retention, consider methods more conducive to inquiry-guided and active learning. Communicate course expectations with clarity so that students understand how to meet them; otherwise, students are forced into a confounding preoccupation with sorting out these expectations instead of learning the material. Whatever counterarguments I have seen to this advice have amounted to hubristic, reactionary excuses against implementing what might well turn out to be strategies for eliminating disparities and redressing flawed stereotypes that imply rare, innate talent is a prerequisite for success in science.
If all of this sounds deliberately bleak, it is not by any desire to paint the horizon more overcast than it is. You can read about the more favorable aspects of my experience in my alumni profile. It’s true that the Division has seen the graduation of several outstanding students from minority backgrounds whose experiences have, at least by outward appearances, turned out to be resoundingly positive. It would be incomplete to underscore this triumph without acknowledging programs that have helped the cause, including Posse STEM and other programs that cater to students of any major. But make no mistake: these successes do not fill the holes in the sieve. I would only like to point out that no matter how many instances of excellent teaching or guidance, nor how much genuine, hard work at Brandeis has been so far been carried out to benefit students from underrepresented backgrounds in STEM, we consistently miss the mark at making these students feel welcome and supported. We emphasize the need for students to get serious about science, to take ownership of their education and commitment to research; since our Division employs many who strive for excellence in other facets of the scientific profession, I have no concern about sounding flippant when I say that it is time for the Division to stop dragging its feet and get serious about diversity and inclusion.
I entered Brandeis three years ago with optimism. To an extent greater than expected, I felt compelled to repress mention of significant pieces of my history and background, including my identity as a nontraditional student. I completed majors offered in two departments. I had more positive reasons to do so, but I left a closely related major after a humiliating experience in one of the advanced courses (I was the only person of color in the class). I remember the very tangible, psychological aversion I developed to the material in the months that followed, an experience brought into sharp, excruciating dissonance with my avidity for the subject as a whole. It was a sensation unlike any I’d known, and I would hazard that if I knew someone at Brandeis who I believed would listen and understand, I might have recovered from the ordeal in less time.
My interest in the sciences was in many ways nourished these last three years, yet it would seem just as true to say that this enthusiasm had survived the same period — that the defining takeaway of my college experience may not have been one of accomplishment via learning, but of having persevered by the skin of my teeth. Those who would have us return to a time when science was even less diverse than it is today may actually find that trial-by-fire outcome acceptable. In case it wasn’t already clear, I don’t. I know that there are people who will refuse to support me or advocate on my behalf. I have encountered them before, and I will in all likelihood face others long after graduation. It was evidently a naïve mistake to assume that I would be unburdened by such detractors during my time at Brandeis. Perhaps now you will understand how aggrieving to my core is the thought that there may be others at Brandeis — aspiring scientists, doctors and engineers — who are no strangers to the same experiences of being starved of the voice they need to be heard, the wherewithal they need to thrive.
I write now because the stakes are too high. As we enter an academic year unlike any other, we cannot allow our problem to be made worse. We must embrace, not spurn, the cultural shifts that the changing demographics of higher education and science augur for us now. We must do better, that is sure. Science at Brandeis deserves better.
—Fox Baudelaire ’20 served as the Division of Science’s first Lead UDR and remains involved with the Brandeis chapter of Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science.