The sciences at Brandeis: Taking a stand for diversity, equity and inclusion
In an open letter to the Division of Science published in the Justice on August 27, 2020, a challenge was leveled against what was dubbed the “meritocratic extreme” in science education, arguing that its ethos has been used to rationalize outmoded, non-inclusive teaching practices and a generally unsupportive culture. The letter also argued that the Division’s failure to address this and to prioritize matters of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has produced a litany of inequitable experiences for many of our underrepresented minority students (URM).
We became aware that the letter — which had been forwarded to most chairs in the Division, President Ron Liebowitz, Academic Services Dean Erika J. Smith, physics professor and Division Head Bulbul Chakraborty, Chief Diversity Officer Mark Brimhall-Vargas and a member of the Board of Trustees — was discussed during a meeting of the Science Council last September. Though we have been told that the letter was well received by many, we are sorry to learn that the immediate reaction of others may have been one of cynicism. We are even more sorry for those who have yet to acknowledge the need for change. If the traditional modes of STEM education have the effect of reproducing the myriad inequalities seen in science and the larger society, then the solution must not only make students more resilient and prepared, but also renovate the educational paradigm and the institutions themselves. We realize that change is hard and that our faculty were trained in a culture of exclusive, rather than inclusive, excellence. The malaise afflicting Brandeis also plagues STEM departments elsewhere. In no way does this make the status quo any less reprehensible.
One biology professor, who wrote in appreciation of the letter, had pointed out that there are two STEM professors who identify as Hispanic/Latinx that were not accounted for in the letter’s count of tenured or tenure-track faculty of color. The letter’s author regrets the error and any confusion it may have caused. We also are aware of a recently hired professor of color who is cross-listed in two departments, though several departments in the Division still have none.
As of January 2020, plans for change in the Division were relegated to, figuratively speaking, a footnote in the Framework for the Future report, stating that “summer research grants” would be increased. On June 10, 2020, some faculty and staff gathered in response to #ShutDownSTEM, the outcome of which has yet to be made known to the larger Brandeis community. Since the publication of the open letter, Division leadership announced plans to establish a task force to restructure STEM education, organize a town-hall meeting, and redouble its efforts to diversify faculty, staff and the student body. Additionally, the Biology department has sought greater input from students and has announced on its website the intent to develop a “detailed DEI plan with actionable goals, and a Diversity Actions web page reporting on actions taken.”
These and other actions — such as the Division’s plug for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s SEA Change initiative, the Chemistry department’s assembly of a DEI committee, the Biology department’s Statement of Values and statements of solidarity with Black Lives Matter from both departments — are a good start. However, the possibility that the Division as a whole may continue a sorry history of treating racial dialogue from a colorblind frame that ignores the race and related class struggles of Black and Brown students is concerning. We know that some faculty are aware of specific challenges our students of color face, but we are still troubled by the lack of any public statements from many of our departments addressing systemic racism against Black people and non-Black people of color in STEM fields. Commitments to positive change and to building a better scientific community are also worth announcing on lab websites, given that some URM students report having to go through the additional labor of finding a lab advisor who is culturally sensitive and openly committed to DEI in their work. To better allow students and the Brandeis community to see that the Division is committed to positive change, we urge that all of our departments engage in difficult conversations, listen to our students and alumni of color and confront the legitimate seriousness of our problems with transparency instead of downplaying them to save face.
It is obscene, not to mention a stain on the founding principles of the University, that some in the Division may have been ready to resign themselves to the idea that diversity is at odds with excellence, that our URM students are incapable of doing science as well as their white counterparts or even that the unique challenges underrepresented students face are simply things that they must develop a “thick skin” for if they want to advance in science. However optimistic we would like to be about its recent moves, the Division cannot continue to operate on the assumption that it is infallible or that “we’re all good people.” Such an attitude has effectively silenced many negative experiences involving a student’s race or ethnicity. As a result, the Division has been long incapable of adequately countering overt or implicit bias along these dimensions, leaving the damage to be addressed almost entirely by the students and their peer networks. These students, along with the few faculty who have thus far played meaningful roles, end up with less time for scholarship and research. It’s not the students we need to change, it’s the institution. For an institution that touts its world-class research, the Division would do well to live up to the University’s values of self-criticism and afford our students the support of a world-class commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.