The sciences at Brandeis: action and accountability deferred
We are representatives of Anti-Racism Alliance in the Sciences (ARAS), a collective of current and former students that has operated since August 2020 to promote a culture of belonging and support in the Division of Science. We advocate for institutional changes that advance diversity, equity, inclusion and justice in many aspects of STEM higher education. We have learned that each department has since formed its own diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) committee. More than a year since our inception, we have observed that expressions of sympathy and mutual understanding have not yet been translated into progress.
After evaluating responses to a survey we distributed in May among the Division’s undergraduate and graduate student bodies, we have been occupied with organizing a seminar series to educate the Division on the pertinence of DEI to research, and other activities in science, as well as opposing attempts to frustrate or slow DEI and anti-racist work in the Division.
Attempts to recruit potential speakers from within the Brandeis community for our intended seminar series have had mixed success. Following a meeting with Division Head Prof. Bulbul Chakraborty (PHYS), Provost Carol Fierke and Dean Dorothy Hodgson, we now plan to pilot the series as 2-4 events for the 2021-2022 academic year. Some have intimated that “no one wants to hear anything outside of research,” a position that belies our current understanding of student opinion. We are, in fact, sympathetic with this view up to a point: we wish we could explore and perform science in welcoming and inclusive environments in which potential was developed equitably, trainees were at liberty to be their full selves in the lab and the classroom, and no individual ambition or status came at the expense of another’s professional development or personal well-being.
Clearly, based on the lived experiences of students, this ideal case does not presently apply. We reiterate from our mission statement that students of color routinely experience manifestations of bias and prejudice that hinder their development as scholars and scientists, requiring time and significant mental and emotional labor to overcome. We cannot overstate how exasperating it is to have faculty who claim to value diversity, inclusion and student success but refuse to engage in any meaningful way with the work required to practice these values in real life. In mathematician Edray Goins’ words, “if you think talking about racism is distracting, imagine experiencing it...”
Despite recent efforts, we have witnessed faculty and staff in the Division and across the University continue to give DEI short shrift and undue focus on performative, superficial activities uninformed by student feedback. We make this observation despite the reported lack of student response to departmental anti-racist plans, a state of affairs which above all else emphasizes the need to improve climate, student-faculty interactions and concerted DEI involvement. Regarding inquiries we have made in the process of organizing the seminar series, the Science Council has told us that it is up to each department; Almost contradictorily, we have been told by individual professors that it is out of their hands. This evasion of responsibility continues to slow, not facilitate, progress. If members of our community do not feel comfortable with making their concerns more widely heard, it is because our institutions have failed to lean in and listen more closely.
We have also seen Division leadership backpedal from the earlier goal of hosting regular town hall meetings to facilitate engagement with students, a tradition that was promised to begin earlier this year. Nevertheless, the Department of Physics is assisting the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies in hosting physicist and University of New Hampshire professor Chanda Prescod-Weinstein for her upcoming talk, “Black Feminism in Space,” on Oct. 18. We look forward to this event and encourage the Brandeis community to engage in Prescod-Weinstein’s science as well as her advocacy.
With the understanding that each institution faces unique challenges, we will not hesitate to compare how departments at other colleges have dealt with DEI and anti-racist work, especially if the comparison can better guide efforts at Brandeis. The University’s procurement of an Howard Hughes Medical Institute Inclusive Excellence grant (through which Brandeis was awarded $1 million in 2018 to advance DEI in our undergraduate science programs) and success with Posse STEM does not absolve us from criticism or the need to go beyond token efforts. As several BIPOC students have experienced, our fixation on change by the small-cohort model has led to a few embarrassing incidents in which some minority students have automatically been assumed to be part of such a program, as though their place in our institution would be otherwise impossible. Wellesley College, for instance, notes in its abstract for the Inclusive Excellence grant that “long-term change lies in changing community attitudes and practices through extensive professional development,” and stresses intensive training for faculty as well as staff and students in “evidence-based research around equity, inclusive pedagogy, cultural competency, stereotype threat, and unconscious bias.”
Meanwhile, Framingham State University, the state university geographically closest to Brandeis, recognizes that “educating [tenured and tenure-track faculty] on the painful effects of racism and exclusion within the academy will help to drive progress forward using more permanent avenues.” The abstract for the grant received by Brandeis has been updated this year to include programming for students on issues of inequity and racism in navigating science today, with an expanded reach of “30% of incoming STEM students,” but there is little mention of any effort to make change through our professoriate and administration.
In further updates to the Brandeis community, we intend to report on our work and discuss issues of climate in classroom and research settings, the role of cultural capital and other topics pertinent to the navigation of diverse identities in STEM. To the extent possible, we hope to continue dialogue with Division faculty and leadership, promoting transparency and accountability within our own organization and across the Division. We admit that change can take time. However, we cannot and will not accept any claims of progress without action that is greater in magnitude than what is now underway.