Happy New(?) Year

Reading reports about the Bayer Corporation’s new survey of STEM department chairs at U.S. research universities leads to a fairly discouraging take-away.  In asking the  413 chairs for their thoughts on why so many women and under-represented minority students fail to complete STEM degree programs, the survey uncovered two beliefs that have left me less than cheerful.

First, the chairs understand that familiar notions of merit in STEM fields work as a gatekeeping tool that limits diversity:

Specifically, the chairs say being discouraged from a STEM career is still an issue today for both female and underrepresented minority (URM) STEM undergraduate students (59 percent) and that traditional rigorous introductory instructional approaches that “weed out” students early on from STEM studies are generally harmful and more so to URM (56 percent) and female (27 percent) students compared to majority students (i.e. Caucasian and Asian males).

–Bayer U.S. News, Dec. 7, 2011

Second…well, same again:

Yet, a majority (57 percent) of the chairs do not see a need to significantly change their introductory instructional methods in order to retain more STEM students, including women and URMs.

How can these prominent and accomplished educators not see the connection between regrettable social patterns in their fields and the content of their practice? As I tried to convey in my book, Race, Rigor, and Selectivity in U.S. Engineering,  the stubborn character of standards of rigor, the unassailability that STEM disciplines ascribe to those standards, is at the very heart of STEM exclusion.

In summarizing the survey results, Bayer cites Freeman Hrabowski, who warns that we need “a culture change.” Rigor is attainable along with inclusion, Hrabowski says, if we choose to provide support to students who may need it and to faculty who might enact such reforms.  Teaching methods can change without undermining the rigor and functionality of the knowledge conveyed.  That Bayer actually quotes Hrabowski, putting such an outlook on the table, gave me hope for a moment that this survey might make a difference. But one last point from the survey’s findings pretty much burst that balloon:

Most institutions don’t have a STEM diversity plan: Only one-third (33 percent) report their colleges have in place a comprehensive STEM diversity plan with recruitment and retention goals.

33%? In 2011? Is this possible? (Slap forehead in despair, here.) What kind of serious audience is there for Bayer’s findings if only one in three American research universities has even gotten to the point of systematizing STEM diversity?

Clearly, many of the department heads surveyed by Bayer are not happy with existing inequities and believe that some sort of change is needed. But how can even the best intentioned department chairs make a practical priority of an issue that their employers have declared to be unimportant? More broadly:  How many dozens or hundreds of reports, from government, philanthropic and corporate sources, have laid out these same STEM diversity issues over the last 40 years? How many more will do so before something new happens at the university or department level?

Here’s an idea: If Bayer, a hugely influential and wealthy entity, has the wherewithal to conduct such surveys, could we not ask them to act on the results? Not merely to articulate the problem, but act to solve it? For example, what if Bayer campaigned for the creation of a nationwide accreditation or ranking system, encompassing academic STEM departments of all disciplines, that names and shames those institutions that fail to take meaningful action on diversity issues? Perhaps making universities responsive to calls for STEM diversity programming?

Sure that’s a pipedream, likely to be derailed by all kinds of arguments about….rigor!  And that’s exactly why we need powerful voices like those of private industry, understood to be disinterested seekers of new STEM talent pools, to take bold steps like this. If corporations genuinely seek racial, gender, and other kinds of diversity in their scientific and technical labor forces (and, yes, that’s a big “if, but for the moment let’s accept that Bayer’s science education surveys show at least a kind of commitment to inclusion), why not try to change the metrics of prestige for universities, in a way that might encourage that diversity?

That sort of effort by Bayer would make this not just another poll of STEM diversity, but one that might actually change the results of future surveys.

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