SCOTUS and the “New” Eugenics

The blunt racism of Antonin Scalia’s statement today recommending that minority students attend “lesser” schools so that they do not feel that they are being “pushed too hard,” is cloaked in false concern.  His is not only a deeply racist worldview, demarcating human potential on the basis of some arbitrarily ascribed biological identity, but a disingenuous one.  Clearly Justice Scalia does not have any authentic concern regarding the well being of minority students or he would not seek to limit their opportunities.  But I want to talk for a minute about Justice John Roberts’ contribution to today’s Supreme Court discussion of affirmative action measures, which has gotten less attention from the press and on social media.

Robert’s words might appear to constitute a milder, less biological rejection of identity-focused educational reforms. They do not.  In a seemingly trivial aside, Roberts dismissed a common trope in higher education diversity programming: the idea that diversity of student background will intellectually enrich all students’ classroom experiences.  Roberts said that he did not see what “unique perspective” a minority student could bring to physics class.  In that claim I think we actually see one of the more insidious defenses of racism circulating in our culture: Roberts would have us believe that scientific knowledge is not–cannot possibly be–raced.

To be clear: uncritical “diversity” efforts that seek to increase the presence of non-majority persons in STEM settings  can themselves readily reproduce essentialisms.  Critics from the left, especially those working with the incisive tools of intersectionality, question casual associations of say, one’s Hispanic heritage, Lesbian identity, or immigrant experiences with particular or unique outlooks on the world.  They make clear that simple or predictive associations of that kind are not merely means of reproducing differences of value to those in authority, but are also likely to reinstate racist, sexist, or homophobic conditions in the long run.  This isn’t just true of schooling: Consider corporate diversity efforts that celebrate the “unique” innovations of persons of different backgrounds; these are often deeply problematic, enrobing globalizing and marketing priorities in inclusive rhetoric.

But Roberts isn’t against mixing people of different perceived backgrounds where they are not currently mixing, as in physics. Nor is he for it. He is quite simply and conveniently denying that physics is a place where background functions; there’s no problem with the current demographic make-up of science because it’s not a meaningful category of concern.  Real, good science does not have demographics.

This claim is possible not just because our culture is unaccustomed to seeing physics and other sciences as raced. It is because Roberts, like many of us of majority background, has great difficulty seeing any places dominated by white persons as places where race is functioning.

Mind you: Science is particularly good at being white. By that I mean that science disciplines, like technology, engineering and mathematics fields, customarily work to evacuate any indication that social or political values shape their content or practices. Sure, ethics count and malfeasance happens, we commonly hear, but if you get down to the calculations or measurements or mixing of chemicals at the lab bench, that’s simply not activity where one’s life experience; one’s socio-economic status; or the privileges or penalties of gender, class or race could possibly play any part.  Or so goes the usual conversation about identity in STEM.  And in maintaining that view, the pervasive role of white privilege in shaping what counts as a reasonable question, answer, calculation, measurement, instrument, learning style, or idea in science (yes, even in physics) is routinely disguised as rigor. Equity projects such as minority set asides and affirmative action counter that view by bringing explicit, responsible attention to the role played by identity in the lab or classroom or board room.

To shut down such attention is to naturalize the disproportionate representation of white persons in many areas of American learning and work; to make the under-representation of minority persons seem a natural by-product of intellectual or character differentials.  In short: A neatly eugenic system.

I have written about these circumstances in regard to engineering and they are also true of physics, and any places of intellectual labor where whiteness goes unremarked. I am not expecting a Supreme Court justice to have studied the history of science, or science studies, or intersectional theory. But I am expecting the basic goal of maintaining a reflective and just society, a goal that shapes much work in those academic inquiries and many other humanistic projects in our culture, both in and beyond the academy, to drive the thinking of the country’s highest court.

A crucial step in any such maintenance is the acknowledgement that ascriptions of whiteness bring opportunity, privilege, and safety even in our society’s most ostensibly intellectual, most knowledge-intensive, undertakings: in science, medicine, banking, law.  Ironically, Justices Scalia and Roberts have today given us some very powerful evidence on that very point.

With Friends Like These…: Why “The Triple Package” is So Disturbing

Like many folks who read Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s lengthy piece in the NYTimes today, I’m aghast. The piece purports to be a probing and innovative exploration of “success” in America, following the differing fortunes of persons of various ethnic heritages.  But it seems to me to be one of the most concerted and insidious defenses of ethnic and racial stereotypes we have been offered since the Bell Curve.

In the essay the authors summarize their new book, and if you have ever reflected for even a moment on the self-reproducing logics of ethnic and racial discrimination in America, the book’s title alone will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up: “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.”  Traits? Rise and fall? Cultural Groups??? Each of those terms demarcates an entity, standard of attainment, or category that is utterly arbitrary and which conveniently, seamlessly, reproduces their argument.

I have to ask: How do these people have ANY credibility IN A DEMOCRACY?

Chua (aka, Tiger Mom) and Rubenfeld posit a cocktail of personal attributes that carry individual citizens out of penury and into affluence.  The three “traits” are a “superiority complex” that lends one a sense of one’s own exceptional merit or valor, a sense of innate “inferiority” that drives one forward to achieve, and (la plus ca change!), sufficient “impulse control.”   Certain people, whom they identify by what they believe to be meaningful group affiliations  (for example, as Jewish, Cuban-American, or Nigerian), “succeed” by dint of these attributes and affiliations.

So we are back to Horatio Alger. We are back to the neoliberal belief that individual fortitude is and should be central to individual economic security. We are also back uncritically to delineating group memberships (Jewish, Asian, Black, Mormon…) and attaching functionalist labels (students of Ivy League caliber, people who are insecure…) that confirm our own logic. This last is an idea of “cultural groups” and their experiences that even the NY POST understands is retro!

I could write a book (oh wait, I already did) on the self-referential nature of American definitions of intellectual attainment and how those definitions systematically deny structural racism.  But let me stress here the way that each of the three traits points to individual volition…potentially cultivated, say Chua and Rubenfeld, through family and community influences, but to no avail without the final ingredient: the magic of personal grit.

Yep, that’s right: Grit. Heck, why not “Gumption?” Or how about, “Moxie”? Because frankly, this argument would have been cutting edge in 1943. In that year, a noted expert on African-American education in the U.S. Office of Education, Dr. Ambrose Caliver, described the importance of increased self-discipline for black Americans who aspired to be doctors or scientists. More precisely, he fretted that blacks lacked a “zest for discovery” and were easily distracted by “entertainments.”  A shortfall in self-control was diagnosed asthe problem. During his career Caliver tirelessly fought immense obstacles to black educational opportunity, but he operated with ideas that were nonetheless highly essentialist. This kind of characterization appears to find evidence (lack of fortitude) in a field of data (people who are black) while in actuality, selecting both what counts as evidence and what belongs in the field in order to fit a pre-conceived pattern (a preponderance of blacks who lack fortitude).

I shudder to think of such false empiricism gaining new credence through the imprimatur of Yale Law School (Chua and Rubenfeld’s employer) and the New York Times. But I’m not surprised.  Circular arguments, narrowed ideas of human welfare, deep distrust of collective aims that might transcend self- or other-identity…these are reliably the instruments of privilege in a profoundly hierarchical society.  The concerned tone of Chua and Rubenfeld’s piece is disingenuous and their brief nod to “discrimination, prejudice and shrinking opportunity” disguises a systematic denial of structural inequities in American education and economic institutions.  Packaged, indeed.

 

 

 

 

Rank, and then, File

A compelling piece appeared on the American Physical Society News website a while ago that  just came to my attention.  (Thank you, Michael Fisher!)   Author Casey W. Miller, an associate professor of physics at the University of South Florida, asks the physics community to consider the poor record their discipline holds around gender, racial,  and ethnic inclusion.  That pattern has been documented for years and is the subject of plenty of conversation, but as Miller makes clear, it is not a problem that exerts any broad or consistent practical purchase on the field.

Miller’s column is a model of careful argumentation that is worth keeping on hand for its clarity  around an intractable social problem. But I think there’s one particularly transferable lesson in the  piece:  Miller makes a direct and powerful connection between university ranking systems (such as that propagated by US News)  and a lack of diversity in physics graduate programs.

The GRE scores of admitted students factor into these numeric comparisons among programs in many disciplines, and with the ACT and SAT test scores deployed by undergraduate programs impel admissions decisions for virtually all U.S. schools. Not surprising to the readers of this blog, most likely, is Miller’s case that the heavy reliance by physics graduate programs on GRE scores impedes gender and racial diversity in that field.  We learn that women and students of minority background intending to pursue the physical sciences tend to score lower on the GREs, often falling below cut-offs for admission.  But more surprising perhaps, Miller then summarizes previous studies that have shown GRE scores to be poor predictors of research success among physics students, undeniably ” the aim of the PhD.”

What’s going on here? How does a field like physics, that many of us would generally think of as profoundly reflective about its own knowledge-making, about its own ways of seeking and handling data, end up with such a deeply skewed and selective relationship to data?  By defaulting to conventional (and discriminatory) ideas about how easily people can be converted to data.

That many factors determine an individual’s performance on a standardized test has long been understood by researchers, and the list of those factors keeps growing.  Physics professor Suzanne Amador Kane reminded me about the article in the NYTimes by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman a few months ago. That piece summarized new research on biological contributors to students’ stress-while-testing and the variable psychological reactions that different students have to that physiological experience.  We should of course approach all such genomic and bodily explanations with great care because, given the strength of discriminatory social structures in the U.S., those explanations tend to displace social factors in our analyses.  But that’s all the more reason to question the very term “standardized testing.”  And, to remember that the link customarily projected between STEM fields’ selectivity and practitioners’ promise or rigor, as I keep saying, needs to be seen as an arbitrary one.

What I’d highlight from Miller’s version of things is this: The use of scores certainly restricts participation in higher education and relies upon discriminatory social categories. But it also serves as a perfect disguise for our exclusionary educational habits; the symbolic values of testing and ranking are immense in STEM disciplines. Score-based admissions and the resultant rankings of universities on their basis suggest the pursuit of both quality and impartiality by higher ed. Those commitments are assuredly claimed by all disciplines, but the world of STEM expertise has a special investment in the objectivity of quantification.  Throughout the world of science, comparisons among bits of data (as rankings by their nature perform), reassert the value of both individual measurements and of the metric itself…that is, they help validate the very act of measurement.  But the understanding of test scores as a reflection of students’ promise and the veneration of those scores through school rankings are far from fair, and Miller helps us step back from that habitual, uncritical, numerical embrace.

Proudly Public: Standing with California’s Faculty

This week, faculty senate leaders of all three public higher ed systems in California (the community colleges, state colleges, and University of California system) made the bold move jointly to express opposition to a plan that would encourage major growth in massive on-line courses, or MOOCs. The idea of the shift to on-line instruction, floated as a bill in the California state senate, is ostensibly to relieve serious overcrowding and budget shortfalls in the schools. No one would argue that those problems are not real and pressing. But faculty rightly detect a hasty and pedagogically insupportable scheme here.  As Ry Rivard reported in InsiderHigherEd‘s piece, “United Opposition,” their collectivity represents push-back of an unprecedented level.

And we thank them: Instructors in all fifty states, teaching at all levels, should be deeply appreciative of these raised voices. We should lend our voices in support.  And I include those of us who teach at financially secure, private institutions, too. And, yes, especially those of us with tenure.

The California instructors are, we must see, resisting the redefinition of higher education as something that exists to maximize economies of scale. To squeeze labor. To channel wealth to those who already possess the means to become wealthy.  Efforts to effect that redefinition have ebbed and flowed in the history of America’s community and state colleges in particular, always portending the greatest losses for students of lower socioeconomic standing who cannot afford the “artisanal” offerings of private higher education.  But the swift pivot towards MOOCs as exemplified in California is potentially a deeply regrettable trend for all teachers and learners.

For one thing, it is a “solution” that treats human instructors, student communities, and the provision of sufficient classroom space as the “problems.”  When such foundational pedagogical commitments are conceptualized as inherently wasteful, even tenured faculty should be afraid.

But more broadly, California’s embrace of MOOCs here entrenches socially conservative functions for schooling that have always devalued the learning (and intellectual potential) of those Americans with the least economic resources.  Such stratifications bring a set of rewards that are also dangerous for a democracy, often turning the nation’s privileged scholars and students away from criticality about the system and its differential impacts.  Under such conditions, the potential for a more fair and equitable nation shrinks with each step towards economically expedient education.

The proposed course providers in California right now include for-profit companies such as Coursera and Udacity.   During a discussion of on-line coursework with Cal State Monterey Bay faculty this week, Sebastian Thrun, co-founder of the latter company, said the firm was actually “proudly for profit.” That turn of phrase should stop all of us in our tracks. Whatever politicians and ed policy makers in California may be saying about their motivations for moving higher education on-line, Thrun’s pose here is triumphal: This is not privatization under emergency conditions; this is industrialization without regrets….for the industrialist and his patrons, at any rate.  Mine are forming already.

 

[With thanks to theoutsidereader.com for rapid technical support.]

“Shiftless” in America

Itching to know which ideas about the economy actually solidified during the recent campaign season? Which ones Obama toted, intact, through the onslaught of right-wing rants about the 47% (according to Romney, people who remain jobless because lazy…or, shiftless AND shiftless—get it?!), now to function as memes for the second term? Then you might want to watch the recent 60 Minutes segment on the “skills gap.”

"Three million open jobs in US, but who is qualified?" www.cbsnews.com

The premise (which I’ve discussed before in this blog) is that millions of American jobs are going unfilled; here CBS points to about 500,000 open positions in U.S. manufacturing businesses alone.  60 Minutes frames this as a puzzle: “How can it be,” correspondent Byron Pitts asks, that in a time of high national unemployment jobs are going begging?  Something is wrong, but what?

Like many of Obama’s own speeches on the topic, the segment indicates that tech innovation promises prosperity for U.S. firm owners and their workers alike, once an appropriately trained workforce is slotted into the new high-tech sector jobs.  The 60 Minutes report is more interesting than some other policy and media excursions into “skills gap” territory, however, because it introduces, if tentatively, the possibility that we need to consider the role of employers in the production of this “gap.”

Much of the 12-minute story focuses on the need in manufacturing firms, small and large, for workers trained in emergent production techniques.  We watch un- and underemployed Americans participating in educational and internship programs in order to attain eligibility for the new, higher-tech, mostly software-centered manufacturing positions that supposedly abound today.  The excitement of those participating in the programs and ultimately the sheer relief of the newly employed are both made very clear in the segment.

The head of one family-owned business, Click Bond, a defense contractor in Nevada that makes fasteners for precision machinery (as used in, say, fighter planes), explains that it is not practical or affordable for the firm itself to do the training.  This seems like a good argument for community college curricula and other publicly supported education-for-jobs, as promoted by Obama. And indeed, the company helped develop just such a program locally.  But then the report digs ever so slightly deeper to ask a CEO of Alcoa why, if such efficacious educational and training options exist, so many positions in U.S. manufacturing remain unfilled. The CEO tellingly answers that, “Well, this is not a society where you can tell somebody what– where to go work, or where to– what education to get, right?” Ah, the shiftless American worker, in every sense of the word!

Certainly not racist in the sense of Romney’s old-school bigotry last week regarding Obama’s “gifts” of public health and education to minority Americans, but a classic moralistic put-down of the disadvantaged, nonetheless.  Coming from a CEO of a major corporate force in the nation, it’s a potentially influential one, too. Praise to CBS for not leaving that neoliberal shoulder shrug unanswered. Instead, near the end of the segment Peter Cappelli, a Wharton management professor, introduces what is for mainstream media a somewhat shocking point: Maybe the labor market is not, in fact, a supply-and-demand operation.  Industrial wages have stagnated and even declined in many production sectors, Cappelli notes.  The ostensible fair pay and secure employment said to be just waiting for the willing citizen is at least in part a myth, and one that hides the economic advantages accruing to capital in America.

Let’s consider what a viewer new to the topic (and the issue is introduced as something folks may not know about yet… “It’s called ‘the skills gap,’” Pitts intones as the report starts), might take away from watching the piece. Again, all this is very lightly laid on. Robotics are cast as an industrial “innovation” without any mention of the negative impacts of automation on employment levels; there is no probing inquiry into outsourcing trends.  But at least 60 Minutes suggests that the idea of a “skills gap” requires investigation, airing however briefly the notion that the  interests of American employees and employers do not invariably converge…a convergence implicit in the very notion of such a gap.

A glancing blow, yes, and a long way from any kind of redistributive approach that might show the profoundly disempowered situation of labor today, but still an unusual step beyond the unalloyed boosterism that usually surrounds the topic.

Obama’s STEM Master Teachers: A Good Idea Made Better?

I’m excited about President Obama’s new idea for a billion-dollar STEM “Master Teacher Corps,” announced by the White House this week. I particularly like the idea that localities will choose the recipients of the title and its $20,000 stipend, providing a way to reward the science and math teachers they know to be the most excited and energetic.  But I worry that the school systems that currently generate innovative STEM teaching, that already support “highly competitive” teachers with the time and resources to develop this kind of curriculum, will dominate the competition  and skew corps membership away from the schools that most need added STEM support.

My idea: If all of the fretting about our national STEM “skills gap” is genuine, why not use half the money, or better yet, double the allotted pool of funding, to fund partners for each of the chosen teachers? These partners could be instructors of the same grade level, based in our most under-resourced districts.  Their “highly competitive” applications might include innovative math and science pedagogy  (as well as great energy), that has not yet been fully developed. Creative ideas for STEM instruction will come from both partners, but this would let those who’ve had little opportunity to create  teaching materials or implement a curriculum participate alongside those with established STEM teaching records.

American students who are normally the least likely to feel the effects of STEM education funding will benefit directly, and a powerful message of equity and inclusion would be built right into the new program.

So I suggest STEM Master Teacher Partnerships. A daunting administrative task?  If locating promising teachers in disadvantaged districts and coordinating partnerships seem like insurmountable tasks, all the more reason to shorten the distance between our “have” and “have not” schools.

Women and Work: A Defining Moment

A surprising couple of weeks for public discourse on the role of work in our lives…. I wouldn’t have thought that so many people had so many strong opinions about women and work (which of course means, about ALL of us and work), and  I’m glad to see that Ann-Marie Slaughter’s recent  Atlantic piece has created a perfect storm of  debates about gender, work, family, and class ideologies in the U.S.  As Joan Williams wrote on Huffingtonpost, Slaughter has
“peeled the band-aid off the open wound of American womanhood.” I blogged about Slaughter’s piece and some much-needed historical context for the debate today at PACHS.net. Let’s keep the conversation going.

The STEM Gender Gap: Persistent but not Puzzling

This week of science festivals around the nation has mostly been a very festive occasion, indeed (I, for example, learned at a “science cabaret” last night that Linneaus was obsessed with bananas). It has also brought forth welcome coverage of equity issues in STEM fields: the perpetually low numbers of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in U.S. science and technology occupations. The correction of that under-representation partly justifies the festivals as efforts at STEM outreach and inclusion.

But in that coverage, my eye was caught by the very last point in a long article from PBS NewsHour by Jenny Marder this week, “Why Engineering, Science Gender Gap Persists.”

In this piece, Angela Bielefeldt, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Boulder who has done some very interesting work on the topic, had the last word:

“The important thing to note is how long we’ve been at this,” Bielefeldt said. “The fact that we’ve made no tangible forward progress despite working on this for a long time is puzzling and depressing… and again, we’re not sure what the secret is.”

“Depressing,” yes. That captures it perfectly. But: “Puzzling?” And, “Secret?” I think that language may arise from a spirit of thoughtful inquiry, but set up too many listeners to shrug and move on. I wonder if we too often use a politely perturbed tone to direct attention to something that is really far closer to bigotry than mystery.

As I see it, the previous pages of the article laid out many causes proven by studies over the last 40 (!) years to have contributed to women’s under-representation in STEM classrooms and jobs. These causes range from documented sexism in teaching, hiring and promotion practices to, “…A lack of female mentors” and ”subtle discrimination or work conditions in which men talk in a way that women found disrespectful.” Those are findings produced not by some narrow academic specialty, but by diverse scholarly disciplines (educational theory, workforce policy analysis, psychology, and by scholars in science and engineering themselves),  and by researchers from a huge range of institutions. Their sheer numbers add up to a powerful message for those who are willing to hear it: Day-to-day life in American classrooms and workplaces involves a constant stream of presumptions about the inborn capacities and desires of people of different identities.

There is no subtlety in the way these presumptions work to disadvantage certain groups. That’s clear  from the facts recounted in the article and broadcast, even if you don’t read the deeply disturbing collection of reactionary and creepily retrograde comments which follows the article (many referring to women’s innate intellectual disinclination towards science, or characterizing those concerned with these issues as “cry babies”…). What if Bielefeldt, a person who has clearly seen endless dismaying moments of this kind, had faced the microphone and instead of framing the problem as a mysterious social malaise had said instead, “The behavior I see every day  in classrooms, in labs, in administrative offices, and on civil engineering worksites is discriminatory, and unacceptable”?

Crucially, I don’t mean to say I would have done so.  The circumstances in which STEM activism occurs are by definition settings in which we must make our livings; it is terribly difficult to bring blame into the discussion. And, yes, those proverbial flies do prefer honey. More seriously, I deeply appreciate the very constructive (not blameful) cultural critique and pedagogical ideas introduced into the NewsHour discussion by Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College and a powerful advocate for bringing young women into the sciences. But if Klawe’s suggestions are to take hold in a significant number of educational settings, I want to suggest that in our discussions of the “gender gap,” we have to stop scratching our heads and own up to the dismal social reality revealed by the evidence offered by experts featured on the program, if not their tone.

The take-home: It is the very stuck-ness of Americans around equity issues, the fact of sexisms’ durability, that we need to foreground.  This lack of progress, as Bielefeldt says, is “the important thing to note.”  Unfortunately, her interviewers or their editors consigned that “thing” to the last note of the discussion. We should start our discussions, in the media and in our own institutions,  grasping and declaring this fact, not puzzled in the least.

STEM Equity: In Search of Trend Setters

Close your eyes and imagine a biology department or engineering school where every single one of the following policy changes has been implemented:

….universities might educate women graduate students about the downsides of alternative career paths, following partners’ career moves and taking time off. They could explore the use of part-time tenure-track positions for women having children that segue to full-time once children are older, and offer members of a couple the option to temporarily share a single full-time position. Further strategies include not penalizing older or nontraditional applicants for jobs; leveraging technology to enable parents to work from home while children are young or ill; providing parental leaves for primary caregivers of either gender and offering funding to foster successful reentry; and providing an academic role for women who have left professional positions to have children. Institutions could also try stopping tenure clocks for primary caregivers during family formation; adjusting the length of time allocated for work on grants to accommodate childrearing; offering no-cost grant extensions; providing supplements to hire postdocs to maintain labs during family leave; reducing teaching loads for parents of newborns; providing grants for retooling after parental leave; hiring couples; offering child care during professional meetings; providing high-quality university-based child care and emergency backup care; and instructing hiring committees to ignore family-related gaps in curricula vitae.

Amazing, right? This list, offered in Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci’s piece in American Scientist on “When Scientists Choose Motherhood,”  is striking for the variety of interventions it proposes: changes to hiring, tenure and leave policies; the introduction of new grant administration, childcare, and tele-commuting options…picture it: what a transformation!

But really, if we think about it, a good many of these institutional changes are in fact simply matters for HR.  There is not a lot here that threatens the essential features of teaching or research as those have been practiced in the academy for the last 120 years. Wait a minute: There is NOTHING here that undermines those practices in ANY way! It is the quality of life and levels of equity associated with academic work that would start to change if such policies were to be established.

So, why then does this list seem like fantasy?

Because, I suspect, any one of these changes, let alone the whole collection, would likely seem to many in the university today primarily like a gender-based accommodation,  a change to established institutional practice that derives from issues of practitioner identity. And American science is very, very reluctant to lend those issues any significant influence. We might feel bad about demographic imbalances in these professions, but we’re not going to let those “social” issues infiltrate our labs, classrooms, and other places where reputable, rigorous science is meant to be the order of the day.

That combination of impulses explains why the studies of race or gender inequity in STEM pile up, year after year, but the project of real inclusion in the academy just inches along.  (And of course, STEM is not alone in its cultural aversion to thinking about identity; thanks to Perri Strawn for making the connection to a similar critical discussion regarding business, by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox.)

So here’s an idea: What if we get prominent universities to leverage their existing reputations for rigor in STEM and model these very doable gender-equity reforms?  Our STEM disciplines are inherently aspirational, so it might only take one or two national or even regional leaders to make an impact in this way.  MIT under its now-retiring president Susan Hockfield took a few such steps; why not more steps, taken more conspicuously, to set in motion a large-scale transformation?

A second piece just out in Science (and summarized by Robin Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher Education) reminds us just how badly such shifts are needed.  Tracking careers of women in STEM fields, Deborah Kaminski and Cheryl Geisler  find that the high attrition rate among women STEM faculty in US universities largely offsets recent documented improvements in retention and promotion. Under existing conditions and hiring patterns, they report, university science departments would require nearly a century to attain gender parity.

A century?? We’re talking epochal time scales here! Yet go back to Williams and Ceci: there is clearly no shortage of good, creative thinking on what to do to change academic working conditions…on doable steps that would cost STEM programs money, but not rigor.

And we can’t let money stop the conversation, as it so often does: universities spend plenty of it on labs and salaries when they think those costs are merited to keep up their reputations. And that’s the key here: Again, STEM disciplines are by nature aspirational, judging all departments and programs in comparison to Big Guns like MIT, Stanford, Chicago, Berkeley, or Michigan.  If those leaders act, the much wider culture change may very well begin. Trend setters, step up: your to-do list is ready!

Obama, STEM, and the Rebranding of Community College

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama took another step in his effort to rebrand community colleges.  He sees the nation’s two-year colleges as playing a big role in preparing those who will work in emerging high-tech manufacturing industries.   Putting worries about his job-creation strategy aside for a minute (I’ll believe we can tax corporate outsourcing when I see it happen),  the speech did a good job of casting the American two-year college as home to sophisticated, cutting-edge science and technology skill and knowledge.

This message counters old stigmas associated with two-year technical programming, and I think it holds some promise for more inclusive STEM education writ large. Obama is associating community colleges,  at least rhetorically, with the promised science- and tech-based manufacturing resurgence…that is, with technical novelty and innovation. We are meant to leave behind our image of utilitarian “vo-tech” uplift,  and start picturing classrooms full of intellectual energy and achievement.  I could be caught up in the glow myself, of course, but it feels like the President is leveraging our cultural tendency to venerate high-tech in order to bring new respect to its students and teachers, even or especially in what has previously been seen by elite Americans as a second-best educational sphere.

In particular, Obama praised industry/school partnerships in which firms send employees to school for training or retraining in emerging technical fields.  He welcomed as his guest Jackie Bray,  who had found a renewed career through one such program run by Siemens at its Charlotte, NC,  “Energy Hub,” and although it remained a pretty vague directive, he called on Congress to provide the resources that would support such initiatives across the country.

And, he did all this early in the speech, when the largest audience could be guaranteed to hear it.

We mustn’t forget, of course, that job-focused education is not an unalloyed good, and that the possibility of transfer into bachelor’s programs must be built into the two-year curricula if we are sincerely to pursue educational and job equity in America. Four-year and graduate schools increasingly become options only for the affluent and we must not paper over that trend with feel-good rhetoric; people of limited economic means are turned away from the pursuit of bachelor’s degrees as a matter of course in this country, as this blog often points out.

What is more, industrial clean rooms function on the same managerial premises as assembly lines: modern manufacturing jobs are not necessarily any more secure or lucrative for the rank and file than were jobs in the “old tech” economy.

Nor is high-tech employment a guarantee of satisfying work. Repetitive, heavily mechanized or automated tasks performed by workers using nanolithography or bio-assay instruments can be as mind-numbing as those performed on shopfloors of a century ago. No job should deny those holding it the possibility of intellectual reward and creativity.  The history of manufacturing labor shows few employers making a priority of that concern and without it, STEM-focused education-for-jobs loses much of its sheen.

But let’s focus for now on Obama’s ongoing effort to cast community colleges as sites of exciting, immersive student experiences in technical fields. This is a significant rebranding that helps more than simply those individuals who may find jobs directly through programs like Siemans’.  It also moves us away from a stubborn habit we have in America of seeing two-year colleges and technical curricula as the preserve of those unable to “make the grade.”  This could recast the credentials offered by two-year schools,  and thus the opportunities of community college graduates as they move out across the nation’s higher-ed and employment spheres.  New labels are not enough, but they can help.