Letter: Underepresentation of Minorities in Natural Sciences

As a graduating science major, I have benefited greatly from my education at Grinnell. I have learned a lot about what it means to be a good scientist, yet, I am graduating with a profound sense of disenchantment with some of social and political dynamics that are pervasive within the science division. These issues, I believe, have hindered my educational experience as well as the experience of many of my classmates and friends.

One of the major problems I have noticed is that Grinnell science faculty orient their mentorship and resources to the high-achieving students who will eventually end up pursuing graduate school or professional school. The amount of favoritism that is present in the sciences is so palpable that it makes for an uncomfortable working and learning environment. Even as a student who has carried out summer research at competitive programs sponsored by brand-name schools (shouldn’t that be enough to “prove” my intelligence?), I still feel as though all of my ex- and current professors see me as a mediocre student and nothing more. I am constantly trying to prove that I am not incompetent. To be fair, I was never a perfect student and struggled during my first year. I turned and still turn in homework late on occasion. I miss class sometimes. For all intents and purposes, I am as average as they come. Yet, I managed to develop the skills to receive high grades in all my upper level electives. By that time, however, I was glossed over and never offered any sort of mentorship that I saw all my highly-successful friends enjoy.

To expand on this point, the science faculty does an atrocious job at building relationships with the “average” student. My wish is not to be coddled. However, with the exception of maybe one or two professors who I’ve taken classes from, it seems as though there is no interest from the faculty to bring out the best in students who show potential but who perhaps lack the motivation, assertiveness, or study habits to excel. In the end, this creates a vicious cycle and sets up an unfair expectation: either you excel from day one and reap the benefits of positive relationships with faculty members or commit yourself to standing on the sidelines during department picnics.

The next issue I’d like to address is that of diversity among faculty members. To put it bluntly, the number of faculty of color in the sciences is abysmal. Currently, 8% of science professors are tenure-track professors of color. This figure stands in stark contrast to the ones we find in the other divisions: social studies (16%) and humanities (30%). Also, guess how many full professors of color there are in the sciences? None. I searched through the Science Division meeting minutes to see if there was any discussion about hiring more faculty of color. Aside from a mention of starting a SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science) chapter at Grinnell, there were brief conversations regarding faculty diversity at Grinnell. The September 2010 minutes indicated that the science division does a relatively good job of graduating students from underrepresented population, but that attracting and maintaining a diverse faculty was a struggle. Minutes from ensuing months did not mention this topic again and there was no indication of receiving student input regarding this problem.

I was fortunate enough to attend the PossePlus Retreat this year. As I was talking to some of my Posse friends as to why there were only a handful of science professors there, the general
sentiment they expressed was: “Well, science professors could care less about these sorts of things.” Yet, anyone who has ever attended a PossePlus Retreat knows that it is an amazing opportunity to engage with the community in a completely different context. Some of my friends have stopped inviting their science professors because they have never showed any interest in attending or sharing that experience with them.

I would like to challenge science faculty and students to begin conversations regarding the social dynamics that are present in the division. We must be willing to be self-reflective about how we interact among ourselves —we need to be blunt and openly discuss how social dynamics (race, gender, class, assertiveness/passivity etc.) play a role in developing relationships and in how students learn and succeed. In the end, I remained in the sciences because I had two professors who encouraged me and brought out the best in my intellect. I am confident that we are capable of having these conversations and improving the quality of our learning significantly.

—A Concerned Graduating Science Major