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Feven Getachew
Feven Getachew
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Michael Lozada
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Nathan Hoffman
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Harvey Wilhelm `24.
Harvey Wilhelm
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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

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    Samuel A. RebelskyMay 14, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    [A slightly different version of this response was submitted to the editor of the S&B on May 10]

    To the editor (and to the author of this article),

    It’s been a busy week, and I did not have a chance to read the May 4 S&B until about 5 p.m. on the following Thursday. I was stunned to read this opinion piece about students in the sciences. There clearly is not time to write a careful response, but it feels like some response is needed. I must say that it upsets me tremendously that this student felt unsupported in the sciences. I am sure that we will talking about the motivational and mentoring issues the student raises over the months to come. [In fact, we spent a significant portion of the Science Division meeting on May 14 talking about these issues.]

    But I also think that some of the student’s misconceptions about diversity in the science division need to be addressed. The science faculty care deeply about diversity in the sciences. For example, science faculty developed the the Grinnell Science Project because of concerns about underrepresentation of certain groups in the sciences (domestic students of color, women in certain sciences, first generation students). In designing our funding request for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, we included a post-doctoral program to encourage Ph.D.’s in underrepresented groups to consider careers at liberal arts colleges. Mark Levandoski, who runs our HHMI program, worked to get other institution to include a similar post-doc. Every department has also revamped its curriculum to be more inclusive to a variety of learning styles. Jim Swartz regularly travels to conferences for Ph.D.’s of color to talk about careers at liberal arts colleges. These examples just scratch the surface of the things we do.

    Why don’t you see more faculty of color among the Grinnell science faculty? Mostly, it’s because there aren’t a lot of Ph.D.’s of color in the sciences, and most of those Ph.D.’s look for opportunities at research institutions or in industry, rather than at small liberal arts colleges. I can give you an example from my discipline, Computer Science. There just aren’t a lot of potential people. Of 1456 Ph.D.’s award in computer science in 2011, just 16 were awarded to Blacks/African-Americans, 22 to Hispanics, and 2 to American Indians [1]. Other sciences are better, but still not as balanced as the social studies or humanities. What does this mean? Well, Grinnell participates with many peers in the Consortium for Diversity, a program designed to encourage Ph.D.’s of color (in all disciplines) to consider teaching at a liberal arts college. Each year, as soon as the list of registered Ph.D.’s is announced, the CS faculty scour the list, hoping to find someone to consider. In the past decade, I think I’ve seen one Computer Science Ph.D. on the list. That’s not very encouraging if we want to hire someone to diversify our department or division. I will note that many of the other science departments have requested permission to hire faculty through the Consortium, and have been successful.

    Why don’t you see discussions of these issues in the Science Division minutes? In part, it’s because we talk about it all the time outside of the division meetings – in other meetings (e.g., HHMI), in department meetings, in the hallway. In part, it’s because the discussions get included with other things in the minutes – e.g., faculty volunteering to go to conferences to recruit or disseminate information. In part, it’s because the broader discussion happens at the full faculty level. Perhaps most importantly, it’s because hiring is done at the department level, rather than the division level. And I know that such discussions happen every time we have a new position. For example, diversifying the candidate pool is one of the first issues we consider as we advertise our position.

    Why don’t you see Grinnell Science faculty at the Posse Plus retreat? Everyone I know that has been invited has been thrilled to go. I certainly enjoyed it last year. So, perhaps it’s that there’s a myth that “science professors could care less about these sorts of things” and we just don’t get invited as often. Let’s try an experiment: Posse members, next year please invite your science faculty to PossePlus and see how they respond. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

    Why are you seeing this too-long last-minute response, rather than a careful response from the science division? Because our next meeting as a division isn’t until finals week, because most of us our very busy during Happy Exciting Liberal Learning week, and because it’s much harder for faculty to remember to read the S&B now that it is no longer delivered to our division offices. (When I finally saw the article on Thursday and chatted with colleagues, none of them had read the S&B.)

    In closing, I know that my colleagues in the sciences are as dismayed about the opinion piece as I am. We will be talking about how to address the perception and mentoring issues raised in the piece. I also know that we care deeply about supporting all students and diversifying our disciplines.

    Samuel A. Rebelsky, Chair of Computer Science, former Chair of the Science Division

    [1] Taulbee Survey on the enrollment, production, and employment of Ph.D.s in computer science and computer engineering (CS & CE),