Monday, December 8, 2014

Navigating Diversity Efforts in STEM through an Equity-Oriented Framework

by Christopher B. Newman, Assistant Professor at University of San Diego 

As a scholar who focuses a majority of my research on outcomes, inequities, and experiences of students of color in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics fields, I have often rationalized the importance of my scholarship with the argument that expanding the STEM pathways to a racially diverse citizenry will inevitable contribute to maintaining U.S. global competitiveness because diverse perspectives contribute to scientific and technological innovations. Concurrently, I have argued the increased diversity in STEM was also a national imperative rooted in historical and systemic inequities. Stated simply, African Americans and other people of color have been systematically diverted from high skilled and high wage labor markets through policy, rhetoric, sabotage, influence, and coercion (see for example Fouché, 2003; James; 1989; Slaton, 2010; Wharton, 1992). These structural barriers have contributed to the persisting gaps in the educational and labor market outcomes for people of color in the United States. Therefore, I assert the intentional actions to obstruct the educational attainment, labor market prospects, and entrepreneurial success of people of color in STEM fields can only be overcome with intentional and sustained efforts of corporations, educational institutions, federal and state policies, and other non-governmental entities.

The recently published book “Falling Behind? Boom, Bust & the Global Race for Scientific Talent” by Michael S. Teitelbaum grabbed headlines with the proclamation that the rationale put forward by corporations, legislators, and the scientific community over the past decade regarding the United States’ waning global competitiveness in STEM was based upon an uncritical analysis of data and trends. One example of how Teitelbaum (2014) scrutinizes the arguments for the decrease in global dominance is by arguing the statistical data on degree completion may be comparing “apples to oranges” as some countries report degrees and certificates in technical areas that would likely not be counted the same way in the United States. Other points of concern focus on the alleged intentional exaggeration by corporations in citing a limited labor force in STEM fields in order to pressure the federal government to issue H1-B visas. Teitelbaum alleges that corporations are pushing for these visas in order to recruit lower wageworkers from aboard. Additionally, Teitelbaum indentifies a cyclical pattern of waxing and waning interest in supporting STEM fields with immense financial resources pumped into STEM fields through federal research grants and other appropriations. This influx of funding increases the production of degrees in STEM, which saturates the market with a well qualified talent pool. Consequently, job opportunities are limited in the field and citizens begin to find other areas for employment prospects. This decrease in enthusiasm for STEM eventually leads to “shortages” and the cycle begins again. Ultimately, Tietelbaum calls for an objective assessment committee, among other things, to evaluate claims of career trends and shortages in STEM fields.

With serious concern over the validity of the global competitiveness argument, I fear the equity rationale is less well received given the prevalent notions of “meritocracy” that have stunted considerable progress (Baez, 2006; Killgore, 2009; Liu, 2010). Nine states (CA, WA, FL, MI, CO, NE, AZ, NH, OK) have legislated Anti-Affirmative Action policies and when cases are heard before the United States Supreme Court it seems the justification for Affirmative Action policies are more narrowly tailored. The movement towards a meritocratic system has made it increasingly difficult in public higher education institutions to support race-based initiatives designed to work against systemic impediments. It should be noted that some private institutions are feeling the pressure and/or stigma from wealthy alumni donors discontinue race-based initiatives for fear of devaluing institutional prestige. In this climate, I often wonder how students of color from urban school districts are supposed to compete for the coveted seats in higher education institutions when their schools are more likely to be considerably lower resourced than their suburban White counterparts? Moreover, what is the responsibility of higher education institutions? Should colleges and universities sit passively by with the expectation that the most meritorious applicants will rise to the top?

In my research, I have paid particular attention to public research universities with records of success in graduating African Americans with degrees in engineering and computer science. After conducting a multiple case study of two campuses (one in the Midwest and one in the Southeast), I found these institutions took an active role in engaging with communities of color through summer science camps for elementary and high school students and through pre-college outreach programs during the academic year.  What I found most striking was the institutional commitment to multiculturalism and racial diversity. Academic clubs with students from all different racial backgrounds participated in outreach efforts, faculty members provided access to their research laboratories to high school students, and the college of engineering also sponsored the various summer camps. These activities created an “equity-oriented” campus culture in STEM fields (Jayakumar & Museus, 2012). Through intentional and sustained action for over 20 years at the Midwestern campus the outcomes of such efforts garnered an estimated 50% undergraduate enrollment yield rate for pre-college outreach participants from the African American Community. The Dean at the college of engineering and other faculty and administrators I interviewed felt these outreach endeavors were an investment in the future of their institution.

Future research needs to move beyond blaming the student and look to higher education institutions’ role in the learning environment created. Too often research focuses on individual attributes of students, which in many ways may take a meritocratic framework with the assumption that the individual is solely responsible for their educational outcomes. Estela Bensimon, Professor of Higher Education and Co-Director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California, in her work on the equity scorecard recognizes the complexity of inequities and guides leaders to see racial achievement gaps as a problem of practice. This approach emphasizes what institutions are doing to contribute to or hinder the success of students of color. Moving forward, more research on students of color in STEM should include in the analyses institutional level support structures that may contribute to students’ successes and challenges.

Baez, B. (2006). Merit and difference. Teachers College Record, 108(6), 996-1016.

Fouché, R. (2003). Black inventors in the age of segregation: Granville T. Woods, Lewis
H. Latimer & Shelby J. Davidson. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

James, P. P. (1989). The real McCoy: African-American invention and innovation,
1619-1930. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Jayakumar, U. M., & Museus, S. D. (2012). Mapping the intersection of campus cultures and equitable outcomes among racially diverse student populations. In S. D. Museus & U. M. Jayakumar (Eds.) Creating campus cultures: Fostering success among racially diverse student populations. New York: Routledge.

Killgore, L. (2009). Merit and competition in selective college admissions. The Review of Higher Education, 32(4), 469-488.

Liu, A. (2011). Unraveling the myth of meritocracy within the context of US higher education. The International Journal of Higher Education Research, 62(4), 383-397.

Slaton, A. E. (2010). Race, rigor, and selectivity in U.S. engineering: The history of an occupational color line. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Teitelbaum, M. S. (2014). Falling behind? Boom, bust & the global race for scientific talent. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wharton, D. E. (1992). A struggle worthy of note: The engineering and technological education of Black Americans. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.