Julie Park: Discrimination and Student-Faculty Interaction in STEM

This conversation will be held on January 11th and 12th.

We are coming to the close of 2018. This is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther Kings assassination in 1968. As a scientist living in St Louis, I have become acutely aware of the disparity in science (Essay: "Grieve the Segregation of Science" by S. Joshua Swamidass). During this last year, I’ve found several other science faculty, some of them here, that care about this disparity too.

I have also had the pleasure of serving on the advisory committee for @Julie_Park’s NSF grant on STEM education and disparity: Connections Matter: The Impact of Social Ties and Social Capital for STEM College Students. Julie is a brilliant and productive young social scientist, who has been studying the sociology of STEM education for a while now (https://juliepark.wordpress.com/research). As science educators, there is a lot we have to learn from sociologists here.

Dr. Park sent me a list of key findings from her current work for us to discuss with her. She generously agrees to spend a couple days discussing this with us too. I’ll be reading out to the educators (@Jordan, @cwhenderson, @pevaquark, @NLENTS, @Art) here to find out a date that would work for everyone to join in the conversation with us. As soon as that is settled, I will announce it here.

Until then, here are the findings we will be discussing. Anyone and everyone is welcome to weigh in on the Side Comments on Discrimination in STEM thread while we wait for the office hours to begin.

List of Key Findings

Key Findings from Discrimination and Student-Faculty Interaction in STEM: Exploring the Impact for Students of Different Races by Julie J. Park, Young K. Kim, Cinthya Salazar, M. Kevin Eagan.

  1. Experiencing discrimination was linked with having a significantly lower GPA for students in STEM, a finding that echoes past research on the negative effect of stereotyping and hostile classroom environments in STEM.

  2. Typically, student-faculty interaction (e.g., attending office hours, asking questions, etc.) is linked with many positive benefits for students. However, such interaction can also open the door for negative interactions, which tend to affect minority students.

  3. Not only did discrimination have a direct negative link with GPA, but it tended to lessen or disrupt the otherwise positive link between student-faculty interaction, academic satisfaction, and GPA. Experiencing discrimination was linked with a 39.2% reduction in the positive indirect effect of student-faculty interaction and GPA.

  4. The finding that interaction with faculty is linked with a higher likelihood of experiencing discrimination is likely being driven by the negative experiences of Black students.

  5. Black STEM students with higher interaction with faculty also were more likely to experience discrimination from faculty because of race/ethnicity; however, this was not the case for students of other races.

  6. Being a Black student had both negative direct and indirect effects on GPA, which was mediated by lower academic satisfaction and greater feelings of discrimination from faculty.

  7. Black students tended to report lower levels of academic satisfaction as compared to their peers in other racial groups. The negative effect of being a Black student on academic satisfaction seemed to be mitigated by the positive relationship among being a Black student, student-faculty interaction, and academic satisfaction.

  8. Thus, there appears to be a paradoxical relationship between student-faculty interaction and outcomes (e.g., GPA) for Black students. They benefit; however, they also suffer from experiences of discrimination. In other words, they are not reaping the full potential of such interaction.

  9. Student-faculty interaction had a positive direct effect on GPA for only White students.

  10. Greater academic satisfaction was significantly linked with higher college GPA for only Latinx and Asian American. High school math GPA had a positive link with academic satisfaction during college for Black and Latin STEM students only.

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Hi everyone! Thanks Josh and Peaceful Science for hosting me. Our paper findings are posted, but I’m also happy to engage with any questions around race/gender, diversity, and equity in STEM. Interested to hear people’s observations from being in the classroom and on campus about how some of these issues may come out.


Thank you so much for taking the time for the office hours here, Dr. Park. Your observations that student-faculty interactions between black students and faculty match with what I’ve experienced in the last 15 years. A perceived barrier between students and faculty seems to be in place across all demographics of students, but (in my experience) Caucasian students tend to push past this barrier faster than other ethnic groups and Black students seem to take the longest time to push past this barrier.

Houston Baptist University is unlike many small, Christian universities because we have much more ethnic diversity (as expected for the most diverse city in the nation) than most. However, I belong to a Biology Department with 9 faculty, all of which are Caucasian, and I’m beginning to think this could be a problem. None of us would intentionally discriminate against students of any ethnicity, but that brings up a couple of my questions.

  1. What types of UNintentional discrimination would you advise us to be aware of?
  2. What can we actively do to reduce (and hopefully eliminate) the negative aspect of student-faculty interaction, particularly for our Black students?

Hi Julie,

Thanks so much for this effort. I was wondering how different things were at different “classes” of institution - HBCU, MSI, private schools (“large” ones like an Ivy as well as small liberal arts colleges), flagship vs. regional publics, community colleges, religious schools, etc.

For example (to give one specific point for discussion), do students experience less discrimination at HBCUs/MSIs than at other sorts of institution?

Thanks, and looking forward to the discussion.

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Hi @cwhenderson, thanks for writing. It’s interesting that the barrier seems to exist for all groups but as you said, certain students tend to push through easier. In terms of ways that unintentional bias or barriers might be communicated–I think the one you identified, having an all-White faculty, can certain be one, which speaks to the importance of a diverse faculty. If you think about it, if perceived barriers = status quo for all students, that such barriers are even more heightened for students of color. The current culture of STEM basically communicates–you don’t belong here, and that’s even without anyone being explicitly or intentionally racist.

So how to combat these things. Faculty composition is hard to change, but there are proactive steps that departments can do to both recruit and retain faculty of color. These dynamics also underscore the need of proactive outreach from faculty to students, whether it’s intentionally building relationships, encouraging students to come join labs or research groups, etc. Reaching out to organizations on campus like a Society of Black Engineers (or the Latinx equivalent, or others) and being a presence/mentor there could send a message that you’re invested in these students’ lives and well-being, or other cultural/ethnic clubs that your university might host. (We actually know from the research that these clubs support students in many positive ways, versus fostering negative self-segregation/balkanization) Also looking for classroom examples or ways that course content can be made relevant to social and community issues–we have research that talks about how minority students often pursue STEM careers as a way to support their communities. There’s no one single way, but the challenges are many, and thus any shift in culture requires a lot of intentional effort.


Hi @Art, good question. I actually don’t know the research on institutional type very well in terms of public vs. private, etc. but I can guess that there might be some special challenges at larger institutions (just larger classes, etc.) versus smaller ones. From my research on community colleges, I heard students talk about how they actually appreciated the faculty commitment to teaching. Generally speaking, with most of these institutional types, there’s a big “it depends.” You could have great instruction and engagement at one institutional type and then a less stellar environment at another campus.

However, we do know that in general, HBCUs and MSIs are heralded for their excellence in graduating scientists and engineers of color. These institutions graduate a disproportionate # of all Black and other minorities period, and also among those working in STEM. However, I don’t think MSIs have a monopoly on this type of inclusive climate–for instance, some predominantly White institutions like University of Maryland, Baltimore County have built a really positive culture around inclusive excellence in STEM and is a known feeder of Black and other minority students to top graduate programs.


Thank you for engaging here and the good work that you do. I have been immersed in the issue of diversifying the STEM work force for many years now and so I know firsthand how important your work is. Kudos! I work at an MSI/HSI with 45% Hispanic students and 25% black students. (My children are also African American, but that’s not really relevant here, although it’s been another push for me towards learning more diverse cultural competency.)

Hiring black and Hispanic faculty and staff is absolutely essential, as you say, but it’s harder than it sounds. I ran faculty searches in my department for about 6 years and oversaw the hiring of 11 full-time faculty. Of those, we managed two black men and two Hispanic women. Some white and Asian women also, so we are now a much more diverse department than we were. But it took a ton of effort because you can’t just “not discriminate” and hope that diverse candidates will find you. We recruited HARD and still didn’t get as diverse a pool as we’d hoped. And then, a lot of our top candidates in the black and Hispanic categories got offers that we couldn’t possibly compete with, though we tried. I’m sure our prior lack of diversity had something to do with them choosing greener pastures as well. Those that we did hire (of all races) are clearly “with us on the road” on our mission of being a true minority SERVING institution, so it’s a great match. But I just can’t emphasize enough how much time, planning, and commitment it takes to recruit, retain, and support diverse faculty. And search committees should bring in experts and really listen to them. Diversity can’t just be an afterthought and, if you’re serious about it, it shouldn’t be anyway.

We also have thought a lot about how to specifically support students of color and this has made a difference also. We had a lot of faculty development workshops, we shared literature, we went to conferences, and eventually we got DoEd grants. The first step is, again as you said, just to be conscious that we are a majority white faculty serving a majority non-white student body and that we need to think hard about what that requires of us. We have a series of article on our efforts the STEM programs, the most recent one is here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/tea.21341

I would never claim that we’ve got it all figured out, but we’ve come a long way. It’s not rocket science, but it is hard work and requires us to humble ourselves and admit that we must admit our ignorance, then listen and learn.

In your study, the specific negative effect of faculty contact on black students is devastating. I’ll be reflecting on that one a lot. We have so far to go. :frowning:


I agree, and this is most concerning to many of us. See what @Jordan writes:

@Julie_Park, can you help us understand this in some more depth. Can you explain some examples of faculty-student interactions that backfire? What do they look like? What do positive faculty-student interactions look like, in contrast? Some stories on good and bad interactions would be very helpful for me, and suspect the others here too.

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@NLENTS Can you tell us more about these things?

  1. What specific literature did you find helpful? Do you mind linking some of it here?

  2. Which conferences were most helpful? What have you learned from them?

  3. What DoEd grant programs are relevant to this? What grants, specifically, did your faculty win? What have you learned from them?

Thank you for writing–you are absolutely right in how recruiting (and retaining!) a diverse faculty is an incredibly challenging process, and I am so glad to hear how your department has stuck it out even though the process can be so hard. Furthermore, I am delighted to hear about how you and your colleagues are actually assessing what’s going on at your campus and writing it up for the community–hats off. There is no diversity magic, it’s all just hard work. Great reflections.

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This is the one point that really struck me as well. The reason I asked above about HBCUs/MSIs was to find out if this is an issue at these institutions. My expectation is that it may not be so much of one, which leads to the question of what is different, and can other places learn from the successes (especially on this point) of HBCUs/MSIs.

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MSIs are not all the same on this. The majority of MSIs just became MSIs through demographic change that they had no say in and thus are not majority-minority faculty. Whereas HBCUs were intentionally created as such and tend to have majority black faculty. It’s a huge difference. For institutions like ours, we became an HSI before anyone realized it and it was literally a decade and a half before anyone decided to hold conversations about what it means and what we should do to embrace it. HBCUs are the best model because they know who they are and why they exist as MSIs. The HBCU-alumni that are now faculty at my college, an MSI, say that the difference is palpable and touches just about everything in college life.


That is important to know, and something to understand.


@NLENTS would any of them be willing to come explain this to us?

Yes, definitely I can do that. Give me some time to collect a more comprehensive list. I didn’t put the workshops on - I was just a participant. Here’s some fast responses:

Obviously, the invisible knapsack (the paper that coined the term white privilege) should be required reading by every American: http://www.interpretereducation.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/white-privilege-by-Peggy-McIntosh.compressed.pdf

This is a good one from the AACU: https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/unpacking-teachers-invisible-knapsacks-social-identity-and

For conferences, all of your students of color should attend either ABRCMS, SACNAS, or both and faculty should go with them. For faculty, I went to mentoring things from CUR and the AACU and I sought out all the sessions on mentoring, diversity and inclusion, diverse hiring, diverse mentoring, whatever they have (and most conferences do have this stuff now!) Most of what i know is for undergraduates because I’m at a PUI.

For grants, MSIs are eligible for titleIII grants and HSIs are eligible for titleV grants from DoED. I’ve been a PI on both, as well as some NSF grants that are targeted that way (S-STEM is the one I have, but there REU and RUI grants/supplements are helpful. Once you’re in that community, there are annual conferences for program directors, grant workshops, and so forth. These become de facto faculty development as you build your network with other MSI faculty.

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In terms of positive interactions–generally I think interactions that seek to benefit the student and treat them with dignity (versus a #) and warmth doesn’t hurt either. Of course how that plays out with someone’s personality will look different from person to person, but basically any sort of engagement that seeks to be helpful and supportive. Vehicles for such interactions can include office hours, students asking questions during/after class, undergrad research, mentorship, etc. Of course all of the latter can be done well, and they can also be done poorly too. The point is to (ideally) do them well.

In terms of negative interactions, some stories I’ve heard are instances of when students felt that their intelligence was questioned, or an interaction with a faculty member perhaps reinforced isolation that they already felt in the environment. It’s tricky because some comments can really be no brainer problematic/stereotypical, and those are the easiest to diagnose (e.g., “Wow, you are really articulate for a Black student.” DON’T SAY THAT.)

But other negative interactions can be more subtle/subjective and those are the more challenging things to diagnose. It’s also complex in STEM sink or swim type environments where it feels like everyone’s intelligence is being questioned/continuously challenged, and when you have an underrepresented minority student who already feels isolated and vulnerable–comments that aren’t necessarily intentionally racist can still undermine a student’s sense of belonging/self-confidence. Of course the latter can happen to anyone regardless of race (having their self-confidence undermined) but people have different levels of privilege in their ability to ignore something versus wondering–is this because of race. I can speak firsthand to this from my own experience as an Asian American/woman of color in academia, which is an interesting position because on the one hand, I personally feel buffered from a lot of the hostile climate that my more underrepresented minority colleagues are more vulnerable to, but depending on the setting/environment, I can lose some of that “buffer.” In a nutshell, it’s harder to give people the benefit of the doubt in those environments when your minority status is heightened.

One could debate whether comments and interactions that are not intended to be discriminatory, but are experienced as such, are actually discriminatory, and that’s a whole other rabbit hole that I personally don’t care to go down. The fact remains that because we live in an unequal society, they are often experienced as discriminatory, and the subjective experience can have a really damaging effect on the student/person. Regardless of intent, there can be impact.

I don’t want people to feel like they have to walk on eggshells or treat students of color with extra caution (which can also lead to an awkward environment which negatively reinforces minority status)–but I hope some of these insights are helpful in understanding how complex social interactions are. Probably the best faculty can do is to 1) take responsibility to educate themselves, and there have been awesome resources listed in the dialogue here 2) actively create a supportive environment 3) consider how the “sink or swim” culture (or other types of things that foster exceptional competitiveness/cut throatness) can have a detrimental effect on more vulnerable underrepresented students (minorities and women) 4) think about how #3 can be combated, and work to build trusting and collaborative environments where students genuinely feel cared for 5) there’s a lot of other stuff but I have to go eat dinner now! Hope this offers some food for thought.


These are some very helpful thoughts thank you!

I’ve personally been thinking quite a bit on the faculty I know (myself included) who are just not (at least on average) the most personable/outgoing/warm people and the role that this could play in light of the research you’ve done. My wife has told me a number of times that ‘so and so doesn’t think that you like them’ which always surprises me to hear that - I very rarely ever think that yet certain people around me can tend to draw that conclusion. This seems likely a possible candidate that can lead in to the unintended discrimination that @cwhenderson mentioned above. Even if someone like myself treats all people equally coldly (unintentionally of course!), it is important to note that:


Hi, really interesting reflections. I like the self-awareness that while you may (unintentionally) treat everyone coldly that it might come off even a little more negative to some groups than others (e.g., not just “is he snubbing me/does he think I’m dumb?” or "does he think I’m dumb because I’m __________). I’m not sure how realistic it is to ask people to change their personalities, but to consider that if there’s a way that you might be coming off in student interactions, to think about how you’re communicating to your students that you value them and want them to succeed. No one size fits all answer to how that might look, but good food for thought.

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By the one, another thought–if a professor has a personality that comes off as “cold” is that necessarily perceived as discriminatory? Not necessarily, although possibly (just would depend on the interaction) But could it be contributing to what’s described as a “chilly” climate? Probably, and the research on why many people of color/women don’t stay in STEM is often linked to a climate that is seen as chilly or unwelcoming.

It’s hard–you don’t want to fake your personality or be someone that you aren’t. So again, thinking of other ways to communicate that you welcome and value students, seeing them as more than just #s.

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