Side Comments on Discrimination in STEM

Continuing the discussion from Julie Park: Discrimination and Student-Faculty Interaction in STEM:

@Jordan, @cwhenderson, @pevaquark, @NLENTS, and @Art, please be sure to let me know in the PM I just started when in January you could make time for this important conversation. Thank you.

I will never forget my first faculty adviser experiences as a science professor at a secular private university. These included:

(1) All faculty were assigned on registration day to being available to their advisees for last minute course changes. I remember a freshman African-American student coming to me wanting to replace an Art Appreciation course with Introduction to Sociology. There were no prerequisites required for the Soc101 course so I signed his registration card without hesitation and he returned to the queue. In less than ten minutes I was confronted by a very angry Director of Minority Affairs with the bewildered looking student in tow. “Where do you come off putting John in Dr. Smith’s Intro to Sociology? That’s a killer-course!” I replied, “Firstly, I’ve not met Dr. Smith and I’m not familiar with the reputation of his courses. Secondly, John is free to select any course he wishes for which he qualifies. My job is merely to double-check and make sure that he meets all prerequisites.” The director retorted, “You’re just trying to flunk him out!” I looked at John and said, “It’s not my job to tell you what course to take. The choice is yours. If you wish to change your mind, I hope it will be based on your interests and what is best for you, not just pressures from others.” The director made another angry and dismissive remark in my direction and they walked away. I saw nothing more of that student and I always wondered if he survived the high washout rate for minority students at that university. What did he learn from that experience? Did it convince him that he was destined for failure if he took anything but easy courses?

(2) I remember a very promising African-American student who was getting A’s in all of his courses, including mine. He was a very talented and hard-working young man from a poorly funded high school in the inner city of one of the major suburbs of that metropolitan area. Unfortunately, as I soon discovered was not rare on that campus, he received increasing social pressures from his peer community. He was accused of “acting white” because of his diligent study habits and high grades.

I brought up these situations with my faculty peers. I was hoping for ideas and advice on how we could help these students. Unfortunately, they seemed to find it all too easy to blame problems like these solely on African-American administrators and the black community itself. There seemed to be very little willingness to grapple with why these types of problems had developed. Indeed, some used such incidents as excuses for fighting against Affirmative Action in general and the funding of special programs bringing minority students from disadvantaged communities into the university. Many of those biases were even expressed outright in faculty meetings in very dogmatic ways. (I wonder if they would be far more reluctant today—although I’ve been retired from the classroom far too long to judge that likelihood.)

I don’t claim to have the answers. I do wonder what ever happened to those students of long ago.


Wow, Intro to Sociology vs. Art Appreciation… Choosing between two dumpster fires as a freshman. I would’ve steered the kid to Art History vs. Psychology, History, Philosophy and/or Political Science courses. At least areas with actual history and rigor to serve as a decent foundation.

I do have one general question. What does “STEM” mean with respect to college / university? I can sort of see it in pre-college programs, but it would seem to involve very specific things in college, depending on the particular discipline.

1 Like

STEM = Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics.

I have been emphasizing to sociologists that these letters really must be understood separately, and Medicine needs its own letter. There are large differences between each of these fields, and one big challenge facing us in biology is how to encourage minorities to enter science instead of medicine.

Does there tend to be more financial aid available for minorities who choose to go into medicine compared to other fields of science?

I don’t know. During my graduate days certain minorities were able to tap a nice pool of funding. I’d assume medical schools also supported funding for some minorities as well. I suspect this continues.

I think there is a cultural component to medical school vs. scientific research, with fewer peer examples in the sciences. The medical profession carries higher prestige. The same for law and business. Those are more ‘tangible’ professions to the general public and among those for whom even completing college would seem a stretch.

1 Like

I find the idea of student-faculty interactions being simultaneously important and “risky” to be very disconcerting.

I certainly want the minority students in my classroom to feel that I am supportive and approachable. I just worry about unknowingly doing/saying something offensive or unhelpful and then I don’t have a chance to clarify or remedy my mistake.

I worry about the so-called “color blind” approach, that seemed logical to me when I first started teaching, but now seems insufficient. Essentially, it’s much easier to just ignore race than to actual try to acknowledge and wrestle with it. I really don’t have any good ideas at this point so I’m hoping this conversation will help me out.


I don’t understand why there would be any problem. if a student , or faculty, has been denied their rights then all they have to do is make a charge in school adminstration or the general courts. These dayds its impossible for a charge not to be investigated and then a species of trial or a trial.
Case closed.
It gives the accuser a chance for justice or the accused a chance for justice from false accusation.
I doubt anybody, relative to millions/tens of millions of student/faculty has discriimination. Possibly you could find hundreds/thousands of cases but its relative. Its not a worthy concern for nation(s) in other words.
North America has hundreds of millions of people interacting.
Nations for centuries have been dealing with issues of rights of the common people and we have the results in our governments. The schools need just copy them.they must have history/government/law divisions.
There is no excuse for problems. Just apply the law and process.

I late to the game here again, but I just wanted to say I really appreciated Julie’s work and effort in this area.

Something that struck me as I was reading this was how student experiences are often conflated around multiple aspects of identity and that can have some unintended consequences. At my school we have a high student- athlete population and that population has a much higher percentage of racial minorities (African-American, Native American, etc.) than the non-athlete population. As faculty we sometimes grumble and complain about the lack of attendance or academic performance in our athlete population (due to extensive practice schedules and game travel), but I can imagine that being interpreted as being negative towards minority students (regardless of how it was intended). Just being more aware of that kind of thing may help, I don’t know.

1 Like