Podcaster Dave Rubin has the custom of going “off the grid” for a month each summer, to gain some perspective on changes. As a scientist who has been retired from the lab for more than ten years, I feel in a similar position vis-à-vis the state of academic science. To this campus Rip-van-Winkle, things now look very different.
I didn’t notice much until the current anti-racism crisis, when I found that academe, as a place for free exchange of ideas, had become almost unrecognizable. Higher education has begun a transformation along the same lines as the 1966 Maoist “Cultural Revolution” in China. Like the cultural revolution, the energized identity-politics movement presents itself as a cleansing force. Pure Maoism was being corrupted by covert capitalist sympathizers. They had to be rooted out.
In U.S. academe, the problem was similar. The "party faithful" took for granted the permanence of "White privilege" and "systemic racism" which, for many, was also their livelihood. But then, in the decades following the civil rights acts, things got better. Measurable indices of racism seemed to be improving: People of color were well represented on city councils, police forces, and state and national legislatures; Black faces were on many magazine covers and in ads for prestigious products; interracial marriages increased; Black entertainers and even opinion leaders were beloved. A Black president was elected and re-elected. A survey showed a steady decline in objective measures of racism up until 2014. What’s not to like?
Plenty, as it turned out. The "woke" party saw its anti-racist cause going down to…anti-racism! They have fought back, with some success. A survey published in 2017 showed that from 2014 onward people increasingly agreed that “more needs to be done” to achieve racial equality. This tendency was exaggerated in academe. From being relatively content with the state of race relations, administration, faculty, and students have become increasingly doctrinaire in their stance against racism. Unable to point to objective measures of increasing racism, they have turned their attention to something much harder to refute: systemic (aka institutional, structural) racism.
Systemic racism in higher education, a petition
One bit of evidence for this is a currently circulating petition/op-ed that, Science (one of the two leading general-science journals) has apparently agreed to publish about combating systemic racism in STEM. You can read Systemic Racism in Higher Education here but I will just discuss a few of its key assumptions.
Quoting from the petition:
Everyone in academia must acknowledge the role that universities—faculty, staff, and students—play in perpetuating structural racism by subjecting students of color to unwelcoming academic cultures…The misuse of standardized tests, like the GRE, excludes students who could have otherwise succeeded. [emphases added]
Structural (aka systemic, institutional) racism is not defined. The words could be replaced by evil spirits without loss of meaning. The idea seems like a way of deflecting attention from identifiable causes of racial disparities. Careful examination of a specific context (such as police brutality) can usually point to measurable causes with no need to invoke an abstraction. Nevertheless, we all must acknowledge that the GRE, like any predictive test, is not perfect: it fails some good people and passes a small number of weak ones. But the study cited in the petition seems to fault the STEM-related GRE more because women and minorities do worse on it than men than because it is an imperfect predictor of success in graduate school.
What does the petition mean by “unwelcoming academic cultures”? There are two obvious possibilities: racism, pure and simple, and a problem with the type and level of academic discussion compared with the environment to which some students are accustomed.
The evidence for any kind of overt racism in academe is negligible and if it emerged would surely lead to strong correctives. What remains is just that the disciplines of STEM are difficult, possibly too difficult for students who have been admitted with weaker-than-average qualifications. Human beings are not equally good at everything. Mathematics, particularly, separates the wheat from the chaff in dramatic fashion. Some people (your humble correspondent, for example) just can’t handle tough math. If this is the "unwelcoming academic culture" some students will either drop out or - and this is the pressure now - will clamor for a simpler curriculum. If such changes are made, the results will likely be disastrous for the quality of science education.
Reducing structural racism in higher education will require evidence-based, institution-wide approaches that focus on achieving equity in student learning. If we abandon the perception of “fixed” student ability, more BIPOC students will succeed.
The petition assumes that essentially any student is capable of succeeding. But at what? Not at everything. People are not equal; not everyone can master quaternions. The petition assumes that ineradicable individual differences — “fixed” student ability — do not exist, which is simply false. By all means, give the best education you can. But do not expect to educate everybody, especially in tough STEM subjects. People are not all equally able. An educational system aimed at this kind of "equity" is likely instead to end in mediocrity.
[These changes] will require making tenure dependent not only on excellence in research, teaching, and service, but also meaningful contributions to promote equity and inclusion…. Every scientist should commit to reporting unfair practices…All faculty should examine their courses for performance disparities based on ethnicity and gender…
Ready to submit? It is apparently not sufficient to teach well and do excellent research, faculty must also commit to eliminating disparities, disparities which are as likely to be the result of differences in interest and talent as inadequate teaching. Faculty are to scrutinize their grade distributions to see that BIPOC do not fall behind. What if they do? The temptation to adjust evaluation so as to eliminate disparities will be strong — will teachers act racist, but in a good way! They may be “reported” if they don’t! This is totalitarianism. not science. There’s more, but you get the idea.
If these efforts to eliminate disparities in everything, to match racial proportions in STEM to those in society, if they succeed, it will be a cultural revolution indeed. Science is already in trouble; a successful effort to make it conform to political ends will destroy academic freedom and wreck the nation’s science base.
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John Staddon is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Neuroscience