Lab Life

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Brittany Trang

Students, Staff, and Faculty Fight Racism and Perfunctory Campus Change

On her first day as an assistant professor of biology, Dr. Raven Baxter, also known as Raven the Science Maven, encountered a co-worker who threatened to call the cops on her because she didn’t believe Baxter worked there.

Baxter’s story, and other #BlackInTheIvory and #BlackInSTEM stories only highlight a fraction of people of color’s experiences in academia. Although there is a long history to this experience, the awareness and conversation has greatly increased in the past year in response to the killing of George Floyd. Some of these stories highlight overt examples of discrimination (e.g., denying fairness and equitability in tenure, recognition or salary), while others unearth racism and biases which are often more insidious and implicit in their delivery and execution (e.g., mentor gaslighting, being excluded, experiencing micro-aggressions, etc.).

But one thing is clear: Despite academia’s commitment to truth­—Veritas, as Harvard would say—racism lives within our hallowed halls. Sometimes we can see it as we pass it by. Sometimes it opens doors. Sometimes we encounter it and struggle to pass. Sometimes—and most insidiously—it is structural, stretching above our heads, holding up the roof and walls, something we could see if only we ever cared to look up.

The increased awareness of anti-Black racism that emerged during the summer of 2020 precipitated movements like #ShutDownSTEM and #ShutDownAcademia. The increased visibility of anti-Asian racism in early 2021 prompted graduate students and chemists to organize events like the #StopAAPIHateRun and release statements in solidarity with the Asian American/Pacific Islander community. This increased focus on institutional racism bolstered calls by students for institutions to make campus environments more diverse, inclusive, and accessible.

Institutional racism also known as systemic racism, is a form of racism that is embedded through laws and regulations within society or an organization. It can lead to such issues as bias and discrimination in criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power, and education among other issues.

“I can feel and see and have the data to prove the difference in terms of engagement,” says Sara Xayarath Hernández, the Graduate School Associate Dean for Inclusion and Student Engagement at Cornell University. “People are paying attention differently than they ever have before in recent years.”

Using this wave of transformational energy, students and institutions have been able to push for changes that have been years in the making, but some populations continue to do the most work while other—often more powerful—populations continue to do the least. Universities and students often appear opposed in their desires to proceed thoughtfully while also making rapid, effective change. So, how can we ensure that our time and energy result in actual transformation?

For the underrepresented or marginalized, the impacts of institutional racism are cited in literature as including:

  • Experiencing chilly environments and/or microaggressions and/or stereotype threats and/or gaslighting
  • Having limited or inequitable access to advancement, educational or career opportunities.
  • Receiving inadequate and inequitable mentorship and/or support and/or training
  • Experiences of tokenism: The practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing (e.g. being recruited as a member from an underrepresented group in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality)

Take the Burden Off Students

Although more people are listening to the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) conversation than before, students are still often the motivators for change.

In 2019, Stanford’s School of Engineering Graduate Student Council identified diversity and inclusion as one area where the graduate student experience could be improved. Anni Zhang, a PhD candidate in chemical engineering at Stanford and a member of the council, says that the council never received any pushback from department chairs when they brought up improving diversity and inclusion. “The only thing was, it wasn't a focus.”

Did anything change after summer 2020? “Oh yeah,” says Zhang. “Absolutely.”

The chemical engineering department formed a task force for improving the equity and diversity in the department to match existing committees in the computer science and other departments. Money came out of “I don’t even know where,” according to Zhang. Even though there was a hiring pause at Stanford, the School of Engineering was allowed to hire another person into the Equity and Inclusion Initiatives team. Despite these positive changes, Zhang noted that there was a lot of lip service from the university, placing the burden on student groups.

In another example, at the University of Iowa, chemistry Ph.D. candidates and DEI Graduate Cohort members Hoang Dang, Jessica DeYoung, Leah Scharlott, and Nicole States put together the microaggression training for the Fall 2020 chemistry department TAs, 50% of whom had never seen training materials on bias or identity before.

The chemistry department–specific training compiled resources from the Office of DEI and addressed the June 5, 2020 Angewandte Chemie article that criticized efforts to increase participation of women and minorities in organic chemistry. DeYoung says the university is picking up the microaggression training the chemistry student team developed and will be using it in the university-wide graduate student orientation.

DeYoung is glad the students were able to help develop these materials; nevertheless, she notes that students largely shoulder the onus for action. “If it's something that we're going to basically make on our own and implement and do that will help, [the department is] receptive, but something that's going to have to go through a faculty committee, they are a little less receptive,” she says.

Dr. Devin Swiner, now at Merck, served as president of the Ohio State University’s National Organization for the Professional Advancement for Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) chapter and as the vice president of Ohio State’s Black Graduate and Professional Student Caucus during her time in graduate school. Administrators and department faculty are looking for things to change, she says, but she wants people to understand that DEI work “isn’t a one-trick pony” and requires continuous feedback and adjustments.

“Black people aren't a monolith. My experience is very different than the other Black people in the chemistry department’s experiences. Same with people that are disabled, same with the LGBTQ+ community; everybody’s experience is different.” Swiner points out that though faculty and administrators don’t often count students’ experiences as valuable, the way she felt in her candidacy exam compared to someone who was white who had the same committee, for example, is a valid experience that could inform change.

Swiner says that she never received any resistance from the department for bringing up issues that needed to be improved. However, she notes that she was also extremely consistent and persistent. She tried to preface her conversations with the department administrators with a warning that this kind of forthright advocacy was specific to her.

“Don’t always expect that Black students are going to always do this, because not all Black students want to do this, or not all Black students want to have that voice to do it or are as outspoken. That's just not them, and that's totally valid,” she says. “I’m always going to say something […] But that is not to say that whoever is the next president of NOBCChE, the next Black students that come in, are going to do the same thing. You all also have to do the work.”

When asked whether she was afraid that things would not get done if there weren’t students pushing the agenda after she graduated, Swiner replied, “I have that fear all the time. I don't want to have done all of this work […] for it to all go to crap or all be in vain at the end of the day. But I do have some faith in them,” she said. “I hope that I've been annoying enough where it's always a lingering thought.”

Institutionalize Changes

Professor Bil Clemons agrees with Swiner that student-led change is not always sustainable. As chair of the President’s Diversity Council at Caltech, where he is also a professor of biochemistry, Clemons says he often sees students becoming frustrated that nothing is getting done, so they take matters into their own hands, creating a wonderful initiative or project. Unfortunately, when the students can’t devote any more effort to it or they graduate, the initiative falls apart.

“We really need to be, as individuals, really focused on things that are going to be institutional changes and aren’t going to be dependent on your energy and time to be supported,” Clemons says. “If you realize that if you stop doing this, putting the work in, that it would go away, then maybe you need to rethink about where you’re putting your work, if that energy could be redirected to challenge administration for accountability and would have a longer impact.”

Hernández at Cornell says the same thing is true for faculty, as academic leadership constantly changes. New initiatives need to be institutionalized and secured so that “everything doesn’t get unraveled when there’s a new chair or a new Director of Graduate Studies.”

To be most effective, students need to identify their resources, such as diversity and inclusion officers like Hernández or allies within the faculty. “It’s good to know who has power in your department and who has power in the institute,” says chemistry Ph.D. student Kayla Storme, a member of the Chemistry Alliance for Diversity and Inclusion at MIT.

If your department has a town hall meeting, for example, Storme says paying attention to who is talking and who is actually being heard is a good way to assess the politics within the department. Other student activists underscored the value of working with student councils and groups that already have rapport with the administration, which can quickly lead to fruitful conversations.

When students feel like they are struggling to be heard, it’s easy to ask why faculty members who support these causes aren’t using their influence to persuade upper administration. Storme says that faculty members have told her, “The graduate students have the power,” which felt extremely contradictory, considering how much power a tenured faculty member has over a graduate student. She continues, “But I think what was really being told to me was that ‘One faculty member saying it does not have as much weight as one hundred graduate students saying it.’”

Clemons agrees. “The beauty of students and the joy of having students active in this area is it’s good to have pressure, and students I think provide that pressure.”

STEM programs focused on institutional change include:

  • Broadening participation initiatives (e.g. federally funded projects) – focused on reaching and including individuals from a wide range of underrepresented groups in the STEM education
  • Campus interventions (e.g. groups, clubs, workshops etc.) centered on educating and equipping students, faculty, and staff with tools to understand, acknowledge, and address and combat racism, sexism, genderisms and other discriminations.

Increase Transparency

Students are often frustrated with committees, councils, task forces, and working groups because nothing seems to ever actually change. Zhang sees how other students who are not involved with these organizations might think the school is only paying lip service to their promises.

For example, in late summer 2020, the School of Engineering at Stanford gave the Graduate Student Council a $25,000 blank check budget, which the council wanted to focus toward diversity and inclusion. However, it took until the winter for the council to distill their conversations about what to do with the money into ideas and actions, which from the outside looked like nothing was happening. Zhang acknowledges that with a history of distrust among groups, slow-moving pieces can often feel as though nothing is moving at all.

Slow progress in the DEI space has prompted some to leave their institution altogether. One such example is Dr. Jorge A. Caballero who recently left Stanford Medical citing frustrations with the lack of DEI progress at Stanford. You can read Caballero’s full explanation on Twitter.

There are some things that can change quickly without having to engage everyone, says Hernández, but there are other things that do actually require these kinds of committees. “You’re going to need time, and you’re going to need perspectives to really inform that change so that it can take hold,” she says. “If you want some permanency, you have to take the time to engage the various constituent groups and to get their perspectives and have that inform the change.”

Clemons brings up Caltech’s Committee on Naming and Recognition, which formed in response to petitions signed by over 1,000 people in Summer 2020 that “demanded the removal from all campus assets and honors of the names of past Institute leaders who had been associated with eugenics and the Human Betterment Foundation.” The committee decided to rename the buildings, but the decision took several months, during which students in the Caltech community became frustrated.

“Students by default—and part of this is historical—assume the worst to some extent,” says Clemons, “That because it’s behind closed doors, therefore they must be doing something to try and not make the changes that we want. Historically, Caltech’s been guilty about not getting involved in sociopolitical issues, so that was the expectation.” Clemons again stressed the value of student pressure, but also said the university’s lack of transparency resulted in a large amount of people who were pleased about the results but were unhappy with the process.

“The reason to not rush things is that you want to do it right, and your first instinct is not always the right instinct on some of these things. Just because you feel something deeply doesn’t mean that there’s not other perspectives,” says Clemons. He clarifies that proceeding cautiously doesn’t mean that the perspective is wrong, but that because a lot of university-level initiatives are tied to money and need staff and other resources to implement them, committees need time to tease out the gaps in perspectives and figure out how to implement changes effectively. He says, “You want it to happen quickly, but you want it to happen in a way that has longevity [so that] whatever changes we put in today are going to be reflected in changes in the campus culture that will be permanent.”

Create a New System

To achieve the kind of lasting change Clemons is talking about, people need to serve on these committees and subsequently implement the new initiatives, which takes much more work than one-off, one-size-fits-all solutions like required workshops. Many faculty and students—mainly those from backgrounds historically excluded from and underrepresented in academia—are overtaxed with this kind of work in a way that their other colleagues aren’t.

“That 12 or 13 hours a week that I spend doing DEI stuff, other people are spending writing papers or writing a grant,” says Clemons. “That’s true for grad students, too—any time you’re devoting to these issues is taking away from your thesis, your ability to move your career forward. There’s a cost to doing this work, and somebody has to pay it.”

For this kind of work to continue, academia has to figure out a system where service—whether that’s DEI work, journal reviewing, outreach, serving on committees, or other things—is valued at the same level as scientific results. If service becomes a bigger factor in tenure packets and promotions, we will advance “people who are great scientists but also great citizens,” says Clemons, changing the composition of academia and naturally creating a more inclusive environment.

Creating a nourishing, inclusive environment is at the center of what an anonymous Ph.D. student at the Stanford School of Engineering doing DEI work calls “the chicken and egg problem,” wanting to see students from diverse backgrounds admitted, but also wanting them to feel included and like their research and their opinions matter once they’re there. “We have issues on both ends [with] the leaky pipeline,” this student says. “Not just getting students to get here from high school or college, but the leaky pipeline here in retaining students. We have cultivated an environment where BIPOC mental health is disproportionately harmed, which leads some students to leave, which is just such a shame, because we're losing really great talent.” (Note: this Stanford student asked to remain anonymous because of a fear of negative repercussions for speaking out about DEI issues within the department.) 

The increase in awareness about systemic racism throughout 2020 and 2021 has indeed initiated a powerful demand for real change on campuses across the country. “I think I’m still hopeful,” says the student from Stanford. “Because I think that at the very least, there is still a mindset shift […] that’s gone from individual racist incidences to also addressing systemic change and institutional change.” The individual also mentions a sense of encouragement at seeing Marginalized communities’ persistent labor paying off, leading White communities to acknowledge the problem and to leverage their power to support ongoing efforts.

Even though there’s a lot of unpaid labor and professional cost ahead, both student and faculty advocates hope universities really can help build a better future. “In terms of universities, we have a real responsibility to do whatever we can to make our systems…equitable and accessible and inclusive to all members of our society,” says Clemons. “And we don’t do that because it’s the right thing; we do it because it’s what’s best for our society.”