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Inferences from STEM case studies (Pt. 1)

The first column I wrote for this blog was called "The STEM Fallacy."  In it, I argued that ". . . while scholars refer to STEM, they focus on their own discipline, its problems, frameworks, and methodologies, ignoring what other STEM disciplines have learned about the issues in question.  This [is] . . .  a kind of myopia that reinforces disciplinary distinctiveness . . . the commonalities are ignored and the differences accentuated."

In this column, I begin to heed my own advice.  As a consultant to universities on human resources issues, typically centered on STEM disciplines, I conduct case studies of how institutions are serving—and failing—their students and faculty. Given the passage of time and some distance from the reports submitted to clients, it seems useful to assemble the inferences that can be made from these cases. 

Three cases yield insights about undergraduate STEM that other institutions might consider.  One concerns the relation of the undergraduate student pool relative to other populations on the same (private university) campus.  Another compares perceptions of students participating in a (private university) summer program with those of the faculty in whose labs they are interning.  The third derives from a review of multidisciplinary science centers on (public and private university) campuses.  All three findings warrant a long look.  I'll linger on the first one here. 

In what I'll call "Case A," this elite university worried about the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in its graduate student population, especially in STEM degree programs.  Through interviews and focus groups with students and faculty, plus an examination of institutional and national enrollment data, we learned that the undergraduate student body was among the most diverse in the US. 

Yet rather than recruit these talented and proven minorities to their graduate programs, the faculty encouraged them to go elsewhere, broaden their experience, and demonstrate their excellence.  Altrustic, yes; smart, no.  In effect, the university was serving as a "feeder" to its elite competitor institutions.  Out-performing them meant that other universities were recruiting these minority baccalaureates to the detriment of my client's graduate ranks.  They were giving, but not getting, an equal share in return.  To compound the dynamic, faculty of color were retiring and not being replenished, which—rightly or wrongly—was sending a signal to minority students in search of a graduate program that my client university was not the place to go. 

Several nuggets can be gleaned from Case A.  First, even an elite institution may put itself at risk if it is seen as not supporting diversity at all levels.  Second, it can lose its competitive advantage with one segment of the campus population even if it excels at another.  Third, students are acutely aware of who they see in the classroom.  They need assurance that they are welcome.  A critical mass of fellow students is one reminder, but faculty of color is another.  Fourth, the issue of diversity—as at most research universities—is recognized as problem first in the STEM disciplines.  But the problem does not end there.  It permeates the campus and challenges the leadership to take stock of its procedures, formal and informal. 

Sending successful undergraduates to other universities is an unwritten rule in many STEM disciplines.  It is a dubious practice that also tends to prevail at the graduate level.  But what the institution is losing and gaining needs to be re-examined.  Why sacrifice a climate of inclusion and attenuate your strength for fear of "in-breeding" or some other fallacy? 

Next time I will consider how undergraduate STEM students view the value of a summer internship — and how their view differs from the faculty with whom they are working.

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