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Experts Seek Strategies to Address Systemic Racism in Academic Institutions

York said there is no "one-size-fits-all" solution to systemic racism in academic hiring and admissions. | URGE

In a discussion hosted March 22 by URGE (Unlearning Racism in Geoscience), Travis York, director of Inclusive STEM Ecosystems for Equity & Diversity ( ISEED) at AAAS and education professor Julie Posselt, the featured speakers at the event, agreed that there were no best practices for addressing systemic racism in academic admissions and hiring. Instead of a one-size-fits all approach, York argued it is vital for higher education faculty and leaders to undertake the critical work of self-assessment so that appropriate strategies can be implemented to develop more inclusive practices and policies.

URGE works with "pods" established in universities and other geoscience groups to facilitate journal reading and policy-design curriculum to help geoscientists unlearn racism and increase accessibility, justice, equity, diversity and inclusion in the discipline. The program is supported by the National Science Foundation and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Institutional leaders often fall into a "change trap" when they jump from awareness of a problem into implementing well-intentioned strategies to make their graduate admissions and faculty hiring more inclusive and equitable, without addressing the "real root causes" of the problem, said York.

For instance, a university might develop a mentoring program for new faculty that has a significant positive impact on women and people of color. Mentoring can be very valuable, he says, but strategies like this that focus on individuals "can, in a way, be saying that the problem is those people, not the system."

Instead, he suggested, universities should "use that opportunity to question why there's a disproportional effect and what it is about the system that is making some groups not get what they need in other ways." York encouraged institutions to consider two NSF-funded national initiatives aimed at supporting institutional transformation for equity: AAAS's SEA Change Initiative and the Aspire Alliance's IChange Initiative led by APLU.

The problem can't be defined as just a leaky pipeline of students or difficulties in hiring and retaining women and people of color, said York. Instead, academic departments need to revamp their admission and hiring systems to make antiracist practices routine and explicit, and to build a culture that values difference and equal opportunities.

"In fact, what we have found in the research literature is that all strategies that we have concertedly looked at across multiple institutions have mixed evidence," said York.

The systems in place now for selecting and hiring academic professionals are "stacked in favor of groups that are already well-represented, already influential, while disproportionately excluding Black and brown applicants," said Posselt, a researcher at the University of Southern California who has studied these systems in multiple university departments.

In selecting students and colleagues, faculty work within systems that define merit — such as high scores on tests like the GRE — in ways that are "tightly linked to their own identities as scholars in highly-ranked programs," Posselt noted.

These systems "lock in inequity" by excluding scholars without the same opportunities to pay for standardized testing or attend the same elite programs that hiring faculty may have attended, she added.

Universities can make admissions more equitable by using a rubric-based process that codifies and defines specific selection criteria and by performing equity checks that regularly review the composition of the applicant pool and trying to preserve or increase those proportions in admissions, York and Posselt suggested.

Institutions are also thinking about how awards and other recognition can be reshaped to value differences, according to York. He said AAAS is examining its own awards process to ask, "what do we transmit culturally across STEM about what being a good faculty member or good researcher is?"

Vashan Wright, a member of the URGE leadership team, began the March 22 discussion by asking whether the work of dismantling racist systems could wait until more people of color were on admissions and hiring committees.

"My answer to that is no, so I want to particularly encourage white people in all-white spaces to continue or start doing bold antiracist work," he said. "because you benefit the most from racism, you have the most power, and you can alongside people of color colleagues make a change in your institutions."

The URGE team launched their initiative in January of 2021, hoping they might recruit geoscientists into 25 to 30 pods but the initiative has exploded with scientists from all over the country comprising almost 300 pods and demonstrating what York described as, "a real hunger and dedication within STEM to transform our communities."