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Harvard faculty and administrators working in STEM fields say they are planning new initiatives to increase diversity and inclusivity in their fields after participating in ShutDownSTEM, a nationwide campaign dedicated to combating systemic racism in academia.
ShutDownSTEM called for a pause in STEM activity at higher education institutions across the country on Wednesday, encouraging professors and administrators to instead spend the day discussing their programs’ historic shortcomings in diversity and inclusion and brainstorming solutions. Organizers planned the event in the wake of nationwide protests over police brutality and systemic anti-Black racism that began in late May, in response to the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis police.
In Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, discussions occurred in department-wide meetings, faculty groups, lab groups, and among a “senior team in the Division of Science,” according to FAS Equity and Inclusion Administrative Fellow Benita Wolff. Participants shared personal reflections and made recommendations on how Harvard’s STEM groups can improve inclusivity.
Dean of Science Christopher W. Stubbs said FAS’s Division of Science also held a “roundtable” meeting to bring together ideas discussed by those smaller groups.
Stubbs said two of the biggest priorities for his division are increasing faculty diversity and fostering a more inclusive culture. He pointed to a division-wide faculty search the Sciences conducted this year aimed at strengthening diversity, noting that it led to two job offers, one of which was accepted.
But Stubbs also said the nature of the faculty hiring process means demographic changes happen slowly. The University’s 2020 Faculty Development & Diversity Report found that underrepresented minorities comprise just 9 percent of tenure-track faculty and 5 percent of tenured faculty in the Sciences division.
“We have 200 members of the Science Division faculty, and we hire, at best, maybe 10 a year,” Stubbs said. “And so the turnover time for us making big shifts in the faculty demographic is measured in decades.”
To address the issue of division-wide culture, Stubbs said he plans to analyze climate reviews individual departments are undertaking to better understand how students experience inclusion and belonging in the Sciences.
Wolff added that additional actions the division plans to take include forming new departmental committees on diversity, inclusion, and belonging and holding educational seminars on race and diversity.
FAS’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, meanwhile, will be incorporating ideas from ShutDownSTEM discussions into its existing diversity, inclusion, and belonging plan, SEAS Dean Francis J. Doyle wrote in an emailed statement.
“As an engineering school, our mindset is one of continuous improvement, and the quest to eliminate the effects of structural racism in our society and at our institution is never-ending,” Doyle wrote. “We will analyze and share the action items that emerged from yesterday’s conversations and integrate the most promising ideas into our ongoing Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging agenda.”
Chairs of individual FAS and SEAS departments expressed their support for ShutDownSTEM and outlined specific plans of action that each of their departments could adopt to cultivate a more inclusive culture.
Chemistry and Chemical Biology department co-chair Theodore A. Betley said after Wednesday’s discussion, his department plans to increase outreach to Black students and coordinate with affinity organizations such as the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers.
“There are many, many opportunities that we are not exploiting on a routine basis to make CCB a larger presence and a destination to attract a huge swath of scholars that we have not benefited from,” Betley said.
Computer Science chair Eddie Kohler wrote in an emailed statement that his department also hopes to increase outreach to students from underrepresented backgrounds, among other plans.
“ShutdownSTEM was not about inventing specific plans to combat racism and inequity,” Kohler wrote. “We have been struggling on that for years and will be for many more. But we did come out of the day with several promising ideas, including more outreach and support to incoming Black and URM first-years interested in CS, some programmatic directions for classes, and a redoubled commitment to existing initiatives.”
Applied Physics chair Eric Mazur said one idea his department plans to enact is a review of its admissions processes for potential biases.
Daniel J. Eisenstein, the incoming chair of the Astronomy department, said his department had recent success increasing representation after deciding to not consider Graduate Record Examinations in its graduate admissions process.
“The department has actually been having conversations on this topic for years and has been putting in a series of actions,” he said. “And I expect that the current discussion will lead to new ideas for things to do.”
Sean R. Eddy, the incoming chair of Molecular and Cellular Biology, said Harvard’s exclusivity and prestige exacerbates issues of diversity and inclusivity in STEM departments.
“There's a problem that is particular to places like Harvard, that it's such an elitist place,” he said. “Even amongst peers, I noticed in my courses that pretty much everybody is uncomfortable, even with their own peers. You don't want to show any weakness.”
Administrators in other departments sent statements to affiliates supporting ShutDownSTEM. Organismic and Evolutionary Biology chair Elena M. Kramer wrote in a message to department affiliates that the department is taking a number of immediate steps, including conducting a department-wide survey on inclusivity and forming a new Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
As departments continue planning, Stubbs emphasized the need for individual faculty, staff, and students to make personal commitments to combating racism in STEM.
“It's my fervent hope that people will take this opportunity to step forward and do three things,” he said. “One, acknowledge that there's an issue here that deserves our attention. Number two, become educated about what effective action is and clarity as an individual about the challenges that we face. And then number three, identify concrete, specific, actionable steps forward, that go beyond just making lists of things that can actually make a sustained difference.”
—Staff writer Ethan Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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