To become more equitable and inclusive organizations, higher education and scientific institutions must go beyond increasing the number of people from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups in their ranks and change their cultures, a leading academic group said in a sweeping new report Tuesday.
The report, from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, calls for such institutions to actively pursue antiracist initiatives to start overcoming the barriers and structural racism that have both kept people of color from joining such institutions and, once there, succeeding and advancing in the ways their white colleagues have.
These changes are necessary if institutions are going to be places where students, scientists, and clinicians from all backgrounds are going to feel included and welcomed, find opportunities, and realize their potential, the report stresses.
“Today, people from minoritized groups comprise a growing part of the U.S. population, but that growth has not been reflected in increases in STEMM education and careers,” the authors wrote, referring to science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine. The authors included academic leaders, researchers, and physicians who also had expertise in antiracism and diversity in the sciences.
The report highlights how individual — and often unconscious — racism can drive people from underrepresented groups out of these fields or keep them from advancing in their careers. But the authors note that they also examined the impact of structural racism because “racial disparities in STEMM careers do not rest on individual deficiency in candidates or even primarily on the individual racism of institutional and organizational gatekeepers. Racism is embedded in our society.”
Calls for the National Academies to pursue such a report had been building for years, the authors write, but took off after the murder of George Floyd and ensuing Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. The authors note that they first started with a literature review “to illuminate how historical policies, practices, and laws can have lasting effects” and note that they use the term racism “because it is scientifically accurate … even if it makes readers uncomfortable.”
Notably, the National Academies’ report comes as the Supreme Court could overturn affirmative action in college admissions, and as conservative backlash to antiracist initiatives has been building. Florida, for example, has banned critical race theory principles from being taught in public schools, restricting instructors from portraying the country’s history and policies as upholding white supremacy.
Asked about the current political climate, several of the report’s authors said it underscored the importance and timeliness of their work.
“We can’t control what the outcomes will be, but to start that dialogue in small nuggets, chapter by chapter, would be most helpful in advancing the message,” said Fay Cobb Payton, a committee member and professor emeritus at North Carolina State University.
A key point of the report is that while increasing representation is crucial — a first step that many institutions and scientific fields have failed at — the barriers facing students, trainees, and researchers of color don’t go away once they have their foot in the door. Faculty members of color have reported roadblocks to getting grants or being tasked with leading diversity and inclusion efforts — work that is often uncompensated and doesn’t help them get promoted. White men still dominate the pages of top journals. Black residents leave or are terminated from their programs at higher rates than white residents.
“We must get beyond participation and aim for equitable and inclusive environments,” said Gilda Barabino, the co-chair of the committee behind the report and the president of Olin College of Engineering.
Overall, the report includes a dozen broad recommendations. They range from publicly reporting the demographics of students who enter college planning to study the sciences — and tracking how many complete such a degree or leave college without a degree — to improving diversity at all levels of an organization, particularly in leadership positions, to investing in programs that help all students and faculty feel welcome, including peer support and mentorship initiatives.
The report also calls on predominantly white institutions to learn from and partner with Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Tribal Colleges and Universities to increase support for faculty and students of color. And it says that institutions should conduct regular “cultural audits” to track its efforts toward inclusion.
While the report notes “there is no single way to approach culture change,” it outlines different frameworks that can be employed. It includes steps that individual people (such as the “gatekeepers” who allocate resources or admit applicants and in turn uphold the status quo), teams (such as research groups), and organizations broadly can take to build more inclusive environments.
The authors call out leaders of institutions in particular as having the opportunity to reshape the culture, policies, and norms of a place, and argue that they must advance an agenda and devote resources to steering all levels of their organizations toward a more equitable path. People such as presidents and CEOs should assess how people are evaluated and compensated — whether in admissions, hiring, or promotion — to examine whether individual bias or organizational discrimination are hurting people from underrepresented groups. It also says that they “should anticipate resistance to changes in the allocations of resources, as shifts to behavioral norms and expectations on campus and in the workplace can result in confusion and other emotional reactions.”
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