Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Freedom to Discriminate

Imagine for a moment that you work in university student housing and your job description states that you are "responsible for the physical well being and safety of students in the residential college, as well as for fostering and shaping the social, cultural, and educational life and character of the college." Now imagine that a subset of your students has experienced verbal harassment, taunting, and bullying from some of their fellow students. In response to their mistreatment, the targeted students repeatedly complain to the administration. After some time, the administration sends out a campus-wide email diplomatically asking all students to be thoughtful about their behavior and avoid mistreating their fellow students.

Given all that, which of the following responses to the administration's email would fit your job description:

a) Calling into question whether it is the university's role to request that students modify their behavior so as to not harass, taunt and bully their fellow students.

b) Comparing student engagement in harassment, taunting and bullying to children engaging in make-believe and asking, "Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?"

c) Tell the bullied students that "if you don’t like [someone's taunting], look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence [sic] are the hallmarks of a free and open society."

d) Call a meeting with your students and let them know that harassment, taunting and bullying degrade the educational life and character of your institution. Tell them that these actions deny their fellow students equal access to education, and as such are not tolerated on your watch.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

(un)Accessible Astronomy: Ableism in Science

My self-directed, community-supported (re)education about US-American society has fueled my focus on, and pursuit of, social justice. I believe that a just society allows all members to have equal opportunities for success in life, and equal access to social, political and economic opportunities and power. This should be regardless of race, gender, sexuality, religion—and sadly that's where these statements of social justice too often end. What is often missing, even in my own thinking until relatively recently, is an acknowledgement that physical and mental dis ability must be included in this list

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

An Expert's View of Changing Academic Culture

In what follows I provide some background and setup for a strong endorsement of Prof. Katie Hinde's exemplary, pitch-perfect, framework-shifting essay "Work in Progress: Changing Academic Culture." It's arguments and lessons will stay with me for a lifetime. And just in case that's not enough of an endorsement, here's my intro, in which I, among other things, brag about knowing the author :-)

Prof Katie Hinde in the field in Namibia
When I arrived at Harvard, I was contacted by a Prof. Katie Hinde from the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology (HEB). It turned out that one of her students was partnered with one of my students. Small world! She had also read my blog post on The simple power of presence in even modest numbers, which really resonated with her. She invited me to coffee and we quickly figured out that we were kindred spirits. 

I am honored to have Prof. Hinde as one of my true friends, and given all the amazing professional and personal advice she's given me, she's also one of my academic mentors. Over the years I have picked up many key concepts and much valuable vocabulary from my conversations with Katie. I've also learned a ton about lactation, field research, and working with temperamental rhesus monkeys. Plus, the Johnsons are big fans of the Mammal March Madness!  

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Required reading for those who prioritize diversity

In the title, I use the word "prioritize" purposefully. Most, if not all educational institutions have statements on their webpages that say that they value diversity, while assigning themselves the label "equal-opportunity employer," or some such. But among the most important lessons I've learned in my academic career is that words are less than cheap. What are less than rare are actions that would increase diversity by addressing barriers to it, backed by funding and effort. This shortfall of actual effort is nothing short of a crisis of leadership so extensive, so old, and so well-practiced that it is institutionalized (James Baldwin wrote on it in 1984). Indeed, this crisis is a key pillar of institutional *isms; inaction as action that supports the status quo. 

Where we can find vibrant leadership—actual active leading instead of labels—is among the voices of color in academia. They (we) have a vantage point, a perspective borne of daily experience that gives them (us) an epistemic clarity on the mechanisms that privilege some while oppressing others. This view is, of course, shared by those living along other oppressed axes, and at the intersections thereof. One of our most powerful, intelligent, knowledgable voices is that of Dr. Chanda Prescod Weinstein (@IBJIYONGI), whom I have featured on this blog previously. It is her writing that constitutes the required reading mentioned in my title above.

Other lessons I've learned are that leaders rarely deliver messages that are greeted with open arms by the majority (if ever). Also strong leadership requires a clear view of problems and the courage to make demands of those who comprise the institutional status quo to change and do better. Finally, leaders courageously press their message despite the inevitable push-back and backlash. Dr. Prescod-Weinstein does this vital work, and much, much more.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Diversity as the replacement for justice: A brief history

This article from The Nation provides some valuable historical context for US society's shift away from social justice to "diversity" as the rationale for affirmative action by intentionally ignoring the reality of systemic racism (h/t Adam Jacobs). Here's an excerpt: 
The Bakke ruling shifted the rationale for affirmative action from reparation for past discrimination to promoting diversity. This, in essence, made the discourse about affirmative action race-neutral, in that it now ignores one of the key reasons for why we need to give an edge to minorities. Today the University of Texas, Austin, when  defending the consideration of race and ethnicity in admission decisions, cannot say that this practice is needed because of persistent racial inequality; because minority students do not have the same life chances as white students; because there is extensive racial discrimination in the labor and housing markets; because students who study in poor high schools have less chances for learning and lower achievements; or because growing up in poverty impedes your cognitive development. The only argument at the disposal of UT Austin in defense of its admission practices is that it needs a diverse student body to enrich the educational experience of privileged white students.
The full story is told in the book In Pursuit of Fairness by Terry H. Anderson for the history buffs among my readers. I read the book last year, and while it didn't have any real suspense or major revelations, it did help paint a very useful historical picture of how affirmative action has been systematically dismantled over the past four decades. It was no accident, and the arguments you hear from ostensibly liberal professors about affirmative action in admissions and hiring today is the same language used by the likes of Scalia as far back as the 70's (or Scalia today). 

Friday, December 18, 2015

Say it with me: All people are created equal

I've written this before, but it bears repeating: Abigail Fisher is not suing the University of Texas for denying to recognize the benefits of diversity by not admitting her. She's claiming that it was fundamentally unfair—unjust—for her to be denied admission. Her evidence and reasoning aside, the fundamental issue here is not diversity, but justice. 

As a result, any response to her claim and the resulting discussion needs to focus on the issue of justice, not diversity

Affirmative action programs weren't implemented following the Civil Rights Act (and limited cases, before the Act!) in order to bring diversity to white institutions. They were designed to bring a semblance of fairness to a badly rigged game by identifying those who were long on the losing end (non-white people), and giving them the same advantages enjoyed by the winning team (white people).

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the push-back against affirmative action was immediate, well organized, and highly effective (the history is detailed in this book). It forced supporters of affirmative action into a defensive stance that involved rebranding a social justice exercise into what we today call "diversity programs." This rebranding took the attention off of ending systemic racism and morphed the discussion into a justification of diversity. (It also made many ostensibly liberal people, including college professors, sound like Scalia in their opposition of affirmative action, but this was also part of the plan.)

Monday, December 14, 2015

What's all this about colorblind racism?

I've been writing quite a bit about "colorblind" attitudes about race and racism (posts 1, 2, 3 and 4). This focus is more than a simple hobby horse. Rather, it has emerged from my attempts to have discussions about race with people in real life and on social media. I kept running into situations that feel an awful lot like the arguments between atheists and religious people. If you've ever been a part of, or witness to such a conversation, you've probably noticed how the people on either side make no progress and only tend to harden their own beliefs.