NSBP Statement on Racial Diversity in University Settings
Following the December 9, 2015 oral arguments in the United States Supreme Court case of Abigail Fisher v. the University of Texas, the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) affirms the utilization of race as one of many factors in the college admissions process. The field of physics pushes the boundaries of human understanding by exploring the unknown and seeking answers to questions that are central to human curiosity about our universe. To this end, perspectives from persons with diverse backgrounds are essential and critical in the quest for unlocking the many mysteries of the universe. Unfortunately, ideas put forward such as the “mismatch hypothesis” do not accurately portray the various experiences of our membership. The NSBP is the largest professional organization primarily dedicated to advocating for increased opportunities for African American contributions to the advancement of knowledge in physics. We believe that it is important to address the misguided remarks of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia regarding racial diversity in university settings.
In Fisher v. the University of Texas, Justice Scalia referred to the “mismatch hypothesis” which was put forth by Sander and Taylor (2012). The mismatch hypothesis argues that Black students do not have the necessary academic preparation to compete at elite institutions. These conclusions were drawn from data at college entry, which only takes into account inputs (i.e., GPA and test scores) and outputs (i.e., graduation rates and standardized test results). This data misses the experiences between entering and exiting college. Higher educational environments are unique with dynamic institutional cultures and histories. Likewise, academic disciplines are similarly situated with physics having an unfortunately notorious history of exclusionary practices that have too often forced out students of color.
Sander and Taylor (2012) draw comparisons between Dartmouth College and several noteworthy Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) like Howard, Fisk, and Clark Atlanta. In this problematic approach, Sander and Taylor compare the experiences of Black students doing well at Howard and those doing poorly at Dartmouth College as if both educational environments are the same. There is a sizable body of research literature documenting the sharp contrasts between HBCUs and Predominantly White institutions (e.g., Allen, 1992; Augelli & Hershberger, 1993; Chang et al., 2014; Davis, 1994; Feagin, Vera, & Imani, Fleming, 2004; Fries-Britt & Turner, 2001; Fries-Britt, Younger, & Hall, 2010; Hurtado et al., 2011). HBCUs are much more likely to foster positive peer interactions, affirm African American students’ identities as scientists, and faculty members are considerably more likely to support students. In contrast, there is overwhelming empirical data describing the racism, negative stereotypes, and prejudices endured by African American students at PWIs especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields of study. Consequently, any differences in the attrition rates of Blacks at PWIs like Dartmouth as compared to HBCUs like Howard are likely to be strongly associated with disparities in the educational environment and not merely poor academic preparation. Moreover, there are other challenges with the “mismatch hypothesis”. Kidder and Lempert (2015) conducted further analysis of the Bar Passage Study data informing Sander’s work and found that Sander did not properly account for selection bias and compared cohorts that were inherently different because of changes in law school admissions. Other studies have attempted to replicate Sander’s previous work and found the data presented did “not withstand closer analysis” (Ayres & Brooks, 2005).
Refocusing our attention on the compelling interests for racial diversity, NSBP asserts that selective research universities like the University of Texas have cutting edge laboratories and research programs that make them excellent training grounds for some of our nation’s leading physicists. Therefore, it is critical that students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds have access to study at “elite” institutions. In addition, it is important to recognize that our membership, like the broader scientific community, receives training from a wide range of colleges and universities. NSBP believes all individuals, regardless of race or ethnicity and within a framework of equity, should have access to as wide a range of educational institutions as possible.
Chief Justice John Roberts asked, “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” The history of science is filled with events in which the views of a single individual or a determined few ultimately lead to breakthroughs that have advanced scientific thinking. As physicists, NSBP members often embrace and include alternative viewpoints as a part of carefully working toward a better understanding of physical problems. Diverse sets of scientific workers with diverse perspectives can indeed contribute to robust solutions to technical challenges.
We also contend that the personal identity and experiences of students may become increasingly important as physics educators continue to move toward student-centered pedagogical methods. Such strategies are currently being implemented in order to enhance student learning beyond levels obtained by traditional lecture-based approaches. As teachers endeavor to spark the imaginations of future STEM workers, a racially diverse learning environment will play a key role in providing opportunities for cross-racial understanding and developing skills for collaboration (Chang et al., 2006; Jayakumar, 2008). Ultimately, these inclusive forms of learning and cooperation will foster innovations that will help solve massive challenges and propel our nation forward.
The NSBP Board
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Fries-Britt, S. L., Younger, T. K., & Hall, W. D. (2010). Lessons from high-achieving students of color in physics. In S. R. Harper & C. B. Newman (Eds.). Students of Color in STEM. New Directions for Institutional Research no. 148 (pp. 75-83).
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Jayakumar, U. M. (2008). Can higher education meet the needs of an increasingly diverse global society? Campus diversity and cross-cultural workforce competencies. Harvard Educational Review, 78(4), 615-651.
Kidder, W. C., & Lempert, R. O. (2015). The mismatch myth in U.S. higher education: A synthesis of empirical evident at the law school and undergraduate levels. In U. M. Jayakumar & L. M. Garces (Eds.). Affirmative action and racial equity: Considering the Fisher case to forge the path ahead. Routledge: New York.
Sander, R., & Taylor, Jr., S. (2012). Mismatch: How affirmative action hurts students It’s intended to help, and why universities wont admit it. Basic Books: New York.