Claude Steele, the social psychologist best known for developing the influential concept of “stereotype threat,” is in hot water. He is Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost of the University of California at Berkeley and holds appointments in the Psychology Department and the Graduate School of Education, ” He has come under fire for the way he handled a sexual harassment complaint against the dean of the law school (who as a result of that complaint and ensuing lawsuit is now the ex-dean), Sujit Choudhry.
Law Students Unhappy
“The provost ordered a 10% pay cut in Choudhry’s $415,000 annual salary,” the Los Angeles Times reports, “required Choudhry to attend counseling and ordered him to apologize to the assistant, Tyann Sorrell, after Berkeley officials determined last July that the then-dean had violated the campus’ sexual harassment policy by repeatedly forcing unwanted kissing, hugging and touching her.”
Some think there’s more: the suspicion that Provost Steele might have handed down only a figurative slap on the wrist in return for a favor. According to documents from the dean’s harassment investigation, “Choudhry urged the faculty to approve Steele’s appointment to the law school in May,” the Los Angeles Times article reports, “at the same time the dean knew he was being investigated over sexual harassment allegations.”
At a March 10 faculty meeting Steele agreed to resign from the law school appointment and “to remove himself from the search process for an interim dean, after widespread criticism of his leadership — including a survey that found 75% of nearly 400 law students surveyed did not want him involved.”
So far Steele has not been found guilty of any wrongdoing, and University of California President Janet Napolitano and UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks have issued statements defending him. The allegations of a quid pro quo are “absolutely untrue,” Dirks said. Even in the absence of established wrongdoing, however, it seems safe to say that at the least Steele has not handled his vice chancellery and provost responsibilities adroitly.
Since Steele’s disappointing performance in handling a controversial harassment controversy can be compared to performing poorly on a test, perhaps it is appropriate to ask whether Steele himself might be a victim of his own discovery.
Here is Steele’s description of the nature and effect of “stereotype threat” taken from his expert testimony in the Grutter affirmative action case, where he argued that standardized test scores do not accurately reflect the ability of black students.
My research, and that of my colleagues, has isolated a factor that can depress the standardized test performance of minority students — a factor we call stereotype threat. This refers to the experience of being in a situation where one recognizes that a negative stereotype about one’s group is applicable to oneself. When this happens, one knows that one could be judged or treated in terms of that stereotype, or that one could inadvertently do something that would confirm it.
In situations where one cares very much about one’s performance or related outcomes — as in the case of serious students taking the SAT — this threat of being negatively stereotyped can be upsetting and distracting. Our research confirms that when this threat occurs in the midst of taking a high stakes standardized test, it directly interferes with performance.
Steele is African-American, and he is certainly aware of the widespread stereotype that minorities — no matter how distinguished — are often stereotyped when they are appointed to prestigious, highly visible, high stakes positions such as his, that they are often chosen more as a demonstration of their institution’s devotion to “diversity” than because of their own merit. Did Steele’s knowledge of those stereotypes interfere with his job performance? If not, does not fact that he did not succumb to “stereotype threat” undermine or seriously qualify the theory?
“Stereotype threat” is no doubt one of the most vigorously explored topics in social psychology, and I take no position here on its scientific merits. In my essay here on the widely noticed Reproducibility Project, however, “Almost Two-Thirds of Psychological Studies Are Wrong,”
I did discuss two of Steele’s “stereotype threat” studies that could not be reproduced.
Whatever its general merits, however, I have never understood why that theory has been so widely relied on to justify abandoning or minimizing the influence of standardized tests. “Stereotype threat” means that even highly qualified blacks don’t do well on tests where blacks as a group underperform, and hence where there is a stereotype of black underperformance that will be applied to them. Thus it has always seemed to me that insofar as “stereotype threat” is a real problem, race-blind grading and admissions would be the most reasonable solution.
Claude Steele, however, opposes race-blind admissions, and recommends discounting standardized test results for blacks. His antidote to “stereotype threat,” he explained in a long article summarizing his theory, is to “tell students that you you are using high standards” — this signals that that they are in fact being evaluated by “standards rather than race” — “and that … they can meet those standards (this signals that you do not view them stereotypically).”
Telling universities to eliminate or minimize standardized test scores for blacks, thus giving them admissions preferences, however, sends exactly the opposite message, as I argued in “Claude Steele, ‘Stereotype Threat,’ And Racial Preference” back in 2003 criticizing his Grutter testimony. It says in no uncertain terms to minority students that they are not capable of meeting standards applied to others and they must be judged at least in part on the basis of their race to gain admission.
Threat Follows Its Targets
Nor are taking standardized tests the only venue where “stereotype threat” impairs minority behavior, Steele observed in his Grutter testimony. “Stereotype threat follows its targets onto campus, affecting behaviors of theirs that are as varied as participating in class, seeking help from faculty, contact with students in other groups, and so on.”
Does it affect only students? If not, could it have affected how the Berkeley provost dealt with the tests of his office? It would be ironic indeed if “stereotype threat,” Frankenstein-like, turned on its creator and undermined his recent job performance, and it would be equally interesting to see the explanation if it did not.