If “diversity” is not only good but an essential core ingredient of a quality education, as the current academic mantra insists, then physics — the least diverse of all fields (blacks earned 2% of bachelor’s degrees in 2015) — has a big problem. Now Stanford claims to have a solution.
“Physics faculty and students are working together to make their department a more inclusive community through clubs, courses, and events, a recent university news release proudly proclaimed. “It was no surprise” when a 2016 Stanford undergraduate survey “revealed physics as among the least diverse departments at the university, but “deeper analysis of the survey responses revealed a telling and crucial difference between the answers from incoming students and those on their way to graduation.”
Here’s the core of that “deeper analysis,” and what Stanford concluded from it:
“Many students from all backgrounds and identities come to Stanford excited about physics, and this interest does not strongly depend on race or gender. But we lose a larger number of Black, Latinx and Native students, as well as women of all races, in the first two years of undergraduate study,” said Risa Wechsler, a professor of physics and of particle physics and astrophysics at Stanford University. “A lot of that is due to the lack of community and overall climate. People from underrepresented groups often do not feel welcome in physics classes.”
Here Come the Welcome Mats
And so Stanford set out to create a number of welcome mats, such as an Equity and Inclusion Committee and a new student group, Physics Undergraduate Women and Gender Minorities at Stanford (PUWMAS). Significantly, new courses were also added to make “Black, Latinx and Native students, as well as women of all races,” feel welcome, among them:
PHYSICS 41E, a modified version of the basic required Mechanics course. According to the Stanford news release, “Students from underrepresented groups often don’t have the same level of preparation from high school as their majority peers. The difference in preparation is large enough that it may lead students to drop out of the major but small enough that the kind of support offered by this course can be enough to keep them in.” The entry for Physics 41E in the Stanford Bulletin was less circumspect, describing it as “for students with little or no high school physics or calculus.”
“Have you ever wondered how your professors got to be where they are today? Or what it is like to be a female professor, a faculty member raised first-generation/low income or even a Nobel laureate? Professors of a diverse set of identities and backgrounds will share the story of their lives and career trajectories over lunch, with an emphasis on their personal lives and experiences as undergraduates and graduate students.”
Whom Do We Call a Physicist?
“Beyond its laws and laboratories, what can physics teach us about society and ourselves? How do physicists’ identities impact the types of scientific questions that are asked throughout history? And who do we call a physicist? This course seeks to address questions such as these, with an eye to understanding how physics relates to history, politics, and our own identities as young researchers. Students will develop a broader appreciation for where physics comes from, how it relates to themselves, and how they can shape its future. No prior knowledge of physics is necessary; all voices are welcome to contribute to the discussion about these big ideas.”
In the oral argument of Fisher v. University of Texas (Fisher II), Chief Justice Roberts asked Gregory Garre, the counsel for the University of Texas, “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” Mr. Garre was unable to answer, but apparently, Stanford can. Lauren Tomkins, an assistant professor of physics and member of the Equity and Inclusion Committee, was quoted in the Stanford news release asserting that “your identity affects your experience as a physicist and even the physics that you do.”
That point was also emphasized in an open letter to the Supreme Court during Fisher supporting affirmative action signed by 2463 “professional physicists.” “We hope to push our community towards equity and inclusion so that the community of scientists more closely matches the makeup of humankind,” the letter stated ponderously, “because the process of scientific discovery is a human endeavor that benefits from removing prejudice against any race, ethnicity, or gender.”
Although a quick perusal of the signatories reveals that many were not “professional physicists,” the letter was signed by Professors Wechsler and Tomkins, and 26 others with some Stanford affiliation.
Black Victims of Mismatch
It is a common misconception that only a very small amount of racial preference is part of the affirmative action practiced by the most selective institutions, that there are enough talented minorities that the Stanfords, Princetons, and Harvards do not have to lower their standards very much to recruit a sufficient number. As the pending case of Students for Fair Admission v. Harvard has revealed, this is not true; even very selective schools put a heavy thumb on the racial scale. Thus, it is important to emphasize that Stanford would not have a problem retaining minorities in physics if it did not admit minorities with weaker math and science qualifications than their non-minority and Asian peers.
Stanford, of course, will not reveal the degree of preference it awards to preferred minorities. A 1996 article in Stanford Magazine by Peter Thiel asserted that “the average SAT disparity between Stanford’s African-American and white admittees reached 171 points in 1992, according to data compiled by the Consortium on Financing Higher Education,” but that is impossible to confirm now. (A Stanford professor friend of mine once tried to get SAT data, but the only data Stanford would release to him was what it was forced to release to the NCAA. That year, the athletic team with the SAT average furthest below the Stanford average was women’s basketball.)
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Stanford’s concerted effort to diversify its physics department is the failure — one is tempted to say, conscious refusal — even of its “deeper analysis” to recognize and diagnose the problem, leading to a plethora of politically correct but ineffective and inappropriate nostrums to fix it. Even in 2016, and especially now, there was and is no reason to be surprised that large numbers of minority students come to Stanford interested in majoring in physics and other hard sciences but move to less demanding fields before graduating.
The only explanation for that surprise is ignorance (or dismissal) of the accumulating body of solid empirical research demonstrating that minorities enter college with a greater interest in majoring in STEM fields than whites but drop out in far greater numbers. For example, Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono, the expert witness for the plaintiffs in SFFA v. Harvard, has shown that at Duke, 62% of entering black freshman expressed an interest in majoring in natural sciences, engineering, or economics (compared to 61% of whites), but less than 30% graduated with a major in those fields (compared to 51% of whites). In his major study of Duke, “What Happens After Enrollment?” Arcidiacono and his co-authors found that “Over 54% of black men who express an initial interest in majoring in the natural sciences, engineering, or economics switch to the humanities or social sciences compared to less than 8% of white men.”
In a 2009 paper, “Do Credential Gaps in College Reduce The Number of Minority Science Graduates?,” UCLA law professor Richard Sander and Roger Bolus, a statistician at the UCLA School of medicine, found the same thing in a study of “a vast, newly-released dataset on University of California undergraduates.” Students “who have the largest credential gap with their classmates are much less likely to graduate with a science degree,” they found, “compared with academically similar students facing no credential gap…. estimates suggest that a large mismatch reduces a student’s likelihood of achieving a bachelor’s in science by roughly half.”
These “mismatch effects,” Sander and Bolus also found, “are significantly greater at the more elite than the less elite schools …. [A]t more elite schools, most students in the sciences have fairly homogenous training and skills, so that the price of having lower-than-average credentials or preparation could be especially debilitating at the most elite schools.”
Similarly, psychologists Frederick Smyth and John McArdle of the University of Virginia (McArdle is now at the University of Southern California) studied underrepresented minorities at 23 universities who intended to major in STEM fields and found that “45 percent more of the women and 35 percent more of the men would have succeeded in attaining their goals if they had attended schools where their entering credentials had been about average.”
These studies, and others going back to the 1990s, are nicely summarized by Gail Heriot, a University of San Diego law professor and member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, in a long report, “A ‘Dubious Expediency’: How Race-Preferential Admissions Policies on Campus Hurt Minority Students,” and also in the amicus Fisher brief she filed with fellow Civil Rights Commissioner Peter Kirsanow.
“Each of these studies,” she and Kirsanow concluded, “used a different database and methodology. Yet all came to the same conclusion, and the effect they found was substantial. To our knowledge, no one has attempted to rebut any of these studies…. Yet colleges and universities across the country ignore them.” (Emphasis in original)
Yes, Stanford, that means you. Moreover, oddly but revealingly, not even the “open letter” to the Supreme Court during Fisher the “professional physicists,” including professors Wechsler and Tomkins and 26 other Stanford-affiliated physicists committed to “inclusion,” made any attempt to refute these studies, even though much of the letter was devoted specifically to rejecting the arguments in the Heriot-Kirsanow brief. Instead, the “professional physicists” relied exclusively on bombastic ideological drivel:
- “Blaming affirmative action for our community’s lack of progress … is not only wrong, it is plainly ignorant of what we as scientists have determined must be done to reform our pedagogical and social structures to achieve the long-delayed goal of desegregation.”
- “The exclusion of people from physics solely on the basis of the color of their skin is an outrageous outcome that ought to be a top priority for rectification.” (Where is this done?)
- “We hope to push our community towards equity and inclusion so that the community of scientists more closely matches the makeup of humankind.”
- “The purpose of seeking out talented and otherwise overlooked minority students to fill physics classrooms is to offset the institutionalized imbalance of power and preference that has traditionally gone and continues to go towards white students.”
- “Unlike Heriot and Kirsanow, we are scientists and science educators who are keenly aware that merely adding students to a pipeline is not enough to correct for the imbalance of power.”
- The “claims of Heriot and Kirsanow that ‘gaps in academic credentials are imposing serious educational disadvantages on… minority students, especially in the areas of science and engineering’ is misguided…. Science is not an endeavor which should depend on the credentials of the scientist. Rather, a good scientist is one who does good science.” (Well, duh!)
Indeed, so committed are these woke physicists to achieving “desegregation” and “more closely [matching] the makeup of humankind” and correcting “the imbalance of power” that they actually reject the “diversity” rationale for affirmative action. “Minority students in a classroom,” they write, “are not there to be at the service of enhancing the experience of white students.”
How odd — or perhaps just sublimely unaware — to urge the Supreme Court to preserve racial preference in a letter that explicitly rejects the sole justification for affirmative action in higher education on which the Court has relied since Bakke.
Ironic, Unintended Effects
Stanford’s efforts to promote more “inclusion” have some unintended, ironic implications and may even backfire, doing, like racial preference itself, more harm than good:
- All physics majors are required to take an introductory course in mechanics. Designing a separate minority-oriented course will make the normal, standard mechanics course less.
- Courses created for minorities show that Stanford implicitly accepts the core argument of the “mismatch” explanation of minority attrition from STEM, that students do better in classes where their qualifications are in line with those of their peers.
- Like “physics for poets” and “physics for jocks,” watered down physics courses to make it easier for non-science majors to fulfill their distribution requirements, Stanford’s minority-oriented courses will predictably develop a reputation as “physics for blacks,” thus reinforcing the already present stigma attached to affirmative action admits.
I suppose Stanford can pride itself on being a trail-blazer even though the trail leads down a slippery slope.