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Law and Diversity

Over the last several decades, a rich history of social science inquiry on underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and careers has solidified a base of evidence for use by those who seek to increase diversity in STEM fields. Simply stated, effective policy and practice that seek to increase and sustain diversity in STEM cannot be crafted without the respective analysis and experience that researchers and practitioners bring to bear. But it does not end here. In today’s political and legal climate, academic and administrative leadership in particular must also consider the work of legal scholars on how to most effectively institute diversity policies and programs.

At the end of this month, the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering Inc. (NACME) is re-releasing the Handbook on Diversity and the Law: Navigating a Complex Landscape to Foster Greater Faculty and Student Diversity in Higher Education. What is not immediately apparent in the title is that the report focuses on the legal background, justification, and solutions for campuses that are eager to diversify their STEM departments but are operating under strict scrutiny in doing so.

The climate around these issues has become so politically and emotionally charged that many university faculty and staff feel immobilized by the threat of impending legal action or criticism that could derail efforts already in place or stop new diversity initiatives from coming to fruition. The 2010 handbook, first published by the Association of American Universities (AAU) in partnership with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), seeks to provide tools for navigating this challenging reality.

The Handbook on Diversity and the Law was crafted on the heels of a day-long summit of leadership from industry, research universities, and educational testing organizations as well as representatives from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. Let me say up front: this report is no small feat. A glance at its table of contents and appendices make this abundantly clear. In addition to a well-articulated argument for diversity in STEM fields are precise definitions of the processes by which states and institutions have sought to increase the number of women and racial/ethnic minorities within their student body and on their faculty; all with a firm footing in higher education scholarship.

I applaud the authors’ focus on the need for a more diverse STEM faculty body. For all of the discourse within science and engineering departments, there has been too little progress made, particularly on the nation’s premier research campuses. As readers no doubt understand, steps taken to diversify STEM faculty must be implemented in conjunction with efforts to widen the graduate student pipeline. Without diverse graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, our colleges and universities will continue to fail to reflect the growing undergraduate student of color population in their professoriate. It is along these lines that the “pipeline” metaphor comes into full view.

Beyond those most likely to read this blog post, the case for graduate student and faculty diversity—particularly within STEM departments—is still being made. Although there are champions in the STEM faculty ranks who are passionate about inclusion and eager to implement diversification efforts in their home departments, they are often stifled by departmental and campus politics, unsupportive colleagues, and a continued reliance on foreign-born talent.

Yet with tools such as the AAU/AAAS handbook, ongoing and readily available literature and individual experts from the higher education, workforce, and civil rights communities (among others), campuses can indeed make progress. The handbook, in particular, is rightfully designed for use by academic leadership in conjunction with their general counsel, which will hopefully mean greater investment in these efforts by college presidents and chancellors.

Of course, faculty still need champions to move initiatives up the administrative hierarchy. As such, I encourage faculty and STEM student affairs professionals to reach out to professional societies with focused diversity initiatives, such as the American Physical Society’s Women in Physics and Minorities in Physics programming. Further collaboration can occur between faculty and chief diversity officers, their graduate education-focused counterparts, graduate diversity officers, undergraduate admissions, and student affairs staff that support both undergraduate and graduate outreach and retention. Each of these groups has a depth of knowledge, much of which is transferable across department lines, which can aid faculty in their diversity goals.

Shifting the climate, and what is more, the practice around STEM diversity within a department let alone across campus is no doubt difficult. But, it is doable.

Lorelle L. Espinosa, Ph.D., is the director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based independent, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world.

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