Selling Out the Truth to Thwart Affirmative Action

I admire the glorious intellectual endeavor to discover and reveal the ever-changing, ever-remaining, ever-complicated, ever-simple fountain of truth—the sociological truth, the economic truth, the biological truth, the historical truth (to name a few).

But too often, too many academics sell out the truth.  They sell the truth for causes, for careers, for funds, for conservatism, for liberalism, for radicalism.  They sell the truth and force us to buy spurious conclusions.

This is what is occurring at Duke University.  An unpublished, yet circulating, study by economist Peter Arcidiacono, economics graduate student Esteban M. Aucejo, and sociologist Kenneth I. Spenner has riled up the Black Student Alliance at the private university in Durham, N. C.  Three dozen students waged a silent protest on Sunday, and on Tuesday about two dozen unsuccessfully.

Titled “What Happens After Enrollment? An Analysis of the Time Path of Racial Differences in GPA and Major Choice,” the trio of Duke researchers found that Black students are more likely than their White peers to switch to majors that supposedly grade less stridently and require less study time.

The researchers surveyed more than 1,500 Duke students (6,500 total undergraduate population) before arrival and again during their first, second and fourth years.  According to their data, Black and Whites were equally likely to major in engineering, economics and natural sciences upon their arrival at Duke.  But eventually, the researchers found, 68 percent of the Black students switched to humanities and social science majors, compared to less than 55 percent of Whites.  Another source that reports on the study’s findings described an even larger gap.

These results were not surprising to me or anyone else who follows the struggles (and successes) of Black students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines.  But what surprised me was the Duke researchers’ decision to use the results to sell the truth and buy more standing among the cult of affirmative action opponents.

“Attempts to increase representation at elite universities through the use of affirmative action may come at a cost of perpetuating under-representation of Blacks in the natural sciences and engineering,” they wrote. “Namely, the difference in course difficulty and grading standards between the natural sciences, engineering, and economics and their humanities and social sciences counterparts naturally leads the least prepared students away from the sciences.”

These researchers either ignored or they are unaware of the growing mountain literature that speaks to the reasons why some Black students leave the STEMs.  In a previous blog in March 2010, titled “STEM Careers and 21st Century Academic Racism,” I actually revealed one study on this very matter.

In “Facts of Science Education XIV,” the research firm Campos surveyed 1,226 women and AALANA members of the American Chemical Society—particularly chemists and chemical engineers — and found that 40 percent of them had been “discouraged by individuals during the course of their successful pursuit of a STEM career.” Latino women and Black men had the highest levels of discouragement— half in the sample for both groups. And who were the worst offenders?

Their college professors! Almost half of those pointed to their college professors as the chief source their discouragement, and 60 percent reported they experienced dissuasion in college. African-American women were dissuaded the most by their professors — an alarming 65 percent.

If 65 percent of Black women chemists were dissuaded by their professors, then I wonder how many of their Black classmates changed their majors because of professorial dissuasion. I wonder whether Black or White students are more likely to be dissuaded by their professors. Of the 68 percent of Black students who changed their majors in the Duke findings, I wonder how many were dissuaded by their professors.  I wonder.

College preparation is merely one factor—it is probably not the only or even the decisive factor—as to why Black students in the Duke sample left the STEM majors at a higher rate than Whites.  A more comprehensive longitudinal study would also have disclosed why Black and White students were leaving and staying in economics and the STEM majors.  But it is not surprising why these sellers of truth seemingly shied away from this question.  Asking why may have taken the researchers down the road less traveled for opponents of affirmative action, the road that takes us to the absolute truth that racism still persists in higher education.

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of history at SUNY College at Oneonta. He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972 (2012).