Published June 18, 2020
Many UB scientists canceled meetings and other work on June 10 for #ShutDownSTEM, a protest that called on academics to spend the day taking action against racism in science and higher education.
“I think we should do it again, and more often,” says primatologist Stephanie Poindexter, assistant professor of anthropology and one of the few black faculty members in the sciences at UB. “I hope people who weren’t aware of the issues and who are in a position to change things are actually spending the time to help create inclusive spaces.
“It’s important for people to realize that we shouldn’t go back to business as usual. This has been a problem in academia for a long time. I think the world prior to these protests was not addressing the issues properly — universities didn’t have an environment that was conducive to supporting diverse faculty and students, and to tackling some of the systemic issues that higher education has.”
About 20 members of UB’s High Energy Physics and Cosmology (HEPCOS) group in physics — including faculty, postdocs, graduate students and undergraduates — met via Zoom to discuss race and racism, and map out potential actions for increasing recruitment, retention and support of black students and faculty.
In chemistry, Professor Luis Colón suspended a research group meeting, encouraged students to learn about #ShutDownSTEM, and prepped for a town hall on race and racism. Jason Benedict, an associate professor in the department, devoted several hours to reading and learning.
“I’m still in the listening and learning phase in all of this,” Benedict says. “One thing I read was an article titled “White Academia: Do Better” by Jasmine Roberts. And one of the things I learned is we need to stop asking black people to do lots of extra work to try and fix this problem. When a department forms a diversity committee, the right thing to do is to ask everyone, ‘Hey who wants to serve on this committee?’ and not just to ask people from diverse backgrounds to serve because if you ask, there is now this pressure to serve. These constant requests can cause exhaustion for a lot of people of color.”
According to the #ShutDownSTEM website, the strike was a time for non-black scientists and academics “to not only educate themselves, but to define a detailed plan of action to carry forward.” For black STEM professionals, the day was “a time to prioritize their needs — whether that is to rest, reflect or to act — without incurring additional cumulative disadvantage.”
The protest was emotional for many students and faculty, an expression of the outrage and soul-searching that’s taking place nationwide as the country confronts longstanding issues of racism and social injustice following the killing of many black people by police.
A number of #ShutDownSTEM participants and supporters at UB expressed a desire to move quickly beyond dialogue to take action.
They cited a variety of concerns, such as a dearth of black and other underrepresented faculty and students in the sciences; a need to better support faculty and students from underrepresented groups; a lack of awareness and education among many on campus regarding issues of race and racism; the often undervalued “invisible labor” that many faculty of color do mentoring students of color, serving on diversity committees and completing other work to promote inclusion, which can cut into time spent on research and other activities valued in the tenure process; and the effect of unpaid or low-paid internships and other work on students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“Students want to know what resources — monetary and human — the university is willing to provide to address their concerns,” says Letitia Thomas, assistant dean for diversity in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “What structural changes will be made to ensure solutions are long-term and sustained, and not temporary fixes? Black students will be watching and waiting to see what we will do next.
“The first thing people can do is stop expecting black students (and all students of color) to show them how not to be racist, how not to be microaggressive,” Thomas says. “Students of color in general, and black students in particular, are tired of shouldering this burden. That’s what the shutdown was about, letting others do this work. The university offers trainings and workshops in this area, but the people that need this information most rarely participate. Students have suggested that these workshops should be mandatory.”
Thomas and colleagues in engineering, as well as in other STEM fields at UB, engage in a variety of efforts to recruit underrepresented students and support their careers at UB, such as the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation. But more members of the UB community must commit to this work and take time to educate themselves about racism to create a more welcoming and supportive environment for students and faculty of color, she says.
In chemistry, a June 11 town hall brought students, faculty and staff together to discuss race and racism, and the department has formed a committee on diversity and inclusion to identify and push for solutions.
For example, “We need to build systems to attract and support faculty of color in the Department of Chemistry, and hopefully the formation of this committee on diversity and inclusion will help us do that,” says Benedict, who co-chairs the committee with Professor Diana Aga. “Something has to change. If you keep doing exactly what you’ve been doing, you’re going to keep getting exactly the same result that you get. We need to start recruiting in ways that might really increase our diversity in terms of faculty hiring.”
A number of UB physicists took part in #ShutDownSTEM through the group Particles for Justice in an effort led by researchers Brian Nord of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein of the University of New Hampshire.
Lauren Hay, a UB physics PhD student, spent June 10 taking part in the HEPCOS meeting; attending a virtual meeting on racism hosted by the U.S. Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment; helping to form a social justice committee for UB’s Physics Graduate Student Association at the request of organization president Omar Elsherif; and making a list of resources for fellow students interested in issues of racism, including materials posted by Particles for Justice and #ShutDownSTEM.
Salvatore Rappoccio, associate professor of physics who planned the HEPCOS group’s #ShutDownSTEM event and spoke in a panel at the CMS meeting, is now drafting a list of immediate action items. He’s also investigating recruitment and retention problems in the department, and how he and other faculty and staff can work quickly to better support the academic careers of black students and other students of color.
“I think at this moment it’s become extremely clear that the existing sort of white patriarchy in academia has failed in delivering the promises that have been made continually about promoting diversity and inclusion and equity,” Rappoccio says. “In physics, we have a major pipelining problem, which means we’re missing out on a huge, untapped pool of talent. If you look at almost any physics department in the entire country, if you have any black faculty, it’s going to be one or two. Everyone needs to commit time to recruitment and retention.”
“According to an American Institute of Physics report, the very low percentage of physics bachelor’s degrees awarded to African Americans has even declined between 1995 and 2017,” says physics professor Doreen Wackeroth. “So, it is clear that we need new ideas and real change to make physics more inclusive. We know that we need real action and sustained effort, and we can do more, also in our own department.”
#ShutDownSTEM is about confronting anti-black racism. But actions taken as a result of the strike will also make academia a more welcoming and supportive environment for other underrepresented and disadvantaged groups in academia, says Aga, who has worked for years to promote diversity, including through recruitment and mentoring of women and minority students in chemistry.
“I am hopeful because this is the beginning a revolution, I think,” Aga says. “I feel like there will be some action taken.”
Likewise, Colón, says he is excited to see all the new people that #ShutDownSTEM and related movements are bringing into the conversation about race and racism in academia.
He has worked for over 25 years to recruit and mentor students of color, including about 20 from Puerto Rico who have received advanced degrees — mostly PhDs — from UB’s chemistry department. A number of UB chemists have joined Colón’s efforts and made recruiting and supporting students of color a priority in their own labs, but more work remains ahead on this and other issues, he says.
Now, Colón says, it’s great to see many others, including professors who are white, thinking seriously about how they can take the lead as well in these endeavors.
As he wrote on Twitter, “Bravo for the courage of @UBChemistry to call the entire department for dialogue and action so we can start to correct underlying systems that allow injustices to continue.”
“It is a time to reflect and learn about how people of color have been oppressed and silenced over the years through institutional racism,” says Nahyr López Dauphin, a PhD student in the Colón lab who is from Puerto Rico and took part in #ShutDownSTEM. “This will lead to the so much needed conversation about change.”