NEWS BRIEF You won’t find hard alcohol at Stanford University parties anymore. At least, that’s what school officials are hoping.
In an effort to reduce “the high risk of the rapid consumption of hard alcohol,” the university is banning liquors that are 20 percent alcohol by volume (40 proof) from undergraduate campus parties, while also prohibiting undergraduate students from having hard-alcohol containers that are 750 milliliters or larger in student residences. Student who are of legal age can still drink beer and wine.
The new policy is a “harm reduction strategy,” explained Ralph Castro, director of the Office of Alcohol Policy and Education, in a press release. He adds:
Our intention is not a total prohibition of a substance, but rather a targeted approach that limits high-risk behavior and has the backing of empirical studies on restricting the availability of and access to alcohol. It also allows us the ability to provide uniformity in a policy that will impact all undergraduate students without banning a substance that is legal for a segment of the student population to use responsibly.
By limiting the size of containers to anything less than the size of a wine bottle (capable of pouring out around 17 shots), the university is hoping to reduce alcohol consumption through availability and cost: There are fewer stores that sell hard alcohol in smaller containers, and if students find smaller containers of hard alcohol it costs more to buy those in high quantities.
The move comes two months after former Stanford student Brock Turner was sentenced to six months in prison for sexually assaulting an unconscious female student behind a garbage dumpster. Turner blamed alcohol for the incident, as both he and the victim were intoxicated when the assault occurred on January 18, 2015.
Following significant national attention to the assault, university leaders said they wanted to start a conversation around “the campus culture around alcohol.” Critics accused the university of overshadowing Turner’s personal role in the assault, partially blaming the victim’s alcohol consumption.
Michele Dauber, a Stanford University Law professor who has become a national voice on the Turner incident, criticized the university’s new policy, tweeting:
There are exceptions to the new rules. Mixed drinks using hard alcohol will be allowed, though, for parties hosted by graduate student organizations. Shots are still prohibited. Students who violate the new policy may be removed from university housing.
When my father was a graduate student at Loyola University in Chicago, two distinct things marked his day: the “L” and instant noodles. It was 1998 in a studio apartment in Rogers Park below the Red Line. Every night, the sounds of the train woke him up. Every morning, he got up after a restless night and made himself some ramen. After those three years, he never wanted to look at instant noodles again.
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At that time, it was almost unheard of for Chinese students to go to the United States for undergraduate study. Instead, everyone suffered through the dreaded gaokao, the Chinese college-entrance examination. For four consecutive days in June, thousands of Chinese high schoolers sat in stuffy classrooms with no air conditioning, sweating and exerting themselves in subjects like mathematics, physics, and English to get one single score high enough to earn a coveted spot at a top university. Most students who did go abroad were graduate students, and many of them stayed in the new country.
The scene today is a little different. The majority of students in China do still take the exam. They study for years in preparation and wait for weeks afterward in anticipation of receiving a number that determines their future. Students are accepted to a college based on how highly they ranked the school and the single weighted score, which they may not even know before submitting their preferences. The convoluted and capricious ranking system may allot them a spot at their last-choice college.
Many, however, now have the option of bypassing that system, with exceptional talent or a significant amount of money. Some apply to a foreign-language school where students can apply to universities abroad instead of taking the gaokao. Others test their way into “experimental” classes at top public high schools, which are fiercely competitive but have high success rates of getting students into Western universities. Those with more disposable income can skip Chinese high school altogether and attend a private boarding school abroad, such as Andover or Exeter in New England. Students from wealthier families usually have a better chance of going abroad because they can hire tutors, take test-prep courses, and afford the high tuition of American private high schools and universities.
In recent years, the number of Chinese nationals studying abroad has increased dramatically, surpassing India, South Korea, and other countries in the number of students sent overseas. According to the Institute of International Education, China was the top sender of students to the United States in 2015, with 304,040 students—an 11 percent increase from the previous year. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), for example, has seen a sizable increase in the number of Chinese students, from 37 enrolled in the undergraduate college in 2000 to 2,898 in 2014.
Studying in the U.S. has a big price tag. This has led to a disproportionate representation of the wealthy and elite from China on American campuses. Public universities, suffering from a loss of funding after the 2008 financial crisis, have looked to international, and particularly Chinese, students for a full-tuition boost to their budgets. Chinese nationals, like all international students, pay out-of-state tuition and fees: $46,000-$53,000 a year at UIUC. While some financial aid is available to international students, there are vastly fewer funds, and most universities are not need-blind in their admissions processes for applicants from abroad. In the 2014-2015 academic year, Chinese students’ tuition and fees alone injected $9.8 billion into the American economy.
By 2008, when my father returned to China for the first time, many of his friends in Beijing had grown quite wealthy. Some had sent their children abroad for college. One friend even bought some land and sheep and moved to New Zealand to live out his bucolic fantasies. (It didn’t last.) My father returned wondering if he made the right choice to go to the U.S., where our family lives a modest existence compared to his peers in China.
A month after my father’s visit to China, my cousin—who grew up in Beijing—came to Chicago to attend boarding school. Located in an affluent neighborhood on Lake Michigan, Lake Forest Academy has its own private woods, bike paths along a scenic river, and streets named Yale Lane and Harvard Avenue lined with mini-villas. My uncle and aunt chose the school from a selection of brochures provided by recruiters from several private American boarding schools. With grassy football fields and numerous graduates attending Ivy League universities, Lake Forest Academy stood out from the rest.
Since 1978, economic reforms have led to China’s astronomical economic growth. China’s GDP increased from less than $150 billion in 1978 to $8,227 billion in 2012. In 2015, China outnumbered the United States in its number of billionaires. Chinese millionaires and billionaires not only invest in American businesses, but they also send their children abroad for school, where their wealth is often displayed in exorbitant fashion. An education abroad provides a status symbol in China, where most of the students return after their studies.
Attending college abroad has now become a fundamental and expected experience of many Chinese students seeking prominent careers abroad and even in China. One of my Chinese friends told me this time abroad is called dujin, a “golden vacation” that also improves job prospects. Many of the Chinese international students I spoke to agreed that a foreign degree was worth a lot on a resume back home.
Largely gone are the days of penny pinching and ramen eating. Instead, many Chinese international students are extravagant consumers in real estate, travel, entertainment, fashion, and other industries. While not every student is ostentatiously wealthy, this new group is certainly better off than their predecessors from 20 years ago. The wealthiest and most visible of the group have attracted attention and criticism. Videos reveal wealthy Chinese students driving Ferraris and buying up mansions. High spending seems requisite for China’s nouveau riche, or fuerdai, in their transition to American college life. One particularly biting article referred to wealthy Chinese women studying in the U.S. as “cash heifers.” While in America, they buy entire season collections of Chanel, spend thousands clubbing, and bring several suitcases of luxury goods home each year.
When my cousin first arrived at Lake Forest Academy, I accompanied him to his orientation. I spoke to a few school administrators, asking them about the school. In the middle of the conversation, one counselor asked, “and how are you enjoying the U.S.?” Taken aback, I responded, “I’ve liked it for the past 10 years that I’ve lived here.” The counselor, visibly embarrassed by her assumption that I, too, had just come from China, apologized and walked away.
I wasn’t offended by the question. I’m used to ruder reminders of my Asian face, such as catcalls of “Konichiwa” or even nonsensical words. I get frequent questions about where I’m really from, to which I answer “China” because it’s the truth. Yet, people in China instinctively recognize me as huaqiao, an ethnically Chinese person living outside China.
But the administrator’s question did give me pause. It made sense that she would think the relatives of the new Chinese students were also recent arrivals. Of course, the perfect Chicago accent might have tipped her off. There are plenty of Asian American students at Lake Forest Academy. Was it the circumstance that made her assume that I was not American? What happens to the perception of Asian Americans when a campus is seen as becoming “saturated” with Chinese nationals?
To answer this question, I created a survey, which I sent to my Chinese American friends. My 111 survey respondents flooded me with stories of how they have been affected by this development, especially being mistaken for, or assumed to be, Chinese international students. My respondents did not identify much culturally with the Chinese nationals on campus. Instead, they identified more with their Asian American friends despite having different ethnic and cultural identities. However, while Chinese and Asian Americans may perceive themselves as having disparate identities from Chinese nationals on college campuses, they are not always seen as separate groups.
A friend at Columbia University said she felt a “visceral need” to distinguish herself from the Chinese students in her program, because her non-Chinese classmates did not consider her American. They made statements like “I wonder why no American girls do econ Ph.D.s,” even though she was one of several Asian American women completing the degree. Another Chinese American student at Tulane University was rejected from a project group because the others believed she was an international student who “wouldn’t pull [her] weight due to [her] ‘bad English.’” As more Chinese nationals come to American campuses, it seems easier to forget that Asian Americans exist outside of this one subgroup of prominent foreigners.
There seems to be a growing awareness of, and animus toward, Chinese nationals on campuses that has in turn impacted Asian American students. While universities and local economies have certainly reaped the economic benefits of this large population of Chinese international students, it may have come at some cost to the Asian American community’s claims to Americanness. In all the media musings about rich Chinese foreigners on campus, the Asian American community’s response to this phenomenon has remained largely unexamined.
Growing up Asian in America, I experienced a blend of cultures that continues to shape my identity not just as Chinese, but as Asian American, an identity that strengthened during my time in college when I befriended many Asian Americans. The collective history of predecessors as immigrants, be they parents or great-great-great-grandparents, resonated so deeply that it created kinship. That history is marked by exclusion, alienation, and violence, but the pan-Asian identity that emerged is also one of strength and pride.
In a book review of Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian-America, Oliver Wang, an associate professor of sociology at California State University-Long Beach, noted the “wry paradox” of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. The act made possible the continual transformation of Asian America by constant waves of new immigrants, for whom Wang contends “‘Asian America’ has no meaning.” When asked whether they considered themselves “immigrants,” the dozen Chinese nationals I surveyed answered “no” or “unsure.” But whether they are seen or see themselves as Asian Americans, these new arrivals are embedded in Asian America, which encompasses all people of Asian descent living in the United States. And the responses toward them affect the community as a whole.
At the University of Iowa, a racist Twitter account sparked social activism among Chinese international students. The now-deleted account, UIasianprobz, solicited pictures of Asian students “doing the crazy things they do! No racism intended.” The university administration remained silent until the Chinese students mobilized and demanded a better response to issues international students face. Working with other students, they successfully called for mental-health services, more cultural diversity and awareness in the classroom, and programs to create a more integrated campus.
This incident shows that Chinese international students have the potential to be a powerful mobilizing force for the Asian American community. When I suggested that Chinese nationals in America didn’t engage in questions of race and concerns of the Asian American community, a law school friend from Beijing disagreed with my characterization. She said studying at Amherst College showed her for the first time what it means to be a minority, to see racial and class tensions. It made her realize that she wanted to work on these important issues. And she isn’t the only one. For every fuerdai taking his vacation, there is someone whose life changed thanks to a liberal-arts education, someone who became a feminist, someone who became an activist.
Their significant economic contribution on campus and in the local economy has given Chinese international students the clout to effect change and stand with the Asian American community, if they so choose. Their contributions could be crucial at a time when the Asian American community is engaged in serious soul searching, prompted by the recent debates over Peter Liang, affirmative action, and Donald Trump. Others seem to agree with me. My survey respondents largely answered that they feel positive about more Chinese students studying in the United States. It’s the conflation of all Asian students with Chinese nationals that they vehemently challenge, not the presence of Chinese international students on campus.
Being Asian American can seem a paradox. It is at once an assertion of Americanness—of belonging to a society that has always been a little suspect of faces and names like mine—and an embrace of a heritage that traces back to a courageous journey across a vast ocean. It is a celebration, not an identification foisted on us as a grouping mechanism and a marker of foreignness. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice to define what it means to be Asian in America, to choose it as the sole identity or one of many. And for me, this identity is shaped by the new arrivals on campus.
I have had this experience many times: a chance meeting with a Chinese student followed by a warm invitation. As I sit in a karaoke bar or around a dinner table, listening to them talk in a language I’ve spoken all my life with slang that I don’t quite understand, I am learning and absorbing. It’s always a little awkward at first, but our interaction begins a process of adapting. Just as they learn what it’s like to be Asian American, I am learning to change my own conceptions of China, of an ancestral homeland that itself is rapidly changing. It’s an education for me, and a fundamental one at that.
Call them the top 4 percent: elite private colleges and universities that together sit atop three-quarters of the higher education terrain’s endowment wealth.
Among that group of 138 of the nation’s wealthiest colleges and universities, four in five charge poor students so much that they’d need to surrender 60 percent or more of their household incomes just to attend, even after financial aid is considered. Nearly half have enrollment rates of low-income students that place them in the bottom 5 percent nationally for such enrollment.
These findings come from a new report released by the Education Trust, which noted that while these places of higher learning possess endowments of at least $500 million each, few are spending that largess at anywhere near the rate they could to ease college costs for talented low-income students. The report called many of these schools “playgrounds for the children of the wealthiest in our country” with leaders who “have mostly chosen not to prioritize educating students from low-income families.”
The high cost of attending “prices out many low-income students, funneling them to institutions that are less selective and have far fewer resources,” the report’s authors said.
Endowments are tax-exempt funds, including donations and investments, that colleges and universities manage over many years to pay for a wide range of expenses, such as research, salaries and student financial aid. Unlike other nonprofit organizations, colleges and universities aren’t obligated to spend at least 5 percent of their endowments on mission-related expenses.
The report’s findings underscore the increasing tension between leaders of higher education and policymakers who question their commitment to evening the playing field for less fortunate students.
“We have to keep our eye on this problem of education becoming a luxury good. We have to challenge elite institutions to do more,” U.S. Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell said in 2015 at a public event. In January, Bloombergreported on a bill proposed by a Republican congressman that would force colleges with endowments of greater than $1 billion to spend a quarter of their earnings on aid for poor students. About 90 schools would be affected.
And in February of this year, several congressional Republicans sent 56 colleges with large endowments letters containing questions about how much of their wealth goes toward needy students, among other inquiries. Other schools have faced state lawmakers’ proposals to tax some of their holdings.
“I certainly believe that these institutions need to be spending this money on low-income kids,” said Andrew Nichols, a co-author of the report and the director of higher-education research at Education Trust. “And if they’re not spending a certain amount, a certain threshold, they should certainly be taxed.”
A Congressional Research Service report from last December estimated that if returns from private college endowments were taxed at 35 percent, the government would collect $11 billion in revenue, based on 2014 figures—money that could be spent helping low-income students.
But whether institutions are permitted to use their endowments to expand opportunities for less privileged students is an open question. Endowments often contain large financial gifts from wealthy donors that have conditions on the spending, and these conditions don’t necessarily include helping students afford the cost of attending. Princeton University responded to the February letter from federal lawmakers by noting that its $22.7 billion endowment is spread across 4,300 separate accounts, many of which come with restrictions.
The Education Trust report’s authors showed little sympathy for schools that say their hands are tied. “They are not powerless, passive actors when it comes to fundraising, receiving financial gifts, and determining how endowment funds are spent,” the report said. It encouraged colleges to insist that funders offer more flexibility to support financial aid programs.
To learn more about how colleges spend their endowments, the authors scoured colleges’ tax documents, known as 990 forms. The report indicates that finding the relevant information wasn’t easy: For one, the documents are hard to locate; also, many schools have multiple tax ID numbers, each with its own 990 form, making comprehensive evaluations difficult.
“They’re essentially subsidized by all taxpayers” due to their tax-exempt status," Nichols said. “So the expectation would be that the least these institutions could do would be to report more on these significant financial resources.”
Still, the researchers were able to scrutinize 67 of the largest endowments in the country, including those belonging to the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore College, and Howard University. These 67 high-flying schools between 2010 and 2013 added to their endowments by an average of 3 percent and posted average annual returns on investment of 11 percent. Roughly half of these colleges spent less than 5 percent of their endowments in 2013, which crimped their ability to find additional dollars to ease the financial burden of low-income students, the researchers said.
Institutions say they must act cautiously with their endowments to navigate tough economic climates. Last year, Amherst College reported that if it spent 8 percent of its endowment annually rather than 5 percent, it would lose 60 percent of its wealth in 25 years. But the Education Trust report’s authors said a little bit of extra spending can go a long way. In the 67 schools they reviewed, just increasing the endowment-spending rate from around 4.5 percent to 5 percent could free up resources to cover the tuition for nearly 2,400 new students, the report found.
When Thomas Easley interviews people who want to teach statistics at North Carolina State University (NCSU), he poses a question most applicants probably aren’t expecting: How would you integrate diversity into your curriculum?
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It’s a question more universities seem to be asking in the aftermath of student protests against the dearth of people of color on their campuses and in their coursework. Hamilton College in New York recently adopted a plan that will require professors across all disciplines to discuss diversity and inclusion in their classes. St. Edward’s University, a progressive Catholic school in Texas, is revamping a series of standalone diversity- and social-justice-focused courses it has long required in an attempt to urge professors across campus to work such conversations into a wider array of classes. And after a decade-long-plus discussion, UCLA will soon require all students entering its main undergraduate college to fulfill a diversity course requirement.
Proponents say that asking students to acknowledge and discuss ideas and concepts through a variety of lenses with classmates from different backgrounds is every bit as important in an increasingly global society as drilling the fundamentals of essay-writing into young minds. But the idea is predictably controversial, with critics saying the requirements are a left-leaning affront to academic freedom. And even professors who are generally supportive of incorporating conversations about diversity into their teaching sometimes say they don’t know where to begin; lots of schools like to talk about diversity, but it’s a nebulous if nice-sounding word, and schools that espouse the broad concept sometimes fail to define exactly what they mean or expect when they tell professors to weave it into their work.
As a professor and the head of the diversity office at NCSU’s College of Natural Resources, Easley spends a good chunk of his time trying to provide some clarity. The university has a diversity requirement right now, but myriad courses qualify and Easley thinks too many of them center on an undercovered topic (African American cinema, for example) instead of focusing on the interactions between people from different backgrounds that can help students navigate campus and, later, the workforce. And professors don’t necessarily buy the idea that they need to incorporate diversity into, say, an engineering class; right now, most universities have incentives in place, such as tenure, that encourage research, not inclusivity. To increase the substance of the courses at his own College of Natural Resources, Easley is in the process of rolling out a year-long pilot program to encourage and train more faculty to integrate conversations about diversity into curriculum.
Some instructors already do it naturally, he said. Others know their subject matter cold, but they “don’t know how to convey that message cross-culturally or cross-generationally.” So when professors or surprised job applicants clam up, he gives them examples. In forestry, for instance, people need to secure the trust of landowners from all backgrounds, and the process of earning that trust varies depending on who the landowner is. “Don’t complain about people if you’re not teaching them how to [discuss diversity],” Easley said. “Let’s teach them. Let’s show them so they have a blueprint.”
Providing that blueprint is more straightforward at some schools than at others. At St. Edward’s, students have been taking a class called “The American Experience” for years as part of the school’s core “Cultural Foundations” curriculum. As the syllabus spells out, “The purpose of this course is to examine this diversity in experience throughout the country’s history, examining the struggles, achievements, and perspectives of marginalized groups in U.S. history.” There are explicit objectives, among them to “recognize the origin and evolution of the values, myths, and ideals that comprise American civic culture and their influence on society as a whole.”
But other universities that require students to fulfill a diversity requirement allow a number of different courses to count. Iowa State University, for instance, has said that “Archaeology of North America” and “American Sign Language I” satisfy the school’s diversity requirement. A cursory survey of several dozen other universities with diversity requirements suggests that most schools take a similarly generous approach. That can make ensuring that students are actually considering perspectives different than their own tricky. Far fewer colleges actually require individual courses with curriculum designed specifically to foster cross-cultural exchanges.
Diversity curriculum is sometimes championed more by faculty who care to develop it—often people of color who have had personal experiences with discrimination on college campuses—and less by university administrators. And while universities are often willing to pay lip service to the efforts, they’re not always prepared to empower the people behind them. Easley has visited a number of schools to talk to faculty about diversity, and often sees diversity offices that lack hiring power or their own budgets, and they can be constrained by preconceptions from administrators about exactly what they should do. At his own college, Easley was initially hired to focus on recruiting students of color, but they were among the most likely to drop out. After talking to students, he discovered some had had negative experiences with faculty and realized, he said, that he needed to help faculty learn to interact with people from different backgrounds. But it’s taken years of talking to faculty for that idea to gain traction. “You need both power and influence to actualize diversity,” he said. In other words, diversity initiatives can look nice on the surface, but dig in and there’s sometimes little substance.
Meanwhile, at a time when schools face mounting pressure to help students graduate on time (and limit the debt they accrue), professors can be reluctant to get behind stand-alone diversity requirements that add to a student’s workload. St. Edward’s is in the process of rethinking and scaling back its much-lauded, decades-old diversity curriculum in part because of pressure to reduce the number of general-education requirements, make it easier for transfer students to graduate on time, and better enable students to earn minors.
But the school is also trying to get more professors—professors who may have dismissed the diversity-focused courses as the territory of a small cluster of faculty—to incorporate a focus on cross-cultural understanding into their own teaching. Laura Hernandez-Ehrisman is one of the professors at St. Edward’s encouraging more of her colleagues to incorporate cross-cultural conversations into their instruction. “We just want to … broaden the community a little bit,” she said. But she acknowledges that the shift brings with it the challenge of training more faculty to effectively teach such topics and making sure that the courses actually delve into the topics they’re designed to cover, something she’s watched other schools struggle with from afar.
Even professors who have been immersed in that kind of curricula for years say guiding students through such conversations isn’t easy. Amy Nathan Wright, who teaches some of the school’s core diversity classes, said she tries to help her students, many from Texas high schools that haven’t spent much time examining the history of Latinos in the U.S. or the experiences of women, make connections between things like reconstruction and modern incarceration. Students talk about Trayvon Martin in the same breath as slavery and the convict lease system. “They leave with a very different sense of history and then it prepares them for looking at contemporary issues,” she said.
Yet Nathan Wright said there is some resistance from students who don’t initially see how such conversations are useful. And recently, facilitating conversations between students from different backgrounds has become more of a fraught process, particularly given the vitriolic political climate and deep racial tensions that have surfaced across the U.S. “Everything I’ve taught covers this, and the last year has been the hardest in my teaching career,” she said. “I’ve never had such a lack of answers for my students before because I don’t know what’s going on. It’s hard to take the current reality and process it.”
The current tension may mean the courses are more important than ever, though. “These are stories that you just don’t hear outside of these classrooms, and in order to understand what is happening on the streets, it’s important to explore the historical context of those struggles,” Hernandez-Ehrisman said. “Whether or not you agree with [Black Lives Matter protests], it’s important to understand where that’s coming from.”
Even with the challenges, a relatively small private school like St. Edward’s is able to point to its mission statement when students push back at the diversity course requirements. Promoting such instruction may be easier at institutions where diversity as a value has been baked in for so long. A large public university like UCLA has to weigh the concerns and opinions of a broader constituency.
The chancellor of UCLA, Gene Block, acknowledged the sometimes-slow struggle to move his university forward, but is optimistic the new diversity course requirement will foster a more inclusive, tolerant environment. “I hope it’s going to make a difference,” he said. The university offers a “wide range of opportunities for students to appreciate multicultural differences,” he said, noting the university’s diversity office and new vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion. The new requirement is an attempt to add an “academic component” he felt was “missing.” Drumming up enough support to create the requirement at UCLA was not easy and took several tries. Some faculty argued it imposed unnecessary burdens on students who are already going to school on a diverse campus in a diverse city. But Block insisted that “in the end, I think most faculty believe there was significant intellectual rigor in the courses.”
Unlike St. Edward’s, UCLA opted to allow a slew of courses to count toward the diversity requirement. Classes that satisfy the requirement must "substantially addresses racial, ethnic, gender, socioeconomic, sexual orientation, religious or other types of diversity." In response to a question about whether that will let students stick within their relative comfort zones, he said the classes are intended to be “comparative,” and suggested that allowing a variety of approaches was a “more intellectually rigorous” approach to diversity than “a prescriptive course.”
That approach means a freshman engineering student could theoretically satisfy his diversity requirement during the first year and spend the next three years in classes that avoid the topic entirely. But the ultimate goal is to cultivate a roster of courses and a campus climate that are sensitive to different backgrounds and beliefs, Block said. “This is understanding the audience that you’re teaching to and making sure everybody thrives in the environment. There are large classes and students with very diverse experiences.” When he teaches now, Block, a scientist known for his research of circadian rhythms, looks at photographs of the students who will be in his course and makes sure his slides reflect their diversity. “We’re all looking for me in those pictures,” he said.
NCSU’s Easley, who as a young black man at the University of Georgia in the late ‘90s said he didn’t feel like he belonged or saw himself reflected in his classes, echoed Block. “Our black students are sitting in class wondering how [they’re being perceived by their professor],” he said. “Those thoughts impact how students perform.” But Easley is optimistic that “the conversations are changing,” which he thinks could ultimately help universities retain more students. More faculty seem to be paying attention these days. When faculty, he said, are socially conscious and create safe spaces for people to share their experiences, more students feel a sense of belonging. “I think that some of our faculty, those who are self aware, know that they don’t know everything,” he said. “You basically make small pockets of progress.”
Even though the process is messy, students, particularly those from communities that have been traditionally left out of conversations on college campuses, seem generally pleased by diversity curriculum requirements, and view them as more impactful than the feel-good statements in favor of diversity some schools put out after they faced student protests. Raamish Saeed, a 20-year-old who graduated earlier this year from St. Louis Community College’s Ferguson campus and will soon enroll at St. Louis University on a full scholarship to complete his bachelor’s degree, said he doesn’t “see any negatives with a diversity course about understanding people with different backgrounds.” After Michael Brown was shot and killed, Saeed said conversations about diversity and inclusion took place among students on campus but not necessarily in all classes. “If we did have some sort of open dialogue,” he said, “it could’ve helped.”
As Easley explained, “everybody is an intersectional being.” These conversations are a way of giving people more information to understand colleagues or classmates that hadn’t previously been brought into the light, allowing similarities to emerge and relationships to flourish.
Whether the courses will ultimately prompt students to be culturally aware and deliberately inclusive of people from different backgrounds is unclear. Some schools’ requirements are so new that it’s too soon to tell. But the picture isn’t entirely rosy. The University of Michigan’s literature, science, and the arts faculty, for instance, approved a “race or ethnicity” requirement back in 1991. The university’s broader Michigan Mandate, unveiled in the 1980s, called for diversity among faculty, staff, and students. Yet students recently issued a list of demands, saying in part that the university had failed to adequately include black students and low-income students in campus life. In other words, the courses may be an important step, but actually upending institutionalized racism requires more than demanding that a student sit through a course that’s vaguely focused on “diversity.”
Still, their apparent rise is encouraging to many educators. Nathan Wright would like to see not only students, but politicians, educators, pastors, and law enforcement officials participate. “I think,” she said, “it should be mandatory.”
When Joan was an undergraduate, in the 1970s, she asked her boyfriend why one of his roommates was finishing up a Ph.D. while another, in the same department, still had several years left.
“Barbara’s rigid,” her boyfriend said. His other roommate, Karen, had slept with her advisor, but Barbara refused to sleep with hers. Chuckling with approval, the boyfriend recounted how Karen had asked to use his waterbed and left a pair of sexy underwear scrunched in his sheets.
Today, this kind of quid pro quo may be less common, but sexual harassment at universities persists. The spate of lawsuits, investigations, and recent resignations at the University of California, Berkeley, University of Chicago, and UCLA, accompanied by older cases leaked to the press and an increase in women going public about their experiences, have made that clear. Grad students and postdocs are particularly vulnerable, because their futures depend so completely on good recommendations from professors. And STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) students are more dependent than others. Their career progress hinges on invitations to work on professors’ grants or—if students have their own projects—access to big data sets or expensive lab equipment controlled by overwhelmingly male senior faculty.
A 2015 report that one of us co-authored found that one in three women science professors surveyed reported sexual harassment. There’s been a lot of talk about how to keep women in the STEM pipeline, but it fails to make a crucial connection: One reason the pipeline leaks is that women are harassed out of science. And sexual harassment is just the beginning.
* * *
We recently spoke with a group of senior scientists who confirmed the prevalence of sexual harassment. Kim Barrett, the graduate dean at the University of California, San Diego, said she did not know of a single senior woman in gastroenterology, her subfield, who had not been sexually harassed. Margaret Leinen, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, described a conversation she once overheard between one male and five female scientists at a meeting where harassment was being discussed. “I don’t see what the fuss is about,” said the man. “I’ve never met anyone who has been sexually harassed.” The women just looked at each other. “Well, now you’ve met five,” they said.
Another established scientist—who, like several women we interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing professional repercussions for speaking out—expressed specific concern about sexual harassment in the summer training courses that feed into prestigious academic jobs. She recalled the lead professor of one such course taking photos of a student, zooming in on her breasts, and making jokes about her. In another course, a different lead professor hand-fed ice cream to a graduate student. “It can be devastating,” she said. “[It happens] at the moment when a woman feels she is finally getting to be a real scientist and one of the gang.”
Other scientists worried about harassment at annual conferences. Leinen, who was president of the American Geophysical Union last year, said that shortly before their annual conference a young woman scientist—emboldened by a resolution widely seen as censure of Berkeley astronomer Geoffrey Marcy—came forward with a report. A colleague had sexually harassed her during graduate school, and continued to do so at AGU’s annual meeting. The AGU sprang into action by holding a town-hall session at the conference, and is now discussing concrete steps to address sexual harassment at its next meeting, according to Leinen.
The American Association of Physical Anthropology was similarly rocked by a sexual assault allegation at its annual conference last year. The women we spoke with in that association agreed that conferences, fieldwork, and business travel are the worst. One recalled a male colleague who once said the only reason to go to conferences is to have an affair. A 2014 study of anthropologists and other field scientists found that 64 percent of 666 respondents had experienced some sort of sexual harassment while doing fieldwork.
Then, there’s pregnancy harassment. One former doctoral student recalled having her job at a large research center cut due to “lack of funding” when she told her advisor she was expecting, only to see the position offered the next week to one of her friends. “I confided in my department chair that I believed I had been fired and discriminated against due to my pregnancy,” the student wrote. “She replied (and I can quote from memory verbatim because I was so horrified) ‘Are you sure? Because women in your condition have pregnancy brain and can often misinterpret situations.’ I realized I was screwed. No job, no, support, and no health insurance for my upcoming delivery.”
This student’s experience is far too common. Pregnant undergraduates and graduate students are frequently told that their only option is to withdraw from their programs, with no guarantee of readmission. Withdrawing can mean losing academic progress, tuition, fellowships, on-campus jobs, health insurance, and sometimes housing, according to the university policies we have studied and the people we have spoken with. (We currently have a National Science Foundation grant to work on this issue; the views expressed in this article are our own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the NSF.)
Postdocs, who fuel scientific research in the U.S., are equally at risk. For years, we’ve heard stories of Principal Investigators (PIs) who insist that pregnant postdocs return to the lab weeks after giving birth. A 2009 survey of postdocs by the social welfare researcher Mary Ann Mason and her colleagues found that of the women who entered their postdoc program intending to be research professors, 41 percent who had children during their postdoc decided against that career. By contrast, men who became fathers during their postdoc years changed their trajectory half as often—roughly the same rate as childless postdocs with no intention of having kids.
Our forthcoming report,Parents in the Pipeline, discusses postdocs’ experiences of parenthood. Nearly 20 percent of the roughly 1,000 postdocs who responded to our survey said their PI’s response to their parenthood had a negative impact on their training experience overall. According to our preliminary results, only 59 percent of postdoc women respondents said their institution had a maternity leave policy that applied to them, and just 15 percent of all respondents had access to a parental leave policy that covered care taking. Nearly one in 10 of the postdoc respondents were denied leave altogether. “No one explicitly said ‘Do not take leave,’” reported one scientist, who instead faced “threats of pulling funding, constant pressure and reminders mere weeks after birth … insulting remarks about my inability to complete deadlines and astonishing hostility as if having a child equals slacking off.” We have heard many similar stories through our website that’s dedicated to this issue.
Why don’t women just wait to have children until they get their first professor jobs? They can’t: The average age for getting a doctorate in science and engineering fields is nearly 32, right when female fertility significantly decreases. Even after graduating, researchers spend upwards of five years as a postdoc before moving into faculty positions, and there is evidence that those who spend more time as a postdoc are the ones who advance into tenure-track research positions.
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Wherever it occurs, sexual harassment of students or professors is a violation of Title IX when there’s federal funding involved. There almost always is. Sexual harassment of professors, students, or postdoc employees may violate employment laws as well. Moreover, it’s profligate as public policy: The U.S. faces a projected deficit of 1 million college-educated STEM workers in the coming decade, according to a recent White House report. Women can fill that gap; nationwide, educators, activists, politicians, and celebrities are all scrambling to encourage girls to choose STEM careers. Yet once those girls reach the final stages of their education—after dedicating over two decades of study—we lose them. The sunk cost of training a postdoc, conservatively, is $500,000—much of it public funds.
Here’s how we can stop harassing women out of science—two easier steps and two harder ones. The first is to break the silence surrounding sexual harassment. The decade-long behavior of Marcy, the Berkeley astronomer, was an open secret in the field until other astronomers finally organized in support of his victims, leading to his resignation. After molecular biologist Jason Lieb was found to have sexually assaulted a student and harassed others at the University of Chicago, the university came under fire for hiring him because it had received warnings that Lieb had been accused of harassment at two other universities.
“Reputation is the way we control behavior,” points out Ben Barres, a Stanford neurobiologist and trans man who has been vocal about the treatment of women in STEM. “These are serial perps. They go to another school, and the same behavior starts at the next school. Why don’t we make this public?” In Congress, Representative Jackie Speier is calling for a requirement that universities report findings of sexual harassment to federal funding agencies.
The second easy step is for funding agencies to send a clear message, backed by Title IX enforcement: Universities need to stop harassment and other illegal behavior towards students who become parents. Our preliminary survey data show that 53 percent of postdoc women report that their PI was very supportive of their pregnancy or parenthood; clearly, hounding mothers out of science is not mandated by the nature of scientific research. Discriminating against women based on pregnancy, or against either parent based on family responsibilities, is illegal sex discrimination. The lack of codified leave policies at institutions leaves the door open to unbridled discretion. Institutions need formal policies, if only as a risk-management measure.
The first hard step: Universities need a best-practice sexual harassment policy that protects the rights of survivors while also giving alleged harassers due process—not immunity. The hysteria suggesting that these two goals are irreconcilable is unjustified. Many advocates are working on this, from well-established national groups like American Association of University Women to grassroots efforts such as Know Your IX.
The final step is hard because it involves our wallets. The National Science Foundation provides supplemental funding for graduate students and postdocs working on NSF-supported projects who need parental leave. This funding makes it possible for PIs to cover both the parental leave and the salary of a temporary replacement. Yet these programs typically only apply where an institution has a formal leave policy. They also need to be adopted by more funding agencies.
“Don’t bother doing a postdoc,” a male neuroscientist advised aspiring postdocs who want to have kids. His advice? “Work at McDonalds, which would pay you equally or more, would give you more respect, and [offer] a ray of hope through promotion.”
If the U.S. wants to compete in a globalized world, where science and technology are developing at warp speed, we can’t afford to keep harassing women—or anyone—out of science.