I’ll be soon be sharing specific ideas about what can be done about the disadvantages experienced by talented students who attend non-prestigious undergraduate institutions. But first, I thought it would be useful for me to share how this topic has affected my inbox.
I barely get any email related to this site. Aside from the site stats, and some interactions on twitter, I wouldn’t have any other indicator about readership. So when I receive the occasional email related to this site, it stands out.
In relative terms, I got several metric tons of emails about last week’s post about NSF graduate fellowships.
I did not write this post to push people’s buttons – I wrote it to point out some obvious facts to people who don’t face these obvious facts as a part of their day-to-day job. (That’s why this blog was created.) Entitled people are entitled; disadvantaged people are disadvantaged. Academia is not as much a meritocracy as those who are in a position to select based on merit imagine it is. And NSF focuses heavily on broadening participation in its mission, but their graduate fellowships aren’t a big part of that. Apparently, that last fact ended up pushing a lot of buttons.
I think there’s a lot to be learned about our community from thinking about these emails, and the motivations behind the people who wrote them. I received an equivalent measure in each of the following four categories:
1. Gratitude. People representing all kinds of academic demographic groups wrote to me to just thank me for taking the time to write the post to call attention to this serious problem. Your positive feedback counts a lot. Thanks so very much.
2. Requests for advice. A number of people – graduate students and faculty at major research institutions – asked for specific ideas and recommendations to improve the subway between underfunded public universities and doctoral programs. I shared some ideas – and have more to share – but also recognized the fact that many of us know exactly what needs to be done, but it requires resources that are not being allocated. A lot of resources. It’s a systemic problem, and patchwork fixes are, well, just small patches.
3. Personal stories. These were eye-opening emails. Some stories were from grad students who had recently left their underfunded public universities. They explained how a lucky opportunity allowed access to graduate school, and how they realize that success should be predicted by ability and hard work, it’s that is not the case because of the stigma working against their undergraduate institutions. I also received emails from people who have served as panelists for NSF, who explained how they saw how institutional biases manifested during the discussion of applications. It’s now quite clear to me that some — if not many – panelists think that a high GPA from a highly-ranked university is more impressive than a high GPA from an underfunded public university. (There were some people who shared review snippets on social media, as well, but the emails were very stark about the matter. I can understand why people don’t want to come forward and report these incidents, which are downright appalling. I can’t imagine that the emails I received describe the only times this kind of thing has happened.) I realize that I’m often shielded from directly critical or minimizing remarks, because many people often are aware of my institutional affiliation when speaking to me. But when a panel is filled with research-institution types, then these biases are spoken more overtly. This, I learned from these emails. Thanks to those of you who shared with me.
I wrote this post thinking that the problem was not in reviewer bias, but in overall funding priorities. I went in thinking that reviewers did a great job delivering the charge delivered to them. But these stories definitely gave me the impression that the generally low opinion that scientists feel about universities like mine provides a very real and damaging drawback to our students. Our 3.9 students with stellar research records and have a major setback compared to with Ivy League 3.9 students with stellar research records. Even though our students with that record have gotten to where they are with a much greater quantity of perseverance, a quality that makes great scientists. I realize that other scientists look down on me as a researcher because of my institutional affiliation. I live with that lack of respect every day. Again, that’s why I made this blog. But I find myself newly surprised at how much our university’s lack of clout in the research community damages the prospects for our students, and I thought this kind of stuff wouldn’t surprise me anymore.
4. Paternalistic advice. I got a bunch of mail from white men just like myself. We all have well-paid permanent academic positions and a history of doing good science and student mentorship. The difference between me and the guys who wrote me is that they work at research institutions and run laboratories with doctoral students. These emails became very predictable. They had most of the following elements:
- An explanation that I was looking at the wrong variables, because I wasn’t taking into account the number of applicants from each institution. Clearly, the disparity between Harvard and the CSU is probably merely because so few CSU students are applying!
- A great concern about explaining why so few CSU students are applying, but scant concern about the underlying conditions that creates these circumstances.
- A token expression of admiration for the work that I do, and a recognition that the conditions that I deal with at work are unfamiliar to them.
- A detailed list explaining the reasons why students who do their undergraduate work at small liberal arts colleges and research institutions are better prepared for graduate school than those who attend CSUs.
- A set of recommendations about what I and my colleagues in underfunded public unviersities should be doing to increase the preparation and fellowship application rates of our students. As if these things had not occurred to us.
- Tips explaining what a funded proposal looks like, accompanied with the false tacit assumption that I haven’t written a sizeable number of funded NSF proposals.
- An expression of the opinion that there is a huge social inequity, but there’s not much to be done about it by NSF, and that it’s more important to fund the best scientists rather than build an equitable scientific community.
- An absolute lack of recognition of the bias embedded in above opinion.
If I wanted to engage in less substantial rhetoric, I could build a “bingo card,” but I think that would help to shut down the conversation with those who we need to change. I’m here to explain to people what we do, what are constraints are, and how change should and can happen. It’s a long haul. I think this blog has made a tiny little dent, but I’m still chipping away.
So, that’s the mail I got. It was quite educational.