Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Diversity Issues - obstacles to success

Dr. James Sherley has been dealing with obstacles to his success as a scientist and academic with the department of Biological Engineering at MIT. Although his story is unfortunate, that type of frustration is routinely experienced by many African-American scientists and graduate students. Such treatment and behavior creates unnecessary barriers to success. What a pity, because such unpleasant experiences can actually deter promising African-Americans (and others) from pursuing careers in science and academia.

Not to bemoan the lack of racial diversity within the sciences, but the lack of diversity within the sciences can also be attributed to the unfair treatment of minority faculty and graduate students by its senior faculty members and administrators. I seriously hope and pray it is unconscious, but nonetheless it is hurtful and damaging. How can STEM academic positions be expected to be filled by minority candidates if they are treated poorly during critical periods of their professional development?

Speaking from personal experience, faculty and administrators can be very insensitive. As the lone African-American student in my department I have been had to deal with issues that my other fellow graduate students have not had to address.

One example includes a recent fight to keep a Teaching Assistantship (TA). I was granted a year of TA funding by the out-going department chair. The new/incoming department chair was not comfortable with the assignment promised to me (the same assignment was also made to 2 other students, white females). He notified the other two students and their assignments were modified. He didn't notify me or my advisor and he also refused to sign off on the paperwork. Simultaneously, he forwarded the information about my assignment to the graduate school dean with a note stating his disapproval of my assignment. He also successfully lobbied other members of faculty and was able to block my assignment altogether. His consolation to me was that I could have a summer time TA position. This offer was ridiculous and empty because the department doesn't teach summer school classes and has never offered summertime TA assignments. I was livid and hurt. I was struck dumb by his lack of sensitivity and unconcern for my academic success.

Eventually, a solution was reached, but mainly because the previous department chair intervened. I was able to serve a double TA assignment, prepping one course and teaching another. But even that agreement was not to his liking; he attempted to block that assignment as well. He personally talked with the supervising faculty members and demanded that I teach double loads in both classes. He was very firm about me NOT prepping. Interestingly, one of the other students (whom I mentioned earlier as having a similar assignment), was given a prep only TA assignment. I came to the conclusion that female white graduate students were able to do things that I, the African-American, could not do.

I believe the entire matter was unfairly and inappropriately handled. Situations like these make the field of science and academia seem less objective and more subjective -- even unwelcoming to people of color. And it has made me less interested in pursuing an academic career in the future. Such treatment and behavior creates unnecessary barriers to success. What a pity, because academia and science is truly a great career options and African-Americans (and others) have so much to share with the rest of the world.


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