I woke up this spring break morning to a bit of a buzz on twitter that seems relevant to concerns I’ve expressed here in the past, and to my job as a prof at a CSU campus (and no, it wasn’t some April Fool’s prank). Terry McGlynn (fellow ecologist from CSU-Dominguez Hills) has a new post up on his blog Small Pond Science expressing some consternation that Harvard’s 6700 undergraduates received exactly the same number of NSF’s prestigious Graduate Research Fellowships as did the 392,951 students in the entire CSU system this year. He then reflects on some of the challenges of helping our students succeed in science careers in the face of what appear to be larger scale institutional and systemic barriers and constraints (if not active biases).
This bit at the end of Terry’s post resonates with me:
Not that long after I started my job at CSU Dominguez Hills, a good friend of mine came to visit campus and give a talk. I was griping about a series of challenges I consistently face, like riding a bike into a very strong wind. He was telling me how he was thrilled for the potential in front of me. I remember how he said it: I had the chance to literally remake the [white] face of ecology. Every student that I send on to graduate school would have a measurable effect. If I wanted to make change, then, he argued, then this is the perfect place for it. And I’m a guy who can make that happen.
I think he’s right. As several years have passed, I draw on this conversation for inspiration. I really need that inspiration for moments like these, when I realize how hard I have to pedal into the wind, when students at more privileged institutions have the wind at their backs. If we are going to make science equitable, then it must come from institutions like mine. If opportunity continues to overpass us, then the injustice persists.
Sometimes, I really feel like I want to stop pedaling. I have that option, but my students don’t.
I know the feeling of pedaling into that strong wind. I have been pedaling into that wind for over a decade now.
Terry’s post has triggered some good (and some frustrating) discussion both on his blog, and on social media. Some agree that there is a problem, others find his analysis superficial in not really looking at the demographics of who applies for and who gets NSF’s GRFs across the board. Yes, more in depth analysis would be useful and might help us crack the tough nut of how to get more underrepresented students and groups into science. I suspect someone may be doing more of this analysis already, and will look for such. Meanwhile, there are those asserting that this is nothing but meritocracy working at its best already – or perhaps even against merit in the opposite direction, because Harvard students are, but of course, better prepared and more interested in getting into PhD programs and are therefore more likely to be applying for these fellowships. So, if anything, they are being penalized by not getting way more GRFs than the CSU students. Must be nice up in that meritocracy.
Meanwhile, in our world, as Terry notes in a comment under his post:
Of course there are deeper problems that cause students from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply for grad school and graduate fellowships in lower numbers.
Last fall, as we were heading into the holiday feasting season, I wrote a commentary about the problem of hunger on our campus which was broadcast on Valley Public Radio, as part of the series The Moral Is (for which I am a regular contributor). You can listen to me reading the commentary through the audio link on their website. Or read this slightly more expanded (and hyperlinked) text here:
Educating The Poor And The Hungry
by Dr. Madhusudan Katti, Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Fresno
What is the value of a university education? What is the price of a university education? How much does society value education as a public good?
We must pause to ponder these questions as we head into another holiday season, when we gather to give thanks for what we have, and are urged to share with those less fortunate. As a professor at a public university, I have a vested interest in how we answer these questions. For I am appalled by the fact that more and more of my students are among those less fortunate in today’s society, and yet we are not doing enough to help them.
A recent survey at Fresno State tells me that one in three of the students looking up at me in my classroom faces food insecurity: they are literally hungry, not just for knowledge. Another 20% are close to that brink if not over it quite yet. Most will stagger to the finish line still hungry, graduating under a life sentence of crushing debt.
It is hard not to find the student debt burden immoral when the Congressional Budget Office announces that the US Department of Education profited to the tune of $51 billion on student loans. (The actual profit margin has been debated, for the accounting may be complex, and most of the profit may be based on penalizing graduate students more than undergrads, but nevertheless, the CBO projects healthy profits from student loans.) Meanwhile, we keep telling kids that they must go to college if they want to be ready for a career, taking on loans to invest in their future.
Even as developed nations like Germany offer free university education, American public universities remain underfunded. So they keep hiking tuition, hire more low-wage adjunct faculty, and keep salaries for tenured professors (but not administrators) stagnant. Some campuses, like my own, even charge hidden “success fees“, tacitly acknowledging that normal fees are not nearly enough to ensure our students succeed through an undergraduate degree any more.
We might as well ask students to plop down their credit cards when they arrive, as we put their diploma on layaway to be collected after they’ve paid the full price of tuition over 4-6 years. How much can or should they care about actually learning anything, on an often empty belly, given the high price-tag on that diploma? We have let education become a commodity transaction between overworked, underpaid, insecure faculty teaching overloaded classes full of hungry, indebted students facing uncertain futures.
Agricultural universities like Fresno State might offer food pantries to help students, although charity is the last thing they need. The federal government may lower interest rates on student loans. Real lasting solutions, though, require fundamental changes in how we fund and run universities, to empower students. American society must do some soul searching to decide what the real value of education is, not just for the individual student seeking a job, but for a once advanced nation that has lost its way. Lady liberty may hold a beacon welcoming the hungry, tired, huddled masses to America. In my university classroom though, I urge you to send me eager well-fed students, hungry only for knowledge.
That is the broader context within which we must try to prepare our students for careers in science, encouraging underrepresented minority students with no cultural inheritance of science (or even university education at all) in their familial backgrounds to get into science PhD programs at a time when we also lament the overproduction of PhDs in the sciences! That is the context within which we must recognize the place of science/STEM education, and figure out how we can make science more representative and inclusive.
That is the wind into which we must keep pedaling our bicycles so we might help more of our students (and not just the “low-hanging fruit”) get up on that shiny hill of meritocracy.