Academia is still a little too like this.

How To Make a Real Commitment to Diversity

A Guide for Faculty/Managers Especially

You have to take risks.

I don’t mean take risks by condescendingly hiring marginalized people that you actually think are a little incompetent but are probably good enough or that you can remold into quality. That’s not actually a risk, that’s you being a condescending jerk.

I mean you have to take risks by putting yourself in between minority applicants who are actually extremely qualified — even if they don’t look just like white people on paper because our lives are often not lived just like a white person’s — and the people who don’t believe they should be in the room.

To the best of my recollection, during the summer of 2003, Professor G told me that when he was on the Harvard Department of Astronomy graduate admissions committee in the 02–03 academic year, there was a professor in the room who believed women shouldn’t go to graduate school. I also remember fairly vividly Professor G reporting to a room discussing women in astronomy that half of the 100 applicants that year were women and when they ranked the applicants, all the women but a few with an unusual number of publications ended up in the bottom 50.

Things are better in that department now, although relatively recently Professor G sent me an email that I consider to be racist harassment. But, I also remember trying to talk to him privately about why the numbers at UC Santa Cruz — where the department is just as strong if not stronger — were better, and his response was, “Well, Santa Cruz is Santa Cruz, but Harvard is Harvard.” As if that is some kind of good excuse. Sexism is sexism and Harvard is sexism, I guess?

As far as I know, no one has ever taken the risk of naming that professor. That professor was allowed to remain a part of the admissions process the year that I applied. I wouldn’t have gotten in regardless of whether he was on the committee or not, but that is actually beside the point. Even if I wasn’t a good fit — which I wasn’t — I can also say with certainty that I didn’t get fair consideration.

That professor — and the entire admissions committee that aided and abetted him by not outing him and having him removed from the committee — were violating Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX in the words of the United States Department of Justice “is a comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.”

A white woman professor from another institution once shared an admissions/hiring committee bingo card with me. Each box contained a racist and/or sexist thing that she had heard stated during admissions and hiring for her department. Many of the items were violations of Title IX. Some of them were violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which according to the DoJ “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.”

Every single professor I have ever discussed hiring and admissions with has mentioned that there’s at least one professor in their department who is prone to these kinds of beliefs and enacting them in hiring and admissions. This is true across the board, whether they are at a research intensive institution, a teaching-oriented public university, or a small elite liberal arts college.

In other words, professors regularly break the law, their colleagues complain to me about it behind their backs and then everyone wrings their hands about how hard it is to change anything about how diverse departments are.

People make comments to me about how they are just waiting for a colleague or colleagues to die off, as if younger people aren’t prone to saying the same messed up stuff. (It’s just not true, ok? These police officers shooting Black folks? Some of them are my age, and I’m still part of the 18–34 demographic.)

Look you all. Stop wringing your hands about how impossible things are and how the arc of the moral universe is long like decades long but we should all celebrate that occasionally Black students when they come to tell me about their time as physics students don’t tell me some horror story. Stop it. You know why?

Because you can do something about it, and you’re not.

Your colleagues are breaking the law, and you are protecting them because you are protecting yourselves from having an uncomfortable professional situation.

Let’s be real.

You want minorities to solve the diversity problem by showing up and being perfect, and you don’t want to do the work at all of creating an environment where they can even make an appearance, where their application will get read fairly, where people will reconsider what makes a candidate valuable and what constitutes a contribution to physics.

So let me just say, I hear you.

I hear you when you say that I need to conform to what your racist, sexist colleague is looking for in a new hire because damned if you are going to go to your Dean and file a Title IX or Title VI complaint.

I hear you when you say that I need to be just as productive as white men who never have to deal with any of the stressors that I have to deal with — like being afraid to leave their apartment because the cops like to harass and shoot people like them — and that this productivity will be measured not holistically in terms of publications PLUS deeply time-consuming service to the community like the number of students who will actually get a PhD because I helped keep them in the pipeline, but solely in terms of how good I am at bullshitting in the arena of publications. (Because you know what? We as a community publish too much. We do. We are publishing things that should not be published because there is so much pressure to publish because we need to bring in the money and universities are bloating administrations rather than funding education &etc. These are all real problems, but this publishing race to the bottom is a deeply uncreative and terribly harmful response.)

So, yeah, I hear you. The Black students and LGBTQA students and the women students and the students who are all of those things that I support? They are not really worth much because supporting them is not an important contribution.

Also, apparently they are all undergraduates or something because if you’re good at supporting them, damn if people can stop tripping all over themselves to stop telling me that I’d be great at an undergraduates only institution.

I hear you. You think those institutions are better places for minorities. There’s like, zero data to back that up, but hey, since we’re all scientists, data is not our strong suit, right?

I hear you. You want to write about your one super star minority student in your NSF proposal along with some half truth about a minority-serving scientific society, but damn if you are going to do anything to actually clear the brush.

Your racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist colleagues are brush, and you need to clear them out of the fucking way, Faculty.

You need to go have a conversation with your Dean about what your Dean can do to incentivize that person not dominating the hiring conversation. As in, the other faculty need to be bribed because apparently that is as far as we have come as a society: decency must be elicited through bribery because decency is not a fundamental value yet.

Stating you are committed to diversity has to be more than, “I will try to be personally fair and impartial.” You need to not just quibble and politely argue with your colleagues who refuse to be.

You need to do something about them, even if this makes your life more unpleasant.

You have to take risks. You have to out them. You have to make their lives more difficult, the way they are making the lives of people like me more difficult. You have to use the creativity that supposedly you were so majestically endowed with — thus leading you into great success as an academic — to be an accomplice, not an ally.

You need to give up some of your privileged shelter. True change will not come by maintaining your own comfort but rather by you throwing off comforts that have come to you and your colleagues due to unearned power based on your race, gender, sex, and sexual orientation.

If you’re serious about diversity, then you have to be serious about ending discrimination, and if you are serious about ending discrimination, then you have to be serious about letting go of your unearned power.

You have to make it impossible for these professors to do business as usual.

You have to learn how to organize with people on your campus and people on other campuses. Talk to your colleagues in ethnic studies; they’ve been doing this for a while and are probably actually happy to help the scientists finally get their butts in formation.

You have to learn to go around or take over your professional societies.

You have to push back hard against your tendency to mollify your fellow privileged people.

White women have to push back hard against the racist patriarchal dynamic of white women taking care of the feelings of white men at the expense of people of color.

You have to consider joining your students in filing Title IX complaints and Title VI complaints. Yes, this might involve contacting the US Dept of Education and Dept of Justice directly.

You can’t just let the conversation stay in the room. It cannot be, “Well Bernie, we disagree, but I’m glad we had that confidential conversation where you denied someone an opportunity and I tried unsuccessfully to stop you. I’m going to let you go about business as usual now.”

You need to disrupt that process by telling your Dean that if they won’t help you stop the behavior, then you will be forced to go over and/or around them, possibly publicly. Perhaps you would like to write an editorial for the local paper about your experiences as a tenured faculty member. Pretty much anyone can have a blog these days — you’re reading Exhibit A. And not every state has libel laws that favor silencing victims. California does; Washington does not.

If you’re not the only faculty member who sees the problem, work in a group. Take coordinated actions.

If you are the only person in the department: well, you’re getting a small taste of what it’s like to be Black in physics a lot of the time! Congrats! You expect me to work it out without taking a break from being Black, right? So, yeah, you do the same. Find people in other departments, work with student organizations. Offer the power that your position gives you as a tool for their work.

And yeah, a whole lot of you have Black students organizing on your campuses right now. Are you going to their meetings and talking to them frankly about the fuckery in your departments? If not, who are you protecting and why?

I hear you. This will greatly affect your quality of life because it will lead to conflict with your colleagues. I am kind of empathetic to this but mostly


You all need to stop messing with people’s lives by letting them experience discrimination under your watch just because it’s simpler for you if you do.

What are your values? What do you stand for? Is diversity a platitude to you or do my life and dreams really matter to you? Where is your humanity?

I’ve seen many of you say #BlackLivesMatter. But do they only matter when making them matter is someone else’s problem to solve? Do Black lives matter in science?

Prove it. Go hard or get the fuck out my face with your faux commitment to diversity. I’m not interested.