Diversity at Harvey Mudd College: A Position Paper
by Tad Beckman 2 July 1997
When we think of the college's problem with diversity as merely a demographic issue, we can only assume that it is a problem with admissions, hiring, and retention. This is the way the college has thought about diversity as long as I can remember. From this point of view, we are inclined to propose more aggressive student recruitment for admissions, broader staff and faculty searches, and strategies such as mentoring to improve retention. We have given all of these serious attention for more than a decade.
There are several obvious problems that impede our success in these areas. The number of acceptable applicants, both for admissions and for staff positions, seems to be small. Our success rate, having offered admissions or a position, seems lower than we might expect; the competition, we conclude, is great. Finally, mentoring is difficult to follow through with and demanding of extra time on people who are already taxed. As genuine as these problems are, however, we need to explore quite seriously whether our strong focus on these particular problems isn't a way of avoiding some deeper issues and problems. In many ways, the description of the situation itself tends to place responsibility elsewhere and allows us to remain "sincerely interested but frustrated."
The first problem, above, makes it seem like a scarce supply of prospects and it is easy to ignore the fact that we are the ones who define "acceptable." The second problem makes it sound like an extremely competitive environment in which others just draw on resources that we don't have. We rarely stop to think that there may be something in what we offer and the way we come across that lowers out success rate. Finally, while we could certainly do a better job with mentoring and academic support, the focus on these tends to assume that the problem all lies with the student, staff member, or faculty member --- that they must be brought up to our speed. We are probably least able to imagine that there may be problems with the ways in which we operate and that we need to effect institutional changes.
Here's an example. By vote of the faculty (spring 1996), the possibility of graduation over a five year period was approved, meaning that financial aid can be extended into a fifth year and that "normal progress toward a degree" cannot be defined in terms of graduation in four years. While a generous and important change, this vote still assumes fundamental inflexibilities in qualifications and curriculum. The new policy simply allows "disadvantaged" students more time in which to deal with "qualification deficits" in facing the traditional curriculum. Incidentally, the faculty vote created the Diversity Committee and assigned the Committee responsibilities for creating and managing a mentoring operation, assuming again that the big issue is bringing students up to academic readiness.
These are by no means problems and attitudes unique to Harvey Mudd. In a three-day workshop on minority students in science and math, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the general assumption was that minority students are not well prepared for these fields and that they have problems working in them. Some of these deficiencies were viewed as the results of poor preparation in K-12 schools; but some were seen as "cultural." Biologists at the workshop, for instance, complained that Native American students refused to do essential dissection experiments in their labs. All in all, there was no willingness (even when the issue was raised) to consider the possibility that science and math curriculum might be changed in various ways that might provide more adequately for a diverse student body.
At a recent symposium of institutions holding diversity grants from the Irvine Foundation, few people were still working along the track of imagining that admissions and hiring are the main factors in controlling an institution's diversity. Virtually all were addressing the need for institutional change in some way. And most agreed that an institution's mission must be revised to make diversity a central feature.
Only in the last year at Harvey Mudd has there been serious discussion of the fact that our campus atmosphere and social relations may play a significant role in determining the success or failure of diversity here. Yet anecdotal evidence indicates that many minority students and staff have such substantial problems coping with campus society that they leave directly or begin to have academic or work-related problems. Campus atmosphere may even be a strong factor in determining the success or failure of our admissions process.
One thing seems clear. Our lack of success in promoting diversity at Harvey Mudd is a symptom of deeper problems in the institution itself. Admissions criteria and the curriculum speak to a general inflexibility and inability to effect change. The social atmosphere speaks to a separation between academics and student life that has existed for decades. Broadly speaking, the diversity problem fits into the whole underlying goal of "educating for science and technology in society" to which Harvey Mudd is dedicated but which it has almost completely failed to achieve. In this essay, I shall pursue the argument that the diversity problem itself cannot be solved without seriously addressing and correcting the failure of the college's mission.
It may seem ironic to suppose that the college has failed in any way, of course, since the general atmosphere around campus, in development publications, and in every convocation or commencement address celebrates our success. Nevertheless, our success is clearly a limited one. It is measured by the strength of our programs in science and engineering and by the large numbers of students that we place in graduate programs and jobs. Nor do I mean to suggest, here, that the programs in humanities and social sciences themselves are not strong and respected. Where we have failed is in bringing our programs together, and this is a major failure since it is central to our mission. The symptoms of this failure are everywhere around us. Students and technical faculty alike refer to the courses in the humanities and social sciences as the "[Ho]Hums." Time and effort clearly go into the science and engineering courses; but other programs can't compete for attention. Career choices are obviously motivated by the technical programs; and it is very difficult, in the case of most students, to see ways in which these choices have been modified, or even vaguely influenced, by humane or social issues. All of this is strongly in evidence when we explore human and social relations on campus, which are treated as trivial necessities or mere practicalities, unworthy of genuine intellectual attention.
Yet the mission statement of the college is clear in expressing the idea that an HMC student's education should embrace not only science or engineering but also the human and social conditions in which these professions may be practiced. It is clear that simply offering an elective program in humanities and social sciences as 30% of the curriculum has failed to achieve this mission. There is nothing in the college's approach to curriculum that really places this mission before the student as a major agenda item for the four years.
These points are relevant to the college's diversity problems because diversity is a human and social issue; hence, diversity addresses us at our weakest point, the point where our mission has failed. The only way to solve the diversity problem is to address this failure directly. The mission should be an essential issue for the college anyway.
Why has Harvey Mudd failed in achieving its mission? Let me say, first, that I do not believe it failed from the very beginning. In fact, the original staffing of the college was managed with considerable sensitivity to the breadth of the college's mission. Throughout the college's first decade, there were continuing discussions about the curriculum in the light of the college's mission. We even took off a week's time for a Goals Conference, in the late ‘60s. When the Freshman Division was created, in 1969-70, the humanities and social sciences were placed in equal and parallel slots with interdisciplinary approaches to the sciences and math/computing. The humanities course, "Quest for Commonwealth," was regularly staffed with faculty from the technical departments, along with members of the humanities and social sciences department.
By the mid-70s, however, the mood of the college had significantly changed. Administration of the college had begun to follow traditional "university" tracks; and the college's degree of success was increasingly gauged by traditional university standards. Discussions about values, goals, and missions had become weary to many. Hiring tended to take advantage of the inflated candidate pool and increasingly sought after very bright research-qualified faculty members. Worst of all, little attention was given to acculturation. Faculty and administrators who entered the college from the mid-70s onward carried the values and missions of their graduate universities with them into the Harvey Mudd community and rarely heard serious discussions about the college's mission. Little wonder that the college simply drifted further away from evaluating its success in terms of its broad mission.
The traditional posture of any faculty, with respect to curriculum, is seen in departmentalization. The heart of the academy lies in maintaining strongly separated major departments. Technical electives and background topics are either delegated to other departments or specially taught from within. Human and social issues included in a liberal arts environment are delegated to separate departments in these areas. At Harvey Mudd, these are delegated to the college's humanities and social sciences department. If the idea of curriculum includes "balance" or "distribution," this is achieved by the student alone, blending the departmental programs mentally. No one at HMC looks after the comprehensive project of assembling the whole mission in any intellectually informative or demanding way. The curriculum, being divided into parts, leaves the student without direction or supervision in bringing success to the whole. The result of this experience is that most students do not integrate the parts into a whole; indeed, most students quickly master the academy's preference for separation, specialization, and narrowness.
We have been producing graduates, through the last two decades, I would say, who are often exactly the opposite of what the college's mission set out to create. Rather than producing graduates who were confident members of their contemporary political and economic worlds and who insisted upon value-oriented and value-informed regulation of their professional practices, we have more frequently produced graduates who wanted to practice science or engineering under any conditions and for any purposes and without regard for their broader consequences. In fact, these graduates have often displayed a willingness (even an enthusiasm) to divest themselves of social responsibilities and to accept whatever their employers have decided. The entire history of the college, in this regard, is a suggestion of failure, given the extremely high level to which education in science and engineering has been fed by strongly anti-communist militarism --- precisely the same moral issue that caused veterans of R&D from the WWII era to draft and subscribe to the college's mission originally.
In this context, it should not be surprising that neither faculty nor students have made much progress in solving underlying problems relating to life in a pluralistic society. The whole tendency of mind, after all, is life in a narrowly specialized and isolated "society." They have already effectively absented themselves from the human and social dimensions of education. What I wish to argue here, then, is that there is a flaw in the way that responsibilities for the curriculum have been distributed among the departments at Harvey Mudd College. We can succeed in meeting our mission only if we restore an effective collegial environment.
Our tendency is to think of science in the narrowest terms, considering it merely as a methodology. We ignore the context in which science occurs and is nurtured. We ignore its history, sociology, psychology, and politics, to say nothing of how it fits into economics and the overarching institution of technology. Science faculty are, in fact, quick to insist on the "purity" of science and the "objectivity" with which it systematically explores and seeks to understand nature. The issue for scientists is not "use" but "knowledge." If not guided by, they are at least consistent with a long line of logicians, philosophers, and commentators from the French Positivists to the Logical Empiricists, who have dominated much of our thinking about science, over the last two centuries.
In the early part of the 20th Century, social critics and historians began to recognize that science could not ignore its inevitable involvement with technology and economics and that continued dissociation would lead to disaster. Many developments in the Second World War, not merely the production of nuclear weaponry, confirmed these fears. Then, Thomas Kuhn's revolutionary revision of both the history and philosophy of science (1962) made it clear that the method of science itself could not be isolated as a merely logical problem but must be seen as a complex of social and historical phenomena as well. At the century's end, it seems difficult to imagine that science can be truly understood without analyzing the political, social, and psychological forces in which it is embedded; however, while historians and philosophers and other scholars in STS fields have moved toward this conclusion, it is not a judgment that has affected scientists and engineers themselves, I would say.
The tension, today, is most striking when we examine the claim of "purity." Do scientists have a right to assert their "purity?" Or do they ignore the economic and political grounding of their work? To answer this, we need to ask why the public supports science and engineering --- both original work and education. Is public and private commercial support altruistically motivated by a completely disinterested belief in the value of pure knowledge of nature and natural processes? Would their support continue indefinitely if little of practical value came of research and education? An enormous amount of money is involved. Could science and scientists proceed without this support? But if the answer is that science could not proceed without this enormous level of public and private support, is it not dishonest to maintain that scientific research and education are "pure" and "disinterested." They are, in fact, guided by the public's interests.
This, however, is precisely where the mission of Harvey Mudd engages us. The real practical basis of that mission is the fact that neither scientists nor engineers truly possess directive authority over their work; they must engage with society at all levels in order to direct and control that work over the long term. And this means that scientists and engineers must possess a thorough understanding of society and have a working knowledge of how to engage with and affect its leading institutions. The society we live in is a pluralistic society; and that means that, for our own good, we must solve our diversity problems. The technological community cannot long afford to remain an elite minority and to ignore the social changes that are surrounding it.
Please send me comments via e-mail. Click here to return to my HomePage.