We acknowledge that anti-Black racism is systemic in our society, in STEM academia, in the field of astronomy, and on our campus and in our department. Physics and astronomy departments across the U.S. have persistently failed to be inclusive and supportive of Black students, awarding less than 4% of bachelor’s degrees to African Americans over the past 20 years. Black students make up just 2% of those pursuing physics and astronomy PhDs, and Black academics make up 2% of physics and astronomy faculty. Enrollment statistics for undergraduate and graduate students in our department and in the SDSU College of Sciences are consistent with these nation-wide demographics. These rates of representation are far below the percentage of Black people in the U.S. population (13%), and are unacceptable.
We have a responsibility to identify, confront, and interrupt racist policies and ideas within our department and in our academic communities that result in these failures. We have a responsibility to understand how many of us have benefitted from such racist policies and ideas. And we have a responsibility to create a departmental environment that demonstrates to Black scholars that their contributions are needed in our field.
Real change will require our sustained commitment in several areas. Among them are understanding the experiences of our Black students; understanding how our current policies result in underrepresentation; and recruitment of Black students to pursue Astronomy degrees. We have identified a set of actions, described below, that we agree to undertake to begin this work. We pledge to maintain this document publicly so that we can be held accountable to these actions.
Undertake targeted outreach to local high schools and community colleges with greater representation of Black students. Our goals are to bring the excitement of physics and astronomy to students (via star parties, research presentations, and observing trips), but equally important is to provide information on astronomy/physics career paths and to illustrate that Black students and other people of color are needed and wanted in STEM academia.
- We pledge to promote and contribute to the work carried out by SDSU’s Pre-College Institute (PCI), an organization that endeavors to enable and foster college access and completion for underserved students in the San Diego public school community. Specifically, we will
- produce and provide astronomy-related workshops as part of PCI’s “STEM Exploration Day”, an annual, all-day event that brings roughly 300 low-income middle- and high-school students to campus to experience and explore career options in science, technology, engineering and mathematics
- use “STEM Exploration Day” as a bridge to seek more lasting connections between our department and partner schools of the PCI
- publicize, stimulate interest in, and actively encourage our undergraduate and graduate students to get directly involved with the broader programs carried out by the PCI.
- We have identified high schools (Crawford, Hoover, Mark Twain) and community colleges (City, Mesa) as focuses for outreach efforts if they aren’t reached through PCI programs. We will work with current undergrad and grad students (especially the SAS and SPS clubs) as part of the outreach to provide potential students with peer mentorship.
Recruit at National Society of Black Physicists meetings. As NSBP is the largest organization of underrepresented minority scientists in our field, we pledge to send (or work with the Physics department to send) faculty representatives to recruit, and to enable Black students to attend and if possible present research at the annual conferences.
Implement a standard rubric for ranking applications to our M.S. program to try to eliminate selection biases:
- The rubric should assign little or no weight to the Physics GRE score. The test is a financial barrier to applying to the master’s program (and possibly also a psychological barrier), and is not a good predictor of success in the master’s program, so a low percentile score will not be used to reject applicants. However, it can potentially provide an avenue for students with weak applications by other standards (such as GPA) to make an argument for admission. Therefore, the Physics subject test will remain optional in the near term, but we pledge to further study the impact of this test on student admission and its usefulness as a predictor of student success.
- We pledge to discuss the weighting of General GRE scores in the admissions rubric (for the 2020-2021 academic year in light of non-uniform testing conditions resulting from coronavirus impacts, and for future years), and implement changes to its weighting based on research studies.
Increase the transparency of the graduate admissions process by:
- prominently advertising the grad application rubric on the Astronomy department webpages, especially with regard to General and Physics Subject GRE scores.
- making applicant and admission statistics available.
- including a graduate student representative on the department admissions committee who can review applications and contribute to discussions.
Engage graduate students in the interviewing and recruitment of prospective students. Provide opportunities for prospective students to visit campus or meet faculty and students via video links.
Increase department support for undergraduate students and provide a more welcoming environment. Once students reach SDSU, they are frequently discouraged from completing the major path in the first three years of the undergraduate program. We must take steps to engage and support students in this period, including
- increasing involvement in the Schwartz Astronomical Society student organization;
- connecting students with strong support programs like Cal-Bridge, MARC, and IMSD;
- regularly advertising available scholarship and summer research opportunities;
- maintaining accessible advising for undergraduate students to identify academic, financial, or health problems before they become critical, and connecting students with resources such as the campus Economic Crisis Team
Intentionally invite diverse speakers for research colloquia, and invite speakers addressing sociological issues in physics and astronomy in our regular colloquium series.
Examine the possibility of employing undergraduate students as learning assistants for ASTR 101 classes. This has the potential to provide students with a more diverse population of instructors in the short term, and to provide important financial support and experience for undergraduate students.
Regularly seek and address feedback from students on the department environment.
- Maintain an anonymous mechanism for students to provide feedback.
- Continue regular biannual listening sessions with undergrad and graduate students.
- Hold meetings each semester of a departmental Diversity and Inclusion Committee in charge of facilitating and monitoring feedback, and assessing the impact of the efforts described herein.
Astronomy faculty will promote a “growth mindset” — the belief that intelligence can be developed — among students in both lower and upper division Astronomy courses. Studies have shown that minoritized college students earn higher GPAs in STEM courses whose instructors endorse a growth mindset relative to those with instructors that believe intelligence is a fixed trait. Faculty will include explicit statements describing a growth mindset and its importance in their course syllabi, and use language encouraging a growth mindset in the classroom.
We state these concrete and accomplishable actions to begin to address racist structures in our field and beyond, and we look forward to further discussion and learning about how we can be more welcoming and supportive to Black scholars.
Please direct comments and questions about this Statement to the Astronomy Department Chair, Prof. Eric Sandquist (esandquist [at] sdsu.edu).