As I frequently tell anyone who will listen, the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), perhaps surprisingly to those who don’t know it, serves as a platform for some of the most transformative thinking underway today on issues of racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and ablism in STEM. Some of its members’ interventions into engineering teaching and learning are as urgent, careful and reflective as it is possible to be; often, its activism is precise and clarifying. It is also, however, a space that supports some of the more conciliatory thinking on these stubborn forms of harm in the United States and globally, and thus helps conserve their institutional and epistemic bases. That both patterns play out in the same organization bears a lot of analysis—we can learn a great deal about the bimodal social values and the limitations of the academic enterprise by looking at this apparent contradiction. But I want to point out one formal activity of the ASEE in 2022 that is especially telling, I think, on that latter function of the organization: one attempt it has recently made to support diversity, inclusion and equity programming in US higher education by offering to schools its well-intentioned but somewhat problematic imprimatur.
The ASEE is home to the Engineering Deans- and the Engineering Technology Deans Councils, which, as the names suggest, represent groups of deans for whom issues of curricular change, workforce development, accreditation, and in the last few years, “diversity, equity and inclusion” (DEI) in engineering education are the focus. Other parts of the ASEE are primarily filled with instructors, students, or staff occupied with research and practice in engineering education, while the deans focus on the role of leadership in the field. Since 2019, the Deans Councils have operated the “ASEE Diversity Recognition Program” (ADRP).
Simply put, this is a certification program whereby a university or college school of engineering can provide evidence of its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and receive “Bronze” status from the ADRP: recognition of its intentions and achievements in this area. Some 140 engineering and engineering technology schools currently hold this Bronze status, based on the schools’ enrollment and graduation data and evidence of current work and future planning around DEI; impacts on communities of color, women, and disabled people are all deemed pertinent to the award (the inclusion of LGBTQ communities in the ADRP criteria was considered but not enacted). After a certain amount of time at the Bronze level has passed and sufficient further DEI activity has been documented, “Silver” and ultimately, “Gold” statuses may be awarded to a school, but the program is new, so Silver and Gold standings are just now coming online as potential destinations for aspirant institutions.
With this large and venerable organization–the ASEE– and a sub-group of its most influential actors—the nation’s engineering deans—certifying the awards, there is bound to be increased enthusiasm for DEI action in STEM higher ed, change which almost all agree is badly needed. Eminent schools that attain Bronze status will lend credence to the ADRP initiative (as, say, MIT’s Bronze Status might do), while folks at smaller schools may garner resources for DEI action on the basis of aiming to share a form of certification with such high-ranking institutions (much as other industrial or corporate certification programs unrelated to DEI operate to confirm shared status). But many questions arise when we look at the precise nature of the ADRP. With immense power, James Holly, Jr. and Brooke Coley have just written on the brutal continuities of racism past and present in the sheltered corridors of the engineering academy; they demand accountability in, and quite possibly instead of such diversity recognition initiatives. They offer a vision of Black restitution in the face of history, not White recuperation in the face of regret.
There’s one aspect of the award program that stands out when I think about that demand, that vision, as a historian. I have been trying to understand, broadly, why it is that programming focused on increasing the numbers of BIPOC students and graduates in Engineering so poorly fulfills my sense of needed change, and the workings of the ADRP help fill in the picture. Specifically, I heard the other week at the ASEE annual meeting that engineering schools based at HBCUs and other minority serving institutions (MSIs) may soon be “fast-tracked to Silver Award status” in the ADRP. These are institutions that have graduated disproportionate numbers of the country’s Black and Brown engineers; they have supported immensely impactful programming for many generations, as predominantly white institutions (PWIs) have lagged badly in both interest in and action on “broadening participation.” To the leaders of the ADRP program (in which, not incidentally, the deans also review all applications for award) these outcomes merit commendation. So, why does this strike me as a problem?
Because even the slightest glance at history indicates that these “exemplary” efforts at DEI reside at institutions generated by the forces of slavery, segregation, and white supremacy. To equate their activities and those lately undertaken at PWIs around so-named conditions of racial inequity is to mistake the nature of racial power in the United States. As Drs. Holly, Jr. and Coley show, these schools, many founded in the 19th century, have contended with deeply discriminatory funding and racist education-policy structures into the 21st. The HBCUs and many other MSIs are mission focused, and historically an immeasurable source of knowledge, pride and community. These are superb schools with extraordinary histories in STEM, about which I have written. But that they graduate Black and Hispanic engineers at numbers far higher than PWI engineering schools is an artifact of the very conditions under which the PWI’s formed and have long operated: that white dominated spheres of influence in the United States, such as engineering schools and professions, can easily remain so without significant challenge. That the MSI engineering programs are being cast by the ADRP as successful models of demographic intervention strikes me as at best misleading about their operations, and at worst, self-confirming of white understandings of racism in engineering. To imply with the fast-tracking to Silver status that minority-serving engineering schools represent primarily excellence in the pursuit of diversity, equity and inclusion, rather than, for example, pro-Black, joyful and transgressive education that may contravene and even potentially dismantle harmful majority power structures, seems to deny their pasts and blunt their future impact.
For one thing, history certainly suggests a more complicated landscape for both MSI successes and PWI failures to increase Black and Brown participation in STEM than the ADRP apparent goals of modeling upon, or commendation of, the MSIs, would convey. Do the HBCU and other MSI engineering programs often engage in innovative and ambitious forms of STEM pedagogy? Yes, and they always have. Do many of the programs powerfully confront racism and the seemingly willful naivete of certain well-intentioned higher-ed arbiters? Yes. In both particular pedagogical practices and sociabilities around justice, MSIs can suggest ways to alter our still deeply unjust higher-ed sector. But to enlist these schools in a ranked tabulation of DEI efforts and outcomes in a white-dominated cultural sector is to impose a dangerous experiential equivalence for BIPOC and white communities—one that implies a race-blind landscape in 2022 in which histories of white harm and of Black and Brown resistance are both best forgotten.
By contrast, truly critical intervention into PWI higher education requires accepting the racist, anti-Black conformations of U.S. engineering both past and present. It requires acknowledging that historically white institutions have remained that way by choice, even if it is difficult to see them as having done so amid the increasing diversity rhetoric of recent decades. For instance, since the end of segregation, PWIs have often turned from overt racist discourse to limiting the resources that would support BIPOC participation, enacting ongoing exclusion. Many fall back on the ostensible pressure of school ranking systems and arbitrary definitions of engineering merit to “explain” low minority participation. The historical demand for a stratified tech workforce that invariably conscripts many marginalized Americans into lower-paying, less secure, and more dangerous work than more privileged communities encounter—and that in turn makes reasonable stratified STEM education– is virtually never questioned from within STEM or higher-ed overall. Thus, an institutional innocence has been made and remade over the 40 or 50 (!) years since so-named Minority Engineering Programs first came on the scene. If this was an exceptional situation in U.S. engineering schools, numbers of Black and Hispanic engineering graduates would have steadily and significantly increased in the nation’s PWIs. They have not.
If the ADRP program is going to encourage authentic reflection and change, it cannot suggest that a DEI certification held by MIT, Cornell or the University of Mississippi represents forms of education and social intention historically taken up by Howard University, Prairie View A&M or University of Maryland Baltimore County. Systematic study and resourcing of transformative efforts in STEM as such are of course needed. But it is simply not helpful to imply that the PWIs that undertake DEI efforts in 2022 are necessarily functioning in the ways that Black and Hispanic institutions have–pedagogically, politically or experientially–since their inception, or vice versa. The social and ideological characters of these schools can only be equated if the history and lived experience of race in the U.S. are elided, and the paths towards radical systemic change that Black and Brown communities lay out, generation after generation, are obscured.
I would add that the epistemics of engineering themselves differ in settings identified as MSI and PWI, but the more basic point is perhaps that the ADRP’s “Fast Track to Silver” is just one of the many ways that efforts at representation must be distinguished from reparative or redistributive projects in STEM higher education, a distinction that James Holly Jr. and Lauren Quigley make very clear. In a way, the fast-track to Silver certification feels like it could easily become a co-optation of minority experience in order to signal the value, even the virtue of majority efforts at equity…almost whitewashing the ADRP initiative. Can the ASEE’s metric of Bronze, Silver and Gold-level interventions in injustice be adjusted to amplify and celebrate the HBCUs’ and other MSIs’ engineering programs, instead of appropriating their legacies and consoling concerned majority stakeholders? I hope so, but for me it’s still unclear. My colleague Alan Peterfreund lately reminded me that “solutions” to education inequity are of little value if the process of problem choice is not a reflective one; if processes of analyzing race relations cannot take in matters of power and violence like those Drs. Holly, Jr. and Coley describe. I would say that if meaningful comparisons are to be drawn among the inclusive aims and effects of U.S. engineering institutions, they cannot be drawn ahistorically. Perhaps, too, they cannot be drawn by yet another PWI: the Deans Councils of the ASEE.