According to the New York Times, US Supreme Court Chief Justice asked a stunningly ignorant question during yesterday’s oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas, which was being argued in front of the court for the second time. Roberts asked, “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?”
Just for the record, the underrepresentation of black and Hispanic students in physics and engineering is severe nationally, and the underrepresentation of black students in these fields is actually getting worse (a recent blog post on this from the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education is here). Since these fields account for 18 of the top 25 college majors for salary (according to a Georgetown University study), this underrepresentation is a matter of economic justice.
Furthermore, the sense of isolation that black students have recently complained about on campuses as different as Yale and the University of Missouri must be even stronger in academic units like physics departments where their underrepresentation is worse than on the campus at large. Faculty members must work hard and constantly to engage minority students and to fight the tendency for these students to feel isolated.
So Justice Roberts missed the whole point with his question: To open the door to careers in engineering and physics for minority students, we must recruit these students relentlessly and provide the extra support many of them will need to succeed.
Then there was Justice Scalia’s comment, which apparently brought gasps from the audience: “There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to — to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less — a slower-track school where they do well.”
It’s worth noting that the State of Texas, which is the setting for the suit, has gutted physics departments at the “slower-track schools” that Scalia says would be better fits for minority students. So Scalia is – probably unintentionally – saying that minority students shouldn’t have access to physics careers.
Of course, what the audience was gasping at was Scalia’s implication that minority students just aren’t as smart as other students.
But what is true is that black and Hispanic students tend to be less well-prepared for college majors in engineering and physics than other students because they often attend schools where calculus and physics courses are not available and because even when these courses are available students from disadvantaged backgrounds are steered away from them. Engineers and physicists should join higher education leaders in pushing for three improvements: first, for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to be encouraged to better prepare in high school for college majors in engineering and physics; second, for colleges and universities to provide the best possible learning opportunities in engineering and physics; and third, for colleges and universities to focus scholarship resources on recruiting students from disadvantaged backgrounds into engineering and physics.
That’s what the engineering and physics communities should keep in mind as the circus that Fisher has become plays itself out.