Academia Won't Survive Without Black Scholars. To Keep Us, It Has to Change | Opinion

According to the National Science Foundation, the share of Black people pursuing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) bachelor's degrees has steadily declined since 2013, and at the doctoral level, representation has been abysmal. Physics, for example, has only graduated a total of 100 Black women. The renewed desire to attract Black students to graduate programs has brought up a whether a test that is cited as a barrier for minority applicants actually addresses the underpinnings of anti-Black racism in the academy.

Historically, graduate programs, especially in STEM, have used the Graduate Readiness Exam or the GRE to identify "competitive" potential candidates. Scores are recommended because they serve as a "standard measure" to compare individuals across groups. However, in certain disciplines, evidence points to scores not predicting minority success in graduate school nor establishing who has the capacity to become an effective knowledge producer.

Many also argue that GRE scores have become yet another tool used to exclude minoritized students who consistently score lower than their white and Asian counterparts regardless of intended discipline of study. And to date, over 300 biomedical graduate programs including programs in math, physics, and astronomy have dropped the GRE or made the test optional. The move away from the test has been appropriately dubbed as #GRExit.

The truth is standardized tests alone are not solely responsible for deeply embedded inequities within academia. As a 2012 study points out, people with racialized names are oftentimes passed over for mentorship within the academy as compared to white men. At times, academic culture is privy to toxic behaviors like bullying that are embedded in racism and sexism. And with respect to [future] Black scholars, the academy is seemingly hellbent on inflicting structural violence towards Black people as the viral hashtag #BlackinTheIvory demonstrated.

While the conversations about anti-Black racism are becoming centered within the academy, the continual lack of regard for Black scholars, including willful ignorance around racism and intersectionality, demands major structural shifts that move beyond listening sessions and diversity statements. Over the past week, for example, Black academics and students alongside allies across the nation took part in a Scholar Strike and teach-in to protest racism and unjust policies within the academy. The movement, founded by Drs. Anthea Butler and Kevin Gannon, reflects the widespread strikes that took place across sports teams just weeks ago. According to Inside Higher Ed, over 5000 scholars have signed up to participate.

Centering Black scholars means challenging the role of white supremacy in the academy at every level. Black scholars should not be punished for being themselves while white people masquerading as Black are rewarded. While the emergence of #BlackinX weeks, featuring initiatives such as #BlackinChem, #BlackinGeosciences, and #BlackinNeuro, have drawn well-deserved attention, institutions should not rely on grassroots initiatives led by Black scholars to condemn and disrupt the centuries of anti-Black racism that frame the origins and current state of academia.

One place the academy can begin is building up pipeline efforts that actually center, celebrate, and cultivate Black scholarship. A notable example of these types of efforts is the Meyerhoff Program, based out of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

The Meyerhoff program began as a unique model to train Black men in the sciences at the graduate level. To date, the program has expanded to include all genders and races, though Black students make up the majority of incoming cohorts. Over three decades, the program partnered with leading institutions such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, NSA, and National Institutes of Health to provide students with access to advising, tutoring, research, and community throughout their entire collegiate career.

Since its founding, the Meyerhoff Program has led UMBC to become the top producer of Black holders with a joint M.D. and PhD as well as the second top producer of Black STEM PhDs. Not to mention that the alumni network includes leading researchers including the current head scientist on the nation's response to COVID-19, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett. The model is now being replicated at UC Berkeley, Penn State, and UNC-Chapel Hill.

The current moment reveals that there is a need for radical shifts within the academy regarding the production, cultivation, and retention of Black scholars. While #GRExit could be one way to begin addressing inequities in graduate admissions, the academy must understand that #BlackLivesMatter is much more than a hashtag or a statement. Eliminating an exclusionary measure of assessment changes nothing if the environment that allows for exclusion does not fundamentally change.

As Dr. Butler told me recently: "It is time for those in the academy to not just talk about diversity and inclusion, but [to] do concrete actions that support communities that are under extreme duress from the police and the racial climate of the country."

Academia—and our arts, humanities, sciences—will not survive without Black scholars. How the academy responds to calls for addressing its structural underpinnings of anti-Black racism will shape the spaces Black scholars choose to enter for decades to come.

Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman is a researcher, entrepreneur, and writer hailing from Ghana and Maryland. She is best known for her work with The Sadie Collective, which she co-founded with Fanta Traore, and #BlackBirdersWeek. Her work is frequently featured by leading media and press outlets. Follow her on Twitter @itsafronomics and Instagram @annagiftyo.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.