Discover more from Critical Mass
Is the American Physical Society Seeking Solutions in Search of Problems?
A longstanding APS program, redesigned last year, risks promoting a culture of victimhood in physics departments
A creeping culture of victimhood in academia is negatively affect research and higher education with the likelihood of reverberations well beyond ivy towers. It is thus high time that the physics community stands up against the unfounded claims that it is, on the whole, sexist and racist and resists the victimhood culture that is shackling so many academic institutions today.
Over the next two weeks, Critical Mass will have two guest posts from faculty who tragically lost their tenured positions after having been labelled as ‘problems’ resulting from actions that should have been lauded, rather than derided—namely encouraging free and open discourse at their universities.
In this current climate, we have to carefully examine ways to ensure that the situation doesn’t get worse, and the program I discuss here may provide such an example. It involves a program of the American Physical Society (APS), a group that comprises most of the physics community around the country.
The APS program in question, which has been recently revised, has proceeded under the radar for some time, as most physicists tend ignore APS programs that seem to be not particularly relevant to their own careers. This year there was recently is a new call for volunteers to carry out ‘site visits’ of physics departments and national laboratories, something that on the surface sounds relatively innocuous, and positive.
Indeed, it is important to stress up front that site visits can often be good things. I have been involved in several over the years, ranging from individual physics departments to entire national laboratories. They can help to flesh out and explore the strategic plans of institutions and departments, ascertain opportunities and problems, provide advice, and sometimes advocate on behalf of the department or institution to higher order governing bodies.
There is a big difference however between such site visits and the APS program.
In the first place, while these site visits, like more traditional site visits, are requested by the departments or institutions in question, during traditional site visits the Institution chooses the external members based on their expertise and experience. Other site visits may be mandated by the regulations of external funding agencies, and in these cases these funding agencies select the visiting committee.
A self-selected group of volunteers for site visits like this, with a specific agenda of unearthing inequities for women or other traditionally marginalized groups, is likely enter into the process with an a priori bias that such inequities must exist, whether or not they actually do.
Next, the questions framed by the site visit committee are generated based on the specific circumstances of the host institution or funding agency, as framed by those institutions. They do not have a generic a priori agenda determined in advance, as does this program.
Finally, note the statement in the APS announcement that “Site visits are a proactive tool for helping departments, national or private-sector laboratories, and physics consortia better understand conditions and actions that can be taken to improve the environment for everyone.” That sounds great, but that is explicitly not the purpose of these visits, which are designed to improve the climate only for selected groups that this committee choses to focus on.
Implicit in this is the assumption that if the climate is poor for some subgroups, then other subgroups or individuals must be the source of inequities. In the current climate, that assumption can be particularly worrisome.
Let’s imagine the kind of questions these committees may be expected pose to women and ‘other marginalized groups’ within the institutions being visited
“Have you ever felt uncomfortable due to statements or actions made by colleagues or administrators? Can you list specific instances?”
“Have you felt undervalued compared to your peers? Have your own research and teaching efforts been stymied?”
“Do you perceive any biases favoring other groups within the department?”
The problem is—as I can attest after having been Chair of a Physics Department for over a decade, and an academic administrator for some time following that—that the answer to these questions will generally be affirmative if posed to almost any faculty member.
Academia is rife with rivalries, and academics are both insecure and egotistical at the same time. It is a hard combination to manage, and I have yet to meet a faculty member who generally feels adequately recompensed or appreciated for their efforts on behalf of their department or institution, or, alternatively, who doesn’t resent one or more of their colleagues at times.
By focusing on women and minorities, I worry that these visits are guaranteed to uncover what may appear to be systemic biases but are rather the more manageable kind of natural tensions based on perceptions and feelings that are solvable with guided rational discussions between adults.
A central facet of most scientific studies of this sort is an analysis of a ‘control sample’—an ensemble for which should not have any systematic sensitivity to a variable being explored. If the control sample responds in a similar way to some varying test conditions , then there is not likely to be any causative relationship between the input variations output behavior.
To put it less abstractly, to be relevant and useful, these site visit committees should probably explore for similar perceived inequities among other groups, including white male physicists, and to be prepared for the possibility that the latter group feel every bit as victimized as their female or minority counterparts.
There is a deeper problem here, relevant to the climate of victimization I alluded to above. Since it is likely, given the stated mission of these site visits, that gender and race bias may be inferred, it is equally possible that in this context there will be individuals who are called out for bad behavior.
In the past, insensitive remarks, or boorish behavior by faculty were dealt with by department chairs with through private discussions, and if necessary, with university counsellors. In the current climate, however, even relatively innocuous behavior can result in faculty being labelled as ‘problems’, leading to a social media campaign, and subsequent dismissal, as the upcoming Critical Mass postings about those two unfortunate colleagues will illuminate.
Wee need to call out, in advance, seemingly well intentioned, but flawed, programs if we are to quell the growing tendencies for Universities to generate atmospheres of fear and recrimination and to reject free speech and free inquiry, which should be the hallmarks of research and education.