Mudd’s Nelson Speaker Series to Explore Gender and Race in STEM Fields

Harvey Mudd College’s Dr. Bruce J. Nelson ’74 Distinguished Speaker Series kicked off Oct. 9 with a talk from professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, chair of the Duke University sociology department. 

The 2013-2014 series, entitled “Illuminating the Blindspots: Why Gender and Race still matter in STEM,” will feature lecturers from different realms of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to discuss the valuable yet often overlooked role of diversity in STEM. In a series of four lectures, speakers will explore the ways in which inclusion and entry in STEM education, research, and career fields can be made equally available to all.

Sumi Pendakur, Associate Dean of Institutional Diversity at HMC, hopes the lecture series will shed new light on the issues surrounding race and gender in STEM and higher education.

“This seminar series is meant to illuminate not only how we are seeing disparities and underrepresentation play out, but also how we can confront those issues in creative and exciting ways to make changes in the field of STEM,” Pendakur said. “I am thrilled that Harvey Mudd College is supporting this series, and that they’re bringing a spotlight to the fact that we do have gaps and disparities in participation and leadership in STEM. It’s really easy in science and engineering fields to shy away from these issues and say that you’re taking an objective standpoint.”

Bonilla-Silva’s talk was entitled “The (White) Color of Color Blindness: How Race Matters in ‘Post-Racial’ America.” He explored what he called “the new racism” that has arisen in the aftermath of the 1960s civil rights movement. According to Bonilla-Silva, racism has changed forms, not ended; it is now less inflammatory, but more subtle and covert. As an example, Bonilla-Silva, a Hispanic-American, shared a personal recurring experience. He said that when he goes shopping, he is usually harassed by the constant yet polite “May I help you?” of sales clerks as they watch him peruse retail items.

“Is that discrimination? We say yes—but good luck proving that in court,” he said. 

Tuan Nguyen HM ’14 said he was impressed by Bonilla-Silva’s illumination of ongoing racism. 

“Professor Bonilla-Silva said a lot of things that we all know but don’t critically engage in. So, in that sense, I think he gave a good theoretical and critical framework for future discussions about race and gender,” Nguyen said. 

In relation to higher education and STEM, Bonilla-Silva argued that many forms of systemic racism are prevalent on college campuses. Referring to the “HBCU” terminology—Historically Black Colleges and Universities—Bonilla-Silva said that all other colleges, including the 5Cs, are “HWCUs,” or Historically White Colleges and Universities. According to Bonilla-Silva, HWCUs marginalize minorities by upholding white culture: teaching a white curriculum, admitting or recruiting a low number of minority students, and celebrating white historical figures via statues, monuments, and buildings.

Bonilla-Silva emphasized that most colleges are HWCUs and therefore reflect and reproduce whiteness to the detriment of minority students. However, he did shed a ray of hope for the future of American colleges.

“Because of the unique role of universities and colleges as sites of knowledge production, as institutions willing to explore the problem and meditate on what is good in society, they can and should struggle to forge spaces where racial democracy and racial justice flourish,” he said.

Carolina Reyes HM ’14 said she thought that Bonilla-Silva’s talk was an inspiring push for individuals to reevaluate their own behavior. 

“It wasn’t just a talk to educate us about racism—it was a talk that demanded students to take action and make change,” Reyes said.

The Nelson Series will continue throughout the fall semester and into January. It will present three other talks from professionals in different areas of STEM, including Kelly Mack, the Executive Director of Project Kaleidoscope, a leading collaborative dedicated to STEM higher learning reform. She will present a lecture entitled “That None Shall Perish” Oct. 24. 

“I am super-excited for Kelly Mack,” Pendakur said. “She will be discussing the ways to approach diversifying participation in STEM, including the success tactics they’ve had through Project Kaleidoscope. She will present some really interesting national data.”

The series will also feature Joan Roughgarden, a biology professor at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, and Jocelyn Goldfein, director of engineering at Facebook. 

The Nelson Speaker Series is open to the public. All lectures will take place in the auditorium of the Shanahan Center for Teaching and Learning at HMC. 

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