In June 2020, Pomona College’s Biology department publicly declared its commitment to working toward an end to institutional and individual racism. Two years later, TSL revisited the status of the commitment and what it entailed for the future of the department.
The 2020 statement, signed by all faculty and staff in the department, noted that the STEM field is “grossly lacking” in diversity and that the history of STEM disciplines is “intertwined with racist practices, such as experiments conducted on vulnerable Black, Brown and marginalized communities without their consent or, in some cases, knowledge.”
According to findings published by the Pew Research Center in 2021, Black and Hispanic individuals make up a lower share of STEM graduates compared to their share of the adult population in America. Analyzing federal employment and education data, the center concluded that this gap appeared “unlikely to substantially narrow” soon.
Moreover, eugenics ideology—“the scientifically inaccurate theory that humans can be improved through selective breeding of populations” per the National Institute of Health—was once the norm in U.S. and European scientific communities. Certain populations—white, wealthy people of specific European ethnicities with specific mental and physical characteristics—were seen as superior to others. So biologists were instrumental in the development of “selective breeding” practices, such as large-scale forced sterilization and euthanization.
By the beginning of the 1930s, at least 376 American colleges offered courses on eugenics—for example, William & Mary, UVA, and Yale were among these, as was Pomona. Archival research verified that previous iterations of the introductory genetics class taught students about “eugenics and race questions” from 1912 to 1959. Additionally, two biology electives, which ceased to be taught before 1959, taught students about eugenics—an elective entitled Bionomics and an elective entitled Problems of Heredity and Eugenics, and Related Questions of Personal Hygiene.
One former Pomona biology professor, George William Hunter, publicly endorsed eugenics. Hunter arrived at Pomona in 1926, and in his private correspondence endorsed the necessity of incorporating eugenics teachings into various aspects of the undergraduate curriculum (for example, stating it should be included in information on “sexual hygiene” in wellness programs). He also was the author of a widely-taught biology textbook that proclaimed “Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America” to be the “highest type” of all the races he believed to exist.
Importantly though, such beliefs were not confined to biology classrooms. A psychology elective, Individual Differences, examined “race differences” among other ones—referring to purported differences in intelligence between whatever races the instructor believed to exist. This class was introduced later than 1912 but was taught until the beginning of the 1960s.
Moreover, the first class on racial relations—a sociology elective—was not introduced until the 1930s. And as TSL previously documented, it was not until 1969 that a formal Black studies program was announced.
Of course, there has been a general shift in the acceptability of overtly negative racial attitudes in American history. Moreover, over four-fifths of undergraduate institutions in the United States made statements in light of the death of George Floyd. But while other biology departments at colleges and universities across the country have made similar pledges—including at Harvard, UCLA, Duke, CalPoly Pomona, UC Irvine, Brandeis, and BU— the number, while growing, is still limited. Moreover, the nature of the pledges ranges from statements of solidarity (see from Reed) to a list of policies put into place (see from Barnard).
Biology professor Sharon Stranford, who chaired the department at the time of the 2020 statement’s publication, said her interest in publishing the statement came from a desire to confront these issues. She showed TSL a list of the ongoing efforts undertaken by the department, which other biology professors helped her to compile.
Stranford noted there has been “a real change” in the conversations in the department.
In November 2015, over 1,000 members of the Claremont community marched to show solidarity with Black students at the University of Missouri after several reported and alleged instances of racism at the school.
“We didn’t really discuss how to address it in our classes,” Stranford said. “I can remember teaching a class, and literally, the march was going right by my classroom. It seems odd, in a way, to not say, ‘Hey, we noticed this thing is happening, and maybe it’s affecting you, and you’re thinking about it. Here’s what I’m thinking about it.’”
Now, biology faculty have become more comfortable discussing social injustices, according to Stranford. For example, in one of their recent department meetings, professors discussed the ongoing negotiations between Pomona dining hall workers and administration over wages.
Besides faculty discussions, Stranford said social justice efforts are being implemented into biology courses, where professors make an effort to “weave” an “anti-bias and social justice perspective” into their coursework.
For instance, Stranford’s immunology course this fall includes a unit on “bias and racism in the biomedical sciences.” Professor Karen D. Parfitt’s neuropharmacology course introduces the subject by way of its history, with classes specifically devoted to studying the harms caused by the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.
Another way the curriculum reflects these efforts is through Analyzing Difference courses, with Pomona students required to take one to graduate. While they can be taught in any department, they must “primarily [focus] on a sustained analysis of the causes and effects of structured inequality and discrimination, and their relation to U.S. society.” An example of such a class offered this fall is Science, Power and LGBTQ Identities taught by professor Rachel N. Levin.
The department also provides additional support to first-generation and low-income Pomona students who belong to Academic Cohorts, groups aimed to ease pre-selected students’ transition to college. As part of a cohort, students attend weekly group meetings, receive regular individual advising and have access to peer mentors.
Eligible students interested in Pomona’s pre-health program or taking biology and chemistry courses in their first semester belong to the Pomona Scholars of Science (PSS) cohort, along with POSSE students majoring in those or similar fields. To support PSS, the biology department opens up sections of introductory biology courses to only those students.
Two former PSS students said they have found a difference between cohort and non-cohort class sections.
Daysi Manrique PO ’24 is a double major in Biology and History from the Miami Posse program who identifies as a queer Black Latina woman. She sat in cohort sections for two classes required for first-years in the major: Introductory Genetics and Introductory Cell Chemistry.
Manrique said that the experience was “incredibly vital” in making her feel comfortable in being part of that field of science.
“[In non-cohort sections] there is an air of exclusion, just because we don’t have a lot in common,” she said. “It’s like a barrier that’s just there.”
Bayardo Lacayo PO ’24, a neuroscience major, also from the Miami Posse program, who identifies as a non-binary, queer Mestizo person, said the cohort section eased their transition. They sat in the same cohort-only courses in the biology department as Manrique.
“You can tell cohort classes are catered for people who don’t come from the [same] background,” Lacayo said. “It’s something where they’re coming to guide us through the learning process.”
Manrique said while “extending kindness” may be necessary, forcing interactions between students beyond what is normally required is not. It can lead to “unwanted interactions” and “uncomfortable situations,” particularly for cohort students who are people of color.
However, she said she could not imagine a better experience with the biology department.
“Not only were they understanding, but they were kind of like my cheerleaders. I always felt like they were in my corner, and they were rooting for my success,” Manrique said. “So I really do appreciate the bio department and I love working for them.”
She credited her participation in the program with enabling her position as a teaching assistant and course mentor.
“So now I work in the same system that I was scared of getting weeded out from,” Manrique said.
Lacayo added they wish professors would take heed of how difficult it can be for students of particular backgrounds to secure the resources necessary to succeed at an institution like Pomona.
“Being a brown immigrant in this country, even though it’s easy to pretend like [the difference between their backgrounds and most students] doesn’t exist, and even though I can perform like it doesn’t exist, you can’t erase the fact that we’re putting in, all the time, double, triple, the work compared to other people who come from well-off or well-educated families,” Lacayo said.
Stranford concluded with her hope that students will be holistic scientists who “see the world through more than one lens” and look for whoever is being left out of the discourse wherever they go.
“We have a shared mission,” she said. “To mentor our students [and give them] everything they need when they leave to be successful.”