Opinions

From the Community | Departmental accountability is a must: The case of Stanford Chemistry

May 4, 2021, 8:17 p.m.

This article contains discussions of violence against Black people that may be troubling to some readers.

On May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, a police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds: four minutes and 45 seconds as Floyd cried out for help, 53 seconds as Floyd shook due to seizures and three minutes and 51 seconds as Floyd was non-responsive. This happened against a backdrop of a pandemic that has and continues to disproportionately take the lives of low-income BIPOC, wreaking havoc on our communities. All across the globe, and here at Stanford, non-BIPOC had no choice but to reckon with the systemic inequalities Black people face and how they and their institutions have contributed to and continue to perpetuate those systems of inequality.

Across the University, department chairs sent messages of solidarity, and departments held town halls to provide safe spaces for students to voice their pain. They created special committees to come up with actionable plans to address and start the work of undoing the harm caused by academia and the role it has played in exacerbating inequalities. Professors reached out to support their Black students and demonstrated their understanding and empathy towards student needs by waiving final assignments, canceling final exams and/or passing everyone in their class. It was one of the few times at Stanford where the immense love and compassion that exist within our communities were clearly and openly on display. 

The narrative in the chemistry department, however, was and continues to be the complete opposite. 

On May 31, 2020, nearly a week after George Floyd’s murder, the chemistry community still had not received any communications in support of or in solidarity with the Black community. On that day, the Black graduate students of Stanford chemistry sent out a call to the leadership in the department making it clear that if they failed to speak up, their silence would be taken as intentional. Rather than respond to the Black graduate students directly or address the concerns at a town hall on an unrelated topic held the following day with over 100 members of the department in attendance, the department chose to post a three sentence statement on its Facebook page: a statement that said we need justice for all communities in the same breath as it stated solidarity for Black communities. This troubling “all lives matter” rhetoric continued into the statement which was finally sent to students, three days after the initial call for leadership. An excerpt of their statement is posted below.

We acknowledge the history of racism, injustice and racial disparities in Black communities. We want to be loud and clear: we value Black lives. 

The systemic issues of racism, inequality and injustice go against the values of our department. The creation of scientific knowledge and technology, which you are all an essential part of, relies heavily on chemistry, and this must be interwoven within diversity, equity and inclusion. Everyone’s contribution is valued.

We stand with you and ask all to join in as we seek racial justice for everyone. 

The same department chair sent this message to the chemistry student population on April 20, 2021 after the conviction of Derek Chauvin.

Dear Members of the Chemistry Community, 

Justice is done. But a man died, as have too many others, so this is not the end, and we must remain committed in whatever way we can. 

Steve

This two-sentence statement maintained “justice is done” even while we had witnessed the murder of Daunte Wright not two weeks earlier. It reiterated the need for an elusive “we” to stay committed without any concrete ways or actions the department will take to do so.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the leadership of the department continued to disregard the needs of the students within the department. In response to an undergraduate student’s request to acknowledge the additional burdens placed on Black students following George Floyd’s murder by making a final paper optional, the incoming chair — now chair of the department — responded with “I already do have final papers submitted and fairness and equality to everyone is very important, I’m sure you would agree. That’s exactly what people are protesting against — unfairness and inequality (on a much larger scale obviously).” This statement likened a final paper to protests against persistent systemic violence. 

When it became clear that individual action wouldn’t be enough, over 20 undergraduates students in a major with about 40 students signed on to a letter to condemn the department’s response and bring attention to the pervasive, callous illusion of meritocracy that manifests itself as a lack of accommodations in the department. This was met with a dismissive response by the incoming chair, and no further action.

In the quarter before, coronavirus had forced the majority of undergraduate students off of campus. Many low-income and housing insecure students, including myself, had less than a week to figure out where to live. When I wrote to one of my current professors in the department about my situation, I got no response. He proceeded to respond to my partner’s request for clarification on the final project instructions less than a week later. Other students have had to take timed synchronous exams during not only a national pandemic but also power outages. This fall quarter, the chemistry department was the only department to uniformly not implement the CR/NC grading option recommended by the faculty senate. It reversed its decision mid-way into the quarter, likely due to student organizing, but without any explanation. 

The behaviors I’ve described go beyond impacting individual students or just chemistry majors; they ensure racially disparate outcomes on a University-wide level. A 2017 report by The Daily found that “Almost 50% of URM students dropped out of pre-med, compared to 17% of non-URM students” and that “all 108 [URM] undergraduates and recent graduates cited dissatisfaction with the pre-med courses as the reason why they either considered or did drop out of the pre-med track. Of these students, the large majority explicitly cite the chemistry requirements as the main reason why they dropped out.” 

After a year, the only action the department has taken on issues of inclusiveness has been the creation of a diversity and equity committee. Eight months after its creation, there has been no department-wide communication about the committee, their goals or action items. The committee invited faculty members to serve but implemented a selective application process for post-docs and graduate students. Undergraduates were never formally invited to participate on the committee, and the committee has met a total of two times since the beginning of the academic year. No town halls were ever held for students during this period of ongoing racial violence, and a list of action items proposed by Black graduate students has widely been ignored.

While I cannot say this type of behavior is unique to Stanford chemistry, it does appear to be particularly rampant and unchecked there. Stanford cannot call itself one of the top universities in the world or a champion of diversity and inclusion when Stanford chemistry and a number of other departments are destroying the spirits and aspirations of the most vulnerable and marginalized students. It does not matter how many companion courses, tutoring classes or URM programs are created when students’ well-being and input are actively being disregarded and departments are creating toxic cultures. Although criticism of chemistry and other departments has been widespread and pervasive, the University appears to have no interest or no power to hold them accountable. While students’ actions and behaviors are regularly being held against the standards of the honor code, the office of community standards student accountability process and Title IX, amongst others, it seems the same cannot be said for professors and departments at large. 

The Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of op-eds and letters to the editor. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Email letters to the editor to eic ‘at’ stanforddaily.com and op-ed submissions to opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com. 

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