Phil Kutzko – A radical take on building an inclusive, diverse academic community

Is there really more to learn on building a diverse academic community? Are our doors still not only closed, but invisible, to students of color, first generation college, and others? Are we guilty or innocent? Philip Kutzko might argue that we just don’t get it, but he does it in such a kind, enthralling way, gently explaining that we were listening to Tristan Murail when we might be listening to Keith Jarrett, Pierre Boulez instead of Miles Davis. We couldn’t help but pay attention.

He began with a few premises in the excellent talk he gave today at Washington University in Wilson 214, just downstairs from my office. I’m so glad Sally Elgin reminded me of it, for its lack of a venue had kept it off my calendar.

The first Kutzko premise that I will try never to forget is that we should not harm any student. In this we’re like medical doctors. Don’t meddle if you can’t help. For students this means that they should leave the program satisfied and better off than when they entered. Is this really so much to ask? Can’t we keep our selectivity to the pre-admission period, and invest fully and cooperatively in every student once they arrive? I sure do hope so, and think it would be worth thinking hard about what the consequences of this philosophy might be.

His second premise goes right along with the first, that we should care about and get to know our students, for only then will they be in a safe place for learning. I agree. Learning and teaching are such complex processes, so little understood at some fairly fundamental levels. Furthermore, what we do know, we seldom apply. But this is not a blog about teaching; it is about diversity and inclusiveness.

Some of his other lessons went right along with these first two. One of them challenged us to think hard about what we require and why. Do we really need the highest GRE scores for success in our program? What if we trust someone at another school who recommends a student in spite of low scores? Will that person shine for us? Will we shine for them? I have heard a bit of satisfaction in our biology department about how hard our courses are. Are they hard in ways crucial to success, or in ways that just make them hard with no reward? Phil recommended that if you are really hard in a program you be up front about it right from the beginning, and explain why. And you had better have a reason. In his field of mathematics, the issue is proofs. If you don’t like proofs, you should find another way to use your quantitative skills, because that is what they do.

This rang true for me for a number of reasons. Most personal is how hard some advisors when I was an undergrad at Michigan tried to talk me out of a biology major. I started late, was very good in language and literature, less strong in mathematics, so why switch? Because I absolutely loved, loved, loved biology. I didn’t care if the raw-or-cooked-carrot test said I was not like scientists. Now I figure it just meant I was female. The other reason is I cannot believe how invariant the biology curriculum in most US universities has been over the decades. I was an undergraduate before the first publication on restriction enzymes (cool enzymes produced by bacteria that fight their enemies by chopping up their DNA at certain recognized sites in the code). I was an undergrad before a single genome was sequenced. I was an undergrad before Richard Lenski showed how much could evolve in a shaking flask. Shouldn’t discoveries like these have shaken our curriculum as much as they have shaken biology? Maybe so in some classes, but we still think it worth spending 2 semesters on intro chemistry, 2 on organic chemistry, 2 on physics, and 2 or 3 on calculus, then cramming all the distribution and other biology courses into the rest. Not me, but who agrees?

Maybe this largely irrelevant curriculum is fine for some students, those with credits to spare, but how does it impact those less confident of their biology skills? And it keeps all from learning enough biology. But I digress. Philip Kutzko talked mostly about graduate education, for that is where faculty alone have the most say. He made the case for the importance of diversity for the students themselves and for our society. He had some practical tips. Get to know the students before they are admitted. How? By having pipeline schools and partnerships, so students that are promising can be steered to excel. Clearly he has a lot of these programs. Bring the students to campus for summer programs before they matriculate as graduate students. Have master’s programs that will allow students to explore. Be flexible in letting students switch programs if they would like to. That is something that our own DBBS program is good at.

So, keep doing things the way you do, measuring success at all levels with the most tired of tools, and you will not find many minorities to fill your program, I think he said. It’s not because they are not as good as anyone else, but their education may be different, and their desire to excel in ways valued by others may be unusual. They simply would rather listen to Miles Davis than to Pierre Boulez. And so would I.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Life in a biology department. Bookmark the permalink.

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