Statement from the department of physics in support of Black Lives Matter

Dear physics community at SDSU,

It is with great outrage and deep sadness that the faculty of the Physics Department at SDSU reacts to another murder of an unarmed Black person at the hands of the police. George Floyd is one name in a long list that includes Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks and many other members of the African American community that have died victims of bigotry and racism along with many others whose name we don’t know.

The problem is not just police brutality and public displays of bigotry; it’s also systemic racism that permeates into every aspect of our society, including the academic institutions that we are a part of. Microaggressions, stereotype threat, and marginalization can be subtle forms of anti-black racism. These and other actions, which have too often gone unnoticed by many nonblack people for a long time, make it so that invisible barriers are set in place that keep Black folks from thriving and succeeding in our society. Silence and inaction makes us complicit in these racist structures.  As a part of the global physics community, we are in solidarity with AIP and APS in condemning racism and in being firmly committed to fostering a diverse and inclusive physics community.  

Although we tend to pride ourselves for being objective, fact based and data driven we have failed our Black colleagues and students by ignoring the inequitable structures present in higher education, STEM and physics. We have only taken small steps to address the data that indicate the presence of these structures. The current number of bachelor’s degrees in physics awarded to Black students in the US sits at ~3%, far below parity with the US population (13% Black) and the total number of bachelor degrees awarded (~11% Black). In our own College of Sciences the enrollment in Fall 2019 was 4.8% Black for undergraduates and 2.0% Black for graduate students. In our own university the percentage of Black Tenured and Tenure Track faculty is 3.6%.

In our own department, over the last five years African Americans have represented on average 3.67% of enrolled physics majors and 1.67% of graduating physics majors. These numbers are too low and we will strive to increase the admission and retention of African American students and members of other underrepresented groups.

Representation does matter and effective mentorship can make a big difference. The presence of even a single African American professor who is also a great mentor can foster the creation of a supportive community. During Arthur Walker’s tenure as faculty of Stanford University, that institution produced more than 40 Black PhD physicists, far more than any other leading research institution. 

We have to do better. We have to start the difficult and uncomfortable conversations that will lead us to a better understanding of our own shortcomings and our roles in these racist structures. Using the report from the ’National Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy (TEAM-UP)’ as our baseline, we will address the key factors identified by TEAM-UP as affecting the success or failure of African American students: (1) Belonging, (2) Physics Identity, (3) Academic Support, (4) Personal Support, and (5) Leadership and Structures.

Although the current public health emergency places additional constraints on both faculty and students, we are proposing a series of concrete actions to promote the creation of a more just, equitable and inclusive environment in our department. While these changes will occur in a phased but increasing matter depending on the availability of faculty, lecturers, TA’s, and other graduate students and physics majors willing to help, we are committing to prioritize these efforts along with our teaching and research.

  1. Recruiting, accepting and matriculating more Black students
    1. Participating at the National Society of Black Physicist conference. The NSBP conference is the largest academic meeting of minority physicists in the United States. By attending the conference as an exhibitor we would directly engage with potential Black students and interest them in our graduate programs.
    2. Direct communication and outreach to local high schools. By collaborating with local high schools and meeting with interested students we will aim to increase the diversity of the applicant pool to our undergraduate programs
    3. Direct communication and outreach to local community colleges. Transfer students from two year institutions represent a significant portion of our undergraduate student population. By collaborating with local community colleges we can identify potential applicants and increase the diversity of our transfer applicant pool.
    4. Advocating to the University Senate the removal of all GRE requirements. This is particularly important in view of the current public health emergency but we also want continuing and lasting policies that remove barriers to higher education that disproportionately affect students from underrepresented groups, including African Americans who currently represent only 2% of the graduate student population in the College of Sciences.
    5. Releasing departmental statistics on gender and race demographics including statistics on students that are disqualified and/or drop out. The public release of this information is critical to start and open and honest discussion about the root of inequities in our department.
  2. Creating a more welcoming and equitable environment
    1. Increase the diversity of speakers in our department’s colloquium, both in terms of demographics and subject matters. This will support the careers of speakers who are usually not invited to share their research, it will also increase representation and allow our students to explore different career paths after graduation.
    2. Incorporating aspects of diversity in our syllabus, where relevant. It is important to contextualize the science that we teach and explore the role that it plays in society at large. We also want to highlight the contributions that members from marginalized communities have made to the physical sciences that sometimes go unrecognized for years, the ‘hidden figures’ of our physics community.
    3. Advocating for a more flexible and equitable university policy on course forgiveness. This will address some of the equity issues that contribute to the “leaky pipeline in STEM” that cause many students from underrepresented groups to drop out of our programs.
    4. Increase faculty and student participation programs like CAL-BRIDGE and MESA. Programs of this kind work with students from underrepresented groups in order to promote their participation and advancement and increase their numbers in PhD programs in physics and in astronomy.
    5. Increase faculty mentorship for lower-division physics majors and prospective physics majors (“physics-curious”) by assigning them faculty mentors and upper-division peer-mentors through SPS. The meetings with faculty and peer mentors would be informal lunch meetings in order to identify possible challenges that could interfere with our student’s success. 
    6. Creating a workshop on identifying and applying to REUs. This one hour workshop held once every fall will introduce students to the importance of research experiences for undergraduates, how to find appropriate programs and provide advice on how to prepare a successful application package.
    7. Encourage all our instructors to complete the 3 hour training session on “Inclusive and Equitable Classrooms” offered by SDSU’s Instructional Technology Services as well as the 2 hour “Implicit Bias and Microaggressions” training offered by SDSU’s Professors of Equity in Education. 

We don’t have all the answers but we are committing to listening to our students and to taking actions that will create change. Although this statement and these actions focus on the racial injustices faced by Black people, we hope that these actions will also foster a positive environment for other underrepresented groups in physics: women, people of color, first-generation students, veterans, LGBTQ+ folks, differently-abled students, and all marginalized groups.

We invite our students to participate in a discussion about their perspectives and experiences with the physics department climate. The particular focus will be on concrete actions we can take to combat anti-black racism. A specific date is not set as yet, as we are in the process of determining availability of students and faculty. We will be posting the date of the meeting on the Physics Department website as well as on BlackBoard home room. Please keep an eye out for the announcement. To help us prepare for this meeting please use this Google form to provide feedback and suggestions.