Earlier this year, The Herald-Sun published an article about a university research paper that suggests Blacks undergraduates at the Duke are disproportionally more likely to switch from tough majors (e.g., engineering and economics) to easier ones (e.g., humanities and social sciences).
The unpublished report, entitled “What Happens After Enrollment? An Analysis of the Time Path of Racial Differences in GPA and Major Choice,” presents an analysis of data from an experiment in which freshman classes from 2001 and 2002 were observed throughout their academic experience at Duke University. The study was purportedly meant to call into question studies that downplay the academic difficulties experienced by students of color. According to the Herald-Sun, the report “found that among students who initially expressed an interest in majoring in economics, engineering and the natural sciences, 54 percent of Black men and 51 percent of Black women ended up switching to the humanities or another social science.” This is compared to the 33 percent of White women and 8 percent of White men who switched their majors. The paper’s authors—professors Peter Arcidiacono and Kenneth Spenner, and graduate student Esteban Aucejo—suggest “the switch to easier majors was predominantly responsible for why the grade point averages of black undergraduates ultimately became similar to the GPAs of white students as they progressed through school.”
Nana Asante, president of Duke’s Black Student Alliance, was the first of many to address racist undertones in the report. “The implications and intentions of this research at the hands of our very own prestigious faculty […] is hurtful and alienating,” she wrote in an email to North Carolina’s NAACP. She included that the authors failed “to account for the societal, complex and institutional factors that must be considered in any attempt to delineate trends in racial differences in grade point averages and major choices, in a scholarly manner.”
Prior to reading the content, the title of The Herald-Sun article caused a feeling of uneasiness. Instead of something along the lines of “Duke report claims…,” thus shedding light on the report itself and not the reaction of students, editors at the Herald-Sun felt it was more appropriate to say “The Blacks are mad.” Do “the Blacks” not have a reason to be mad? The fact that Duke consistently ranks within the United States’ Top 10 colleges proves that its Black students are no dummies. Irony lies within the fact that faculty and students from a school with a campus designed largely by a Black architect have the audacity to imply that Black students, put simply, are lazy and take the “easy” way out. Was this supposed to be accepted with no opposition?
Getting into the content of the article, skepticism arises when percentages are reported without numbers. At Duke University, a PWI (predominantly White institution), Black students are a given minority. Therefore, 54% of Black men could easily be 27 out of 50 students. This would be compared to 8% of White men, or 400 of a 5000. When reviewed from this perspective, the rate of transfer seems much, much less drastic.
Although the report likely does not come out and say, “Engineering majors are better than social science majors,” it is easy to see the implication being made. Great emphasis is placed on what the authors consider the “rigorous standards” of studying a science or math based field as opposed to one that connects more with society. To this, I pose a simple question: what makes an engineering major better than a humanities major? Both often go on to do great things for the world and both are necessary in society. Individuals in careers relating to social science must have both an understanding of how humans and systems work and operate, as well as great planning and critical thinking skills. Similarly, math/science-based careers require creative and intuitive applications. So why the hierarchy/elitism?
In addition, Arcidiacono, Spenner, and Aucejo seemingly fail to realize the impact of society on people of color. Black students are more affected by social issues, and as a result, they are more likely to be interested in learning about it. In academic institutions, Black students with more “prestigious” majors also often face a lack of support from faculty (e.g., the lack of focus on promoting positive outcomes for students at prominent institutions; Duke’s ignoring of Black students in their “more rigorous” programs). This often leads to a tendency of Black students to transfer to another, more accepting department. While in theory one should be able to support themselves when no one else does, in an academic setting a lack of support can take a toll. White students, on the other hand, do not tend to face such prejudice. Thus, they have time and a higher interest.
During a discussion, an associate chimed in on the cultural factors that potentially went neglected in the study:
“I think one has to interrogate the value we place on a particular variable or factor and why we have granted that thing value. If Blacks are more likely to sign up for humanities, […] maybe it’s because we value social and relational inquiry. Maybe to Blacks people are more important than things. If so, why is that value suspect? Well, it would be suspect if things and what you can procure from things (capital, resources, cures) is considered more valuable in a capitalistic system and a Westernized values structure. I do know that we, Black folks, are disproportionally represented in helping professions; are those folks lazy? Maybe to a Republican whose view is that folks who help are enablers. [This is] an example of a value worthy of interrogation for its origins.”
What are your thoughts?
For additional perspective, VSB blogger Panama Jackson shared his thoughts when the story first broke.