Astronomy community a growing hotbed of social justice

Troubled by the relative dearth of minorities in its field, the American Astronomical Society (AAS) is embracing social justice in an effort to promote diversity and inclusivity.

At its annual conference last month, the AAS officially adopted a statement crafted last year at a special “Inclusive Astronomy” meeting at Vanderbilt University, which includes suggestions for improving diversity and inclusion by eliminating the use of microaggressions, honoring “diversity without tokenization,” removing potential stereotype threats, and mentoring members of historically underrepresented groups.

“The breadth of knowledge and experience brought by people of color, women, LGBTIQA* people, people with disabilities, other traditionally marginalized individuals—and most particularly, anyone who shares more than one of these identities—is necessary to achieve our full potential for discovery and exploration, and to recruit and retain the many creative minds we need to solve fundamental questions about the universe,” the statement reads.

The AAS’s attempt at inclusivity has caused concern among its members that the organization is focusing more on its social justice efforts rather than its quality of astronomers.

One astronomy/physics professor and former AAS member, who spoke with Campus Reform on condition of anonymity, believes that recent harassment scandals within the organization have re-energized what he termed the “gender-equity-in-STEM” crowd, asserting that the organization's efforts to force an inclusive environment are “a way for them to intimidate and control men scientists.”

In a blog called Astronomy in Color, members of the astronomy community and the AAS clearly state their commitment to social justice efforts and diversity.

“We are members of the astronomy community committed to increasing diversity by recognizing, confronting and removing the barriers to racial equity and inclusion,” the blog states. “We are committed to an intersectional feminist approach combined with a framework of cultural materialism to understand the past and present repercussions of systemic oppression of marginalized groups on our ability to study the Universe.”

A January post on Astronomy in Color provides a list of the students of color who were scheduled to present at the AAS meeting, encouraging readers to visit these scientists’ about their research.

According to the astronomy professor, this type of behavior is one example of the excessive focus on social justice that has been prevalent within the discipline.

“A science presentation is supposed to stand on its own merits, not the authors' imagined merits,” the professor explained. “But here is a group of do-gooders exhorting special treatment in attention, and in hiring, for nonwhite grad students and postdocs. I can imagine standing by my poster after years of working on my research only to have people walk past me and stop at the ‘student of color’ poster.”

At the 2016 AAS conference at which the “vision of an inclusive community” statement was adopted, signs were plastered throughout the convention center demonstrating what to do if participants felt harassed, complete with a phone number they could call to speak with an "ally" in the event that they did not “feel safe,” the professor said.

Despite the conference taking place in San Diego, he observed, the phone number for the “ally” began with 202—the area code for Washington, D.C.

Harassment is a somewhat sensitive issue among astronomers, two of whom were recently subjected to high-profile accusations of serial sexual harassment, allegations that both of the accused professors maintain were grossly exaggerated.

In December 2015, Nature reports that the University of California, Berkeley released the findings of its review of sexual harassment claims made against adjunct astronomy professor Geoff Marcy, which concluded that although Marcy did violate university policy, but that his actions reflected poor judgment rather than nefarious intent.

Although Marcy vehemently denied the most serious charges against him, 24 of his colleagues penned an open letter denouncing him in October, prompting his eventual retirement under duress.

Another astronomy professor, Tim Slater, endured similar treatment at an even higher level when Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) called him out by name in a public letter to the U.S. Department of Education, citing a 2004 investigation by Slater’s former employer, the University of Arizona, detailing his role in creating a “hostile work environment” for females in the astronomy department.

According to a blog post by Slater from October 2015, the issue had already begun dogging him before the congresswoman’s letter thanks to the “disgustingly UN-discerning rumor mill surrounding sexual harassment,” prompting him to clarify the matter.

While admitting that he was partially responsible for creating an atmosphere that tolerated “sexual joking, banter, and innuendo that was both welcome and unwelcome, solicited, and unsolicited,” but claims to have mended his ways long since. “More than ten years later,” however, “the rumor mill now enthusiastically whispers that I am a serial sexual harasser,” even though “no further evidence of sexual harassment has ever been presented to a mandated investigative authority since that time.”

In conjunction with the rush to judgment that characterized the Marcy and Slater cases, the anonymous professor told Campus Reform, the newly-adopted diversity statement and other social justice initiatives being pursued by the AAS serve to discourage the hiring of quality individuals in the fields of astronomy and physics.

"Oh great, let's make it even more demoralizing for a white male applicant, knowing that this is how departments are encouraged to think," he stated facetiously, arguing that qualified candidates will begin to perceive that "if one woman or minority applies for the same position, my chances are screwed,” leading them to turn to other disciplines.

“I realize how alone I am when questioning the ideologies pushed by my college and profession,” the professor conceded, but explained that “as a scientist I am extremely uncomfortable with the total lack of contrary/critical viewpoints to these policies. Even the best ideas need a worthy opposition to make them better.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @morgan_walker95