Conservative scholar slams 'questionably legal' diversity grant

National Association of Scholars President Peter Wood questioned the legality of such grants.

Millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent to increase diversity in STEM fields.

The National Institutes of Health has awarded the University of Rhode Island with $1.25 million to increase diversity in biomedical research.

URI Assistant Professor Bryan Dewsbury and Associate Professor Niall Howlett were awarded the grant, which will pay for four “historically under-represented students” to gain experience in the field, URI announced Wednesday. 

“The research world, especially biomedical, is not very diverse, and that’s a problem for basic equity issues of access. In addition, without sociological diversity, you lack a diversity of ideas. It’s especially a problem because there are consequences from the kinds of questions scientists ask and don’t ask,” Dewsbury said, according to URI’s news release

Each of the four students will receive a $10,000 annual scholarship and an annual $13,000 stipend over a five year period. The $1.25 million grant will also cover research materials as well as conference expenses. Dewsbury and Howlett call it a “first step” in achieving more diversity.

[RELATED: University gets $1 million to fight ‘implicit bias’ in STEM]

“We want to see more students of color in our labs. We want to broaden the reach of undergraduate research at URI,” Dewsbury said. 

Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, reacted to the grant in a statement to Campus Reform

”The grant itself...strikes as questionably legal and certainly misguided,” Wood said, adding that “scholarship programs like that have been successfully challenged at other colleges and universities.  Perhaps URI in collaboration with the NIH has devised some slippery language to evade the law against racial discrimination in awarding grants and scholarships.  But on its face, this program looks dubious.”

”Putting aside the legal question,” Wood added, “the NIH grant is based on poor public policy and poor academic planning.” 

Wood referenced a quote from one of the two professors who received the grant, Assistant Professor Bryan Dewsbury. 

”He said, the lack of sociological ‘diversity’ in biomedical fields leads to a lack of ‘diversity of ideas.’ And added that the consequences of this lack were ‘the kinds of questions scientists ask and don’t ask.’ Ideas, however, do not depend on a person’s racial or ethnic identity, and favoring a handful of students with scholarships because of their minority status in some ways undermines the search for new knowledge by elevating personal identity over ability,” Wood explained. 

The announcement comes as the U.S. spends millions of dollars per year to increase diversity in certain academic fields, particularly STEM. 

As Campus Reform reported in late 2018, for example, the National Science Foundation spent $10 million to recruit minority students to STEM programs. And in 2017, the NSF spent more than $8 million to promote diversity in STEM.  The NSF has also spent millions to recruit more women to STEM fields, like at the University of Alabama, which has received at least $4.25 million in diversity grants in recent years.

But perhaps the largest NSF grant of this type was the $45 million that went to 31 “Hispanic-serving institutions” to help recruit more Hispanics to STEM.

While some of the grants on which Campus Reform has reported assist with both recruiting and retaining minority students, a 2019 study published by Education Researcher and cited by the Washington Post, revealed that recruitment of minority students to STEM fields is not at all the challenge. Rather, the obstacle is retention. 

[RELATED: Prof: Efforts to recruit women for STEM ‘may be backfiring’]

The study found that 19 percent of white students enter STEM, compared with 20 percent of Latino students and 18 percent of black students. However, 37 percent of Latino students and 40 percent of black students end up dropping out of those STEM programs, compared with just 29 percent of white students. 

Purdue University Associate Director of the Minority Engineering Program told the Post in 2019 that these statistics suggest more effort should go into helping minority students succeed in STEM, rather than simply recruiting more. 

“Administrators need to talk to students, figure out what’s going on in classrooms and how they add to the exclusion these students feel. We have to hone in on the reasons they’re leaving and directly address these issues before solving anything else,” Dickerson told the Post.

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