Fall 2023 Debate: Is STEM Systemically Racist?

Debate: Is STEM Systemically Racist?

November 2, 2023

Following in the footsteps of our successful debate on campus DEI issues in Spring 2023, the MIT Free Speech Alliance was delighted to host, alongside the Adam Smith Society, the  second in our series of campus debates, on a topic that cuts to the heart of STEM institutions like MIT: Is STEM systemically racist? the debate was held on November 2 in MIT's Wong Auditorium.

We were delighted to present a debate that tackled this difficult question head-on, with a  select group of respected scholars and STEM practitioners participating. Arguing in support of the resolution, "Resolved that STEM is Systemically Racist," were  Dr. Chad Womack, Vice President of National STEM Programs at the United Negro College Fund and guest editor of a series of special issues in Nature on racism in science, and Dr. Jaret Riddick, Senior Fellow at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University. Arguing against the Resolution were Professor Luana Maroja, Professor of Biology and Chair of the Biochemistry & Molecular Biology Program at Williams College, and Professor Erec Smith, Associate Professor of Rhetoric at York College of Pennsylvania and President and Co-founder of Free Black Thought.

Reprising her role as debate moderator was Nadine Strossen, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, New York Law School Professor Emerita, and Past President of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The debate was cordial throughout despite the differences between the sides. As The College Fix reported:

Riddick and Womack pointed to disparities between the percentage of the population composed by minorities and their representation among leaders in the STEM field.

Womack observed that only 2 percent of tenure-track STEM faculty in the United States are African-American, and attempted to tie this to discrimination that persists in American society.

This was countered by Maroja, who pointed out that representation of minorities in STEM is consistent with the level of academic achievement in these groups.

Do you know any qualified Black scientist today who, simply because of discrimination, could not enter STEM, Maroja asked the opposing panelists.

Smith also resisted claims of systemic racism against minorities in STEM, arguing systemic racism probably isn’t the monster we think it is, if it’s anything at all.

On one point,  the panelists seemed to be in agreement:  one thing STEM does not need is a reduction in standards of rigor:

I don’t endorse any relaxing of standards and I agree with Dr. Smith that it’s not necessary, Riddick said. However, what we see in the system is that we’re not getting where we need to be.

Prof.  Maroja later posted the text of her opening comments and her retrospective view of the debate on Substack.

Watch the debate recording below or on MFSA's YouTube page.

Debate Participants

Dr. Chad Womack serves as the Vice President of National STEM Programs and Tech Initiatives at UNCF where he manages a portfolio of STEM programs that include the Annual Silicon Valley HBCU Tech Innovation Summit, STEM Scholars Program, HBCU CS/Tech Pathways Initiative, TechVentures and the Ernest E. Just Life Science Initiative. Dr. Womack is also the Founding Managing Director of the Applied Research Institute for Mathematics and Computational Sciences (or ARI) established as a collaborative platform to support and network HBCU faculty conducting research in Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning, Cybersecurity, Data Science, and other areas. Dr. Womack’s scientific background and training includes CSO of 3gen Vaccines – a nanobiotechnology company, and several postdoctoral research fellowships at the National Institutes of Health and the Harvard AIDS Institute. Dr. Womack earned his Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences from the Morehouse School of Medicine and is a proud graduate of Morehouse College.

Dr. Jaret C. Riddick is a Senior Fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET). Prior to joining CSET, he was the Principal Director for Autonomy in the Office of the Under Secretary for Research and Engineering (OUSD(R&E)), serving as the Senior DOD official for coordination, strategy, and transition of Autonomy research and development. Prior to OUSD(R&E), Jaret served in executive leadership roles in the US Army Research Laboratory (ARL), where he established a 200-acre robotics research collaboration campus and led ARL Senior leadership efforts to establish the research competencies of the Laboratory. He has also served in leadership roles in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Research and Technology, and the former Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. He holds a Ph.D. in Engineering Mechanics from Virginia Tech, M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from North Carolina A&T State University, and B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Howard University.

Dr. Luana S. Maroja is an evolutionary biologist and professor at Williams College.  She got her undergraduate and master's degree from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and her PhD from Cornell University.  Her research focuses on population genetics and speciation on a variety of organisms, including small mammals, crickets, butterflies, and plants.  She and has done extensive field work in Brazil, Panama, and the USA.  Maroja was born and raised during dictatorship in Brazil and was shocked to find support for restrictions in speech among USA college students. She is thrilled to see an increase in civil conversation around controversial topics.

Dr. Erec Smith is an Associate Professor of Rhetoric at York College of Pennsylvania. Although he has eclectic scholarly interests, Smith’s primary work focuses on the rhetorics of anti-racist activism, theory, and pedagogy. He is a co-founder of Free Black Thought, a website dedicated to highlighting viewpoint diversity within the African American population. Smith’s recent writings include several op-eds as well as his books, A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment (2020) and The Lure of Disempowerment: Reclaiming Agency in the Age of CRT (2022). Lastly, Smith is a research fellow for the Cato Institute focusing on politics and society.

Nadine Strossen, New York Law School Professor Emerita, and Senior Fellow at FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression), was national President of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1991 to 2008.  An internationally acclaimed free speech scholar and advocate, who regularly addresses diverse audiences and provides media commentary around the world, Strossen is also the Host and Project Consultant for Free To Speak, a 3-hour documentary film series distributed on public television in 2023.  Her books about free speech include Free Speech:  What Everyone Needs to Know® (2023); HATE:  Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship (2018); and Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women’s Rights (1995), which will be republished with a new Preface in 2024 as part of the NYU Classics Series.  In 2023, Strossen received the National Coalition Against Censorship’s Judy Blume Lifetime Achievement Award for Free Speech.