By now, most of you are probably aware of the public debate surrounding the behavior of Professor of Business Economics & Public Policy Eric Rasmusen. In short, Professor Rasmusen has used his private social media accounts to make statements that many believe to be racist, homophobic, and sexist. So as not to re-report the incident, I invite you to read:
- The Inside Higher Ed story on the incident
- Provost Lauren Robel’s condemnation of Rasmusen’s views
- Dean Idie Kesner’s response to the Kelley School of Business faculty
In this post, I want to push a bit on a few points within this emerging story, specifically on some underlying assumptions about how Professor Rasmusen’s public statements can impact student learning and the limits to which IU can ensure his students are not impacted by his extreme biases.
The university is enacting some steps to, in Dean Kesner’s words, “ensure that students will not be harmed by the biases that could underlie the judgment of this professor,” insisting on a blind grading process and turning to alternate graders when that isn’t sufficient. There is evidence that such blind grading practices can mitigate biases in the grading process (Killpack & Melón, 2016), particularly when coupled with transparent criteria and processes, such as the use of rubrics (Thompson & Sekaquaptewa, 2002).
I commend IU leadership for taking this step—and generally recommend it as a practice many of us can use to reduce the impact of implicit bias on grading—but this approach misses a more subtle but pervasive educational impact of Professor Rasmusen’s actions that precede grading.
An impressive body of research on stereotype threat and student sense of belonging shows that performance of minoritized groups is directly tied to cultural biases and the affective impact they have on students. For example, if women are reminded—either overtly or subtly—of stereotypes that they don’t do as well in math, they generally will perform below men on tests (Walsh, Hickey, & Duffey, 1999). In similar studies, students of color have performed more poorly on tests when their race was emphasized, again connecting to stereotypes about ability (Steele & Aronson, 1995). Other studies have shown that increasing or decreasing sense of belonging in the academic setting has significant impacts, and interventions to enhance this sense of belonging can improve performance (Walton & Cohen, 2007). The extensive research in this area is clear that presenting barriers to a sense of ability or belonging tied to race, gender, or other identities can significantly impact student performance.
In the current case of Professor Rasmusen, despite what could seem like unbiased actions in the classroom, his public—and now well-publicized—comments clearly have the potential to impact student success in his classes and beyond. The research shows that reinforcing negative stereotypes or reducing sense of belonging does impact student performance. So, his statements questioning whether women, homosexuals, or students of color even belong in higher education reduce those individuals’ chances of success. And, no, this isn’t about coddling students or lowering our standards; these are observable aspects of human psychology that impact what we know about how humans learn, and ignoring the information reinforces many of the fundamental biases baked into our system of higher education.
While IU leadership may be legally limited in its response to comments made outside of the classroom—both in terms of the First Amendment and IU’s tenure policies—the research evidence leads to the conclusion that Rasmusen’s public statements of bias are most likely harming the students in his classes and disrupting the educational mission of the university.
What can you do about this? First, take the time to learn more about implicit bias, stereotype threat, sense of belonging, and their impact on student learning. We provide some resources below to get you started. Second, if you are in a STEM discipline, consider joining our efforts in the SEISMIC initiative, which is working to improve equity and inclusion in STEM classes. Most significantly, though, you can work to implement practices in your own classes that advance growth mindsets, enhance sense of belonging, and reduce stereotype threat—all of which can lead to greater equity and improved student success. Some of the resources listed here are a good start, and we are working on IUB-specific ones as well:
- The Importance of Faculty Members Adopting a Growth Mindset (Elizabeth Canning, IUB, 2019)
- The Impact of Instructor Bias on Student Success (IUB’s Mary Muprhy speaks directly to sense of belonging around 13:30)
- Sense of Belonging in the College Classroom (Ohio State University)
- Classroom Climate and Building a Sense of Belonging (CITL blog post)
- Studying Belonging in Education: A Conversation with Claude Steele, Mary Murphy, and Gregory Walton (video)
- Want to Reach All of Your Students? Here’s How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive (Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan, Chronicle of Higher Education, 2019)
- The Stereotype Threat (Oberlin College)
Killpack, T. L., & Melón, L. C. (2016). Toward inclusive STEM classrooms: What personal role do faculty play? CBE Life Sciences Education, 15(3). Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5008899/.
Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797-811. Available: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/15726133_Stereotype_Threat_and_The_Intellectual_Test-Performance_of_African-Americans
Thompson, M., & Sekaquaptewa, D. (2002). When being different is detrimental: Solo status and the performance of women and minorities. Analysis of Social Issues and Public Policy, 2(1): 183-203. Available: https://spssi.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1530-2415.2002.00037.x
Walsh, M., Hickey, C., & Duffy, J. (1999). Influence of item content and stereotype situation on gender differences in mathematical problem solving. Sex Roles, 41, 219-240. Abstract: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023%2FA%3A1018854212358.
Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(1), 82-96. Available: https://www.goshen.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2016/08/WaltonCohen2007.pdf
n.b., I welcome comments from identifiable members of the IU community.