Purdue professor, Donna Riley, has a great way to make the engineering profession more inclusive.
No, my friend, it is not to recruit more widely and offer supplementary courses to bring everyone up-to-speed.
No, it is not to offer mentoring to underrepresented groups.
No, siree. (Ooops, sorry for that patriarchal phrase.)
The leader of Purdue University’s School of Engineering Education recently declared that academic “rigor” reinforces “white male heterosexual privilege.”
Defining rigor as “the aspirational quality academics apply to disciplinary standards of quality,” Riley asserts that “rigor is used to maintain disciplinary boundaries, with exclusionary implications for marginalized groups and marginalized ways of knowing.”
“One of rigor’s purposes is, to put it bluntly, a thinly veiled assertion of white male (hetero)sexuality,” she writes, explaining that rigor “has a historical lineage of being about hardness, stiffness, and erectness; its sexual connotations—and links to masculinity in particular—are undeniable.”
Hence, Riley remarks that “My visceral reaction in many conversations where I have seen rigor asserted has been to tell parties involved (regardless of gender) to whip them out and measure them already.” –Donna Riley, Purdue Prof. of Engineering Education, quoted in Campus Reform (link here)
If this kind of academic malpractice were rare, it wouldn’t be worth mocking.
If this response to academic failure were rare, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning.
In fact, these specious arguments, seemingly in favor of marginalized groups, are commonplace on campus. They need to be rebutted. They have also gained favor on among progressive politicians. Eric Holder’s Department of Justice made police and fire departments lower their standards–and pass students who had failed their competency tests–not because the tests were biased (they were not), not because the tests were irrelevant to performance (they were directly relevant), but simply because, in Holder’s opinion, too many of his preferred groups did not pass.
Turning to the Purdue Engineering professor . . .
- Prof. Riley is not just any professor. She’s the head of the entire school of engineering education at a major research university, known for its science, math, and engineering.
- Notice the patronizing argument. The clear implication of Riley’s position is that “marginalized groups” cannot actually do difficult, mathematical work. Even if that were true, the right response wouldn’t be to lower standards but to remedy the underlying problem.
- Notice the ad hoc inclusion of different groups, mainly because they are part of Prof. Riley’s putative coalition. Is there any evidence that gays cannot perform engineering courses at the same level as non-gay students? I haven’t heard of any. Same for women. If they are underrepresented, then try and recruit them. If any other group is having problems–as a group–then figure out why and solve the problem. Don’t say, “Rigor is just too demanding for, say, brain surgeons.”
- Btw, I just clicked on Purdue’s School of Engineering Education and the first picture is of a female student being named a prestigious Marshall School, a major national competition across all fields.
- “Whip them out and measure them already.” Is this Blazing Saddles or an academic journal? Moreover, ask yourself whether this phrase is itself a form of invidious sexism and even harassment. Ask yourself what would happen if any male professor made the same statement in print about women’s breasts? The over/under on that professor’s severe punishment and possible firing is 3 seconds.
- However laudable your aims, you marginalize your own position when your argue in favor of dangerously lowering standards. Moreover, you patronize the “marginalized” and offer ideological nostrums instead of real solutions.
- Finally, let’s assume that Purdue’s Engineering School does exactly what you say. How would potential employers cope? They would hire from other schools or demand real proof of competence beyond your degree. If every engineering school followed your silly advice, then employers would institute their own tests for competence and other schools would see a huge opportunity to enter the field and offer rigorous training.