Career, community, Learning, Purpose

Showing Up for Public Research

Frank Morrison A Student

One of the many benefits of working in higher education is easy access to learning opportunities. On any given day, a dozen activities show up on the calendar. Anyone on campus, and usually community folks too, can drop in on brown bags, seminars, conferences, performances, or dissertation defenses. Cost and distance are taken care of, so the only limiting factors are motivation and time.

I don’t take nearly as much advantage of this abundance as I could, but does this surprise anyone? I’m guessing others out there don’t read poetry or clock enough hours of sleep, both of which gratify a tired soul. As often as not, we fail to act as champions of our own happiness. Sometimes laziness leads the charge. Halfheartedly, of course.

Something popped up this week that interested me enough to invite a co-worker. A weekly microeconomics policy series runs in my building. I usually can’t decipher the topics let alone churn up any enthusiasm. Monday’s seminar was different. The focus was on race, education, and hiring practices. Right in our wheelhouse. Once the colleague agreed, momentum overcame inertia and we walked one whole flight of stairs to get there.

The article, “Where are all the Black teachers? Discrimination in the teacher labor market,” appeared last spring in Harvard Educational Review. The researchers do not name the location of their study, only noting that it is a large school district. They track 27,000 applications for one hiring cycle and slice the data dozens of ways. Their work reveals significant and distressing evidence of racial discrimination in teacher hiring. Their findings also indicate that problem does lot lie in the pipeline, as claimed by almost everyone criticized for discriminatory employment practices. “Not enough good Black candidates!  They don’t want to teach in our district!”


Plenty of qualified applicants of color make it into the pool. But Black applicants in particular are hired at much lower rates, despite have equivalent experience and qualifications.

I sat in that seminar as a concerned observer who would finish the hour slightly more informed about another way white supremacy shapes our shared life. Of course, the diverse and forward-thinking school district in the enlightened part of the country where I live doesn’t have these issues. While we have our own brand of racism in schools, employment equity is safeguarded by an educated, engaged constituency. This is an “out there” problem. Certainly, it’s one we need to solve because all children are our children, and all schools educate the people who will lead tomorrow. But this is not us.


After we returned to our offices, my co-worker sent me this link from the Washington Post: “Study of Fairfax County schools finds discrimination against black teacher applicants.” The district in the study we’d just attended was in fact mine. Or rather, is mine.

Turns out the “out there” problem lives right here.

The data is from 2012-13. Since then, we’ve had a few elections and the makeup of our school board has changed. Most notably, the left-leaning Karen Keys-Gamarra this summer landed an at-large seat on the board. In an election in which the GOP outspent and out-advertised Democrats, Keys-Gamarra still claimed nearly twice the number of votes as the Republican-backed candidate. Meanwhile, Fairfax County leaders continue to claim they have modified hiring practices in the past four years.

While these signs can give us hope, they don’t excuse us from vigilance. Our collective attention span rivals that of a sand flea, so it’s hard to know if we’ll be able to maintain our focus. Even so, we’ll have to keep watch to see if these changes do indeed increase offers to Black applicants, and improve representation of our region’s demographics in our classrooms.

In any event, I am thankful for the seminar, the research, the news, and the jolt. Wrapped in all this thankfulness is another layer of gratitude for working at a university where research into inequity happens. Which is also gratitude for Science. You know, the Science that allows curious people to peer deeply into a question and make sense of what is at work.

Institutions like mine that serve scientific inquiry are at risk of being gutted by an administration hell-bent on obscuring unprofitable truths.

My own reasons for protecting the autonomy of public research universities are rooted, at least at first glance, in self-interest. I like my paycheck and I like learning while on the clock. Far more valuable, though, is the illumination that arises from the dogged pursuit of empirical knowledge. Inside these hallways of labs and classrooms, Science is at work. As it did for my misinformed perception of my own community, Science can reveal the mistakes insides the lies that walk around with us as the truths we know. As it opens awareness, it opens us. It invites us to reconsider the ways we engage the world.

That’s where possibility lives.

Image: Frank Morrison, “A Student”

1 thought on “Showing Up for Public Research”

  1. tough to know which of the many issues/fights to take on, I try to focus on what I can add to any particular happening but it’s never enough and knowing more makes that ever more evident, think it was Unamuno who tried to sort out puzzles (which could be re-solved) and problems which must just be borne/lived-thru and being an informed/active citizen is starting to feel less like a puzzle and more like a problem…

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