Hamilton College Introduces New Diversity Requirement NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Karen Brewer, a chemistry professor at Hamilton College, about the school's new diversity course requirement.

Hamilton College Introduces New Diversity Requirement

Hamilton College Introduces New Diversity Requirement

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NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Karen Brewer, a chemistry professor at Hamilton College, about the school's new diversity course requirement.


Many colleges and universities have diversity requirements. Students have to take at least one class that directly engages with topics like race, ethnicity, gender. Well, one school, Hamilton College, a liberal arts college in New York state, is looking to go one step further. Joining us by Skype to tell us more is Karen Brewer, a chemistry professor at Hamilton College. She is chairing a subcommittee that will review potential courses before the school's new diversity requirement takes effect next year. Professor Brewer, thanks for joining us.

KAREN BREWER: Well, thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: Other colleges require diversity courses. What's going to make Hamilton's different?

BREWER: What's different about Hamilton's requirement is that each department will design the requirement for their majors. And in that way, they can make it relevant and meaningful to those students for their future goals in the department and their majors as well as in their careers.

SIEGEL: But if a student is majoring, say, in computer science or physics, is it germane to their major to take a course about race or ethnicity? Aren't - isn't the stuff they're studying essentially race neutral?

BREWER: Well, science depends upon a diversity of perspectives in order to kind of decide what questions to ask and what approaches to use to answer those very complex questions.

SIEGEL: Is it really important that your chemistry degree come along with some understanding of race and gender in chemistry?

BREWER: It's germane to what I said before, that science is dependent upon having a variety of perspectives. But also, it's conducted in laboratory groups in industry, government that are becoming more and more and already are very multicultural and multinational. So students thinking about this in the context of sciences is really beneficial to their careers. They'll hopefully be able to work more efficiently and better in teams, show leadership in those teams and hopefully to spot innovation when it's coming from a different perspective.

SIEGEL: Hamilton College is still in the early stages of developing this diversity initiative, but what do you think a class like this might actually look like?

BREWER: They may look at the history or philosophy of the discipline and how those questions that were being asked were influenced by common social categories, how those were - questions were asked differently and how the different approaches were put into place to answer those questions. Questions that might be asked might include what is the scientific and social definition - distinction of race, for example. Is our science gender and race-blind? Who benefits from medical research and drug trials? So we can look at those from that perspective, and that's where the students are most interested.

SIEGEL: Have you gotten any pushback from, say, professors in the science departments who would say those are good questions for the sociology department or for the history department? You can have a course that they would offer about issues of race and inequality in contemporary science, let's say.

BREWER: Well, certainly there's reticence on the part of the scientists because this is not our area of expertise. Most of what I have heard from the scientists is that they want to make this requirement meaningful and relevant to the students, not something that's wedged into a course that feels artificial or forced.

SIEGEL: Karen Brewer. Professor Brewer, thanks for talking with us.

BREWER: Thank you very much. It's been my pleasure.

SIEGEL: Karen Brewer, a professor of chemistry at Hamilton College, where she's chairing the subcommittee that's reviewing potential courses to fill the college's diversity requirement.

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