Scholarships for “Special” People, Redux
From the Chronicle of Higher Education, Home-Schooled Students Rise in Supply and Demand:
“Home schooling often really allows students to develop a passion,” says Sabena Moretz, associate director of admissions at Richmond. “With a traditional high school, most of the time you don’t see a kid who’s gotten so excited with the history of Monticello or got themselves onto an archaeology dig.”
Recognizing that sense of passion is what led Virginia Commonwealth University to create two engineering scholarships this year for home-schoolers, says Russell Jamison, dean of the engineering school. “We were looking at the kind of engineer that we needed to produce for the 21st century,” he says, “where part of the skills are not technical, but how to collect information through guided inquiry.” [emphasis added]
Well whaddya know. An engineering scholarship just for being home-schooled. Isn’t that interesting? They’ve identified a minority group that they want to preferentially recruit to their engineering program, and so they established a scholarship just for members of that group. Amazing.
I wait now for the hue and cry to rise from those who protest the unfairness of such despicably discriminatory practices.
Let’s see. Dean Jamison claims that homeschooled students possess certain qualities that make them very suited to engineering in the 21st century, therefore it makes sense to make a special effort to recruit them. Do you accept that premise? Then listen to what William Wulf had to say, when he was president of the National Academy of Engineering:
[a]t a fundamental level, men, women, ethnic minorities, racial minorities, and people with handicaps, experience the world differently. Those differences in experience are the “gene pool” from which creativity springs. 
Since the products and processes we create are limited by the life experiences of the workforce, the best solution–the elegant solution–may never be considered because of that lack [of diversity]. 
I assume that Dean Jamison at VCU does not wish to bestow his scholarships upon unqualified students; but he does want to reserve some scholarship money for attracting good students of a certain type, because of special characteristics they have that will bring something needed to engineering.
When people get all hot and bothered about attempts to diversify the science and engineering workforce, there is an unarticulated subtext. What you hear is “jobs and scholarships should be awarded on the basis of merit only” and “we have to maintain standards” and “I am against discrimination of any kind, even positive discrimination”. You’ll hear people say things like “I am all in favor of recruiting those ‘others’, as long as they’re qualified.”
But what is meant is that white women, or men and women of color, or people with disabilities, have nothing desirable to offer to science and engineering. They are, by default, unqualified. The nicest kind of thing you’ll hear is “I’m all in favor of recruiting those ‘others’ if they can be shown to be acceptable.”
Now, that said, I’m all for enticing women to come into sciences by offering fellowships to qualified candidates, but not at the expense of someone else more qualified.
But the true feeling will occasionally be expressed, which is that it’s unlikely that any of them will turn out to be any good.
Therefore, we either have to assume they’re useful and just take that risk,
If they were good enough to be doing science and engineering, they’d already be doing it, because the scientific and engineering enterprise is a complete meritocracy (whose standards must be defended) that attracts the best minds. By default, those who do science and engineering are the best and brightest. They are there because they have passed the test, they belong there; those who aren’t there, don’t. To do anything special to allow them in would be making accommodation for unqualified individuals. Or so goes the thinking.
To acknowledge that members of underrepresented groups might have something to offer to science and engineering, and that it would be worth our while to recruit them to the professions, would be to acknowledge that the enterprise as now constructed does not operate as a complete meritocracy. That would mean also acknowledging that, perhaps, some of the success of those currently practicing science and engineering did not come about completely as a result of their own merit and effort.
Note that this is not the same thing as saying that someone who is currently, say, a professor, is completely undeserving of that position. Our hypothetical professor may be bright, may have worked very hard, may have made serious contributions to the discipline. And yet, if our professor is male, he has most certainly been the beneficiary of gender privilege; if he or she is white, they have certainly had the luxury of racial privilege; and if they are fully-abled, they have not had to deal with any of the hardships the disabled face in education and the job market.
People don’t like admitting these simple and obvious truths because they feel that to do so means admitting something about themselves, personally. If I have benefited from racial privilege, then I must be a racist! I’m not a racist, I’m a nice person! Therefore it’s not possible that I have gained anything in my current position from racial privilege! I earned it all through my own hard work! It’s so, so difficult to let go of that defensiveness, to see that privilege is built into the system, that we benefit from privilege available to us whether we want to or not. It isn’t a referendum on our personal character; it’s the inevitable outcome given the way things are currently structured.
But the good news is we can actually work against it if we choose to. There are techniques and tools available to counter implicit bias. One can train one’s self to be aware of gender and race and disability issues. There is no excuse not to.
Unless, of course, you just don’t think those “others” are good enough to bother.
 Wulf, W. A. (1999). Diversity in Engineering. In Moving Beyond Indidvidual Programs to Systemic Change, WEPAN Annual Conference Proceedings (pp. 9-16). West Lafayette, IN: WEPAN Member Services.
 Wulf, W. A. (1999). Testimony to the Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development. http://www.nsf.gov/od/cawmset/meetings/hearing-990720/wawulf/wawulf.htm. (December 14, 2001).