An “N of One”: A New Landscape Without Affirmative Action in Higher Education Neuroscience Training
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of the Society for Neuroscience or its members.
What I feared happened. The Supreme Court of the United States in an expected decision of six to three, and following a trend of its conservative majority, eliminated the affirmative action law that until today allowed significant number of universities to guarantee that a portion of their matriculants would come from underrepresented groups if they met the admission requirements. Writing in dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor expressed the following on Justice Roberts’ description of acceptable consideration of race: “The Court’s opinion circumscribes universities’ ability to consider race in any form by meticulously gutting [their] asserted diversity interests…Yet, because the court cannot escape the inevitable truth that race matters in students’ lives, it announces a false promise to save face and appear attuned to reality. No one is fooled.”
Like Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a pioneer and an inspiration to many of us, I am a successful product of the affirmative action law that gave many the meritorious access to an excellent education. Years of experiences as part of the minoritized sectors of this country renders an unequivocal opinion that the Supreme Court made the wrong decision in striking down this transformative law and consequently reversing years of advancement of equity and diversity in higher education. The argument that this law is no longer necessary today denotes a gross misunderstanding about the discrimination and challenging realities that members of different minorities experience daily in the United States.
It is important to note that this is not the first time that this law has been prohibited in the United States. For more than a decade now, eight out of nine states – California, Arizona, Washington, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, Nebraska, Idaho, Oklahoma in 2020 – prohibited affirmative action measures in their flagship universities’ admission process. Recent data showed that the percentages of minority student population in these states’ institutions have declined or remained the same despite significant demographic increases among African Americans and Hispanics in each of these states. For example, at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Washington-Seattle, the percentage of African Americans in their student populations has maintained at 3% since 2012. While at the University of Florida and the University of Oklahoma-Lincoln in this same period, there was a troublesome 1% decrease in the African American student population. With respect to Hispanics at universities like the University of Florida or the University of Arizona, where more than 20% of their student population is Hispanic, their percentage increases are only 6%. This increase is significantly less than the demographic increase of Hispanics in these states.
A few decades ago, when I applied to several graduate schools in the United States for neuroscience programs, the admission process in those institutions had an affirmative action policy as a tool to enhance the numbers of underrepresented minorities (URM) in their student population. I will never forget the call from my future and amazing graduate mentor, James Stellar, recruiting me to choose his institution to pursue my doctoral studies in behavioral neuroscience. I am aware that I was accepted foremost based on my academic merits and previous scientific experiences acquired at my alma mater the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras, our flagship campus and a premier Hispanic-serving institution in the United States. Yet, I was also selected because I represented an opportunity for the institution to diversify its predominantly white student population. This is how I became the first Hispanic person to be admitted to Northeastern University’s the prestigious doctoral program in Boston, Mass.
With this life changing decision, I became what in the neuroscience field we describe as an “n of one,” where we only have one subject to study. During graduate school, I was awarded the American Psychology Association Pre-Doctoral Minority Fellowship (APA-MFP) that empowered me to successfully complete my doctoral studies. As part of my training as an APA-MFP fellow, I was part of the second class that attended the impactful and transformative course Summer Program in Neuroscience, Excellence and Success (SPINES) at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass. As a former SPINES alumni and co-director, I can report that the course has significantly benefited the scientific careers of hundreds of URMs and students from disadvantaged backgrounds for over 25 years. Also, I had the privilege to be mentored by two extraordinary neuroscientists and champions of underrepresented students in the Neurosciences, Joe Martínez and James Townsel. Through their vision and actions, hundreds of students like me were part of a more diverse and inclusive neuroscience training landscape in the country.
Since my years in graduate school and postdoctoral training, I have witnessed firsthand how being the first and the only one paved the way for others who would not have had the opportunity to be considered in these spaces of academic power and social mobility. Being the only Puerto Rican woman neuroscientist in academic and professional groups in the U.S. has been an enriching experience because it allowed me to demonstrate my competitive research capabilities and inquisitive intellect. Moreover, I was able to share a diverse perspective of things through my Puerto Rican identity and showcased my professional achievements as a successful Latina neuroscientist, professor, and mentor to hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students across the U.S. and Puerto Rico. In 2020, the Society for Neuroscience recognized my dedication in advancing the careers of URM women neuroscientists with the Bernice Grafstein Award for Outstanding Accomplishments in Mentoring.
However, this successful path was not exempt from unpleasant experiences that originated in racism, sexism, and xenophobia. In my personal experience and based on significant scientific evidence, those are products of the absence of inclusive and diverse spaces in the professional, social and university settings within the United States. Moreover, these social challenges and discriminatory environments unfortunately perpetuate significant disparities in the biomedical and the neuroscience workforce. For example, while URMs embody approximately 36% of the U.S. demographics in 2021, they represent only approximately 4% of NIH R01 biomedical research grant holders. It is imperative that our scientific community continues to work together in improving access to resources, education, and opportunities that intentionally promote diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives for minoritized individuals in the different fields of the neuroscience.
Unfortunately, certain conservative sectors of our society have set an agenda against any effort in favor of diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education. Now with this Supreme Court decision, they gained strong legal support. However, it remains to be seen in what way the universities will navigate this new reality that promises great challenges for minority groups in their search for an excellent science education. To those of us who have dedicated our professional lives to mentoring and paving the way for hundreds of underrepresented students to be accepted into the best universities in the United States, the task continues without skipping a beat. We are steadfast and profess a strong commitment to the successful academic future of our underserved student population in the Neurosciences. The “n of one” cannot become the norm again, but rather the exception.