Diversity Action Plan

Diversity Action Plan for WFU Physics

The Physics department recognizes the challenges and merit of establishing diversity represented in the student body, staff, and faculty.  This plan provides a short background of the problem and the Wake Forest Physics department’s plan to improve diversity in its own department and in a broader sense.

[Figure 1]
Percentage of Degrees granted to physics students.  This should be contrasted to the fact that about 13% of the population in the USA is African American and about 17% are Latino Americans. Credit: APS/Source: IPEDS Completion http://www.aps.org/programs/education/statistics/degreesbyrace.cfm External link icon

The challenge in establishing diversity in Physics is larger than in many other disciplines due to the current lack of diversity that stems from unequal representation in gender, ethnic groups, and race that begins at early ages.  Figure 1 shows the percentage of degrees granted to underrepresented minorities for 2006-2008.  African and Latino Americans are clearly under-represented.  According to the American Institute of Physics, only 2% of physics faculty in 2012 are African American and only about 3% are Latino American.[1] The low percentage of these groups earning a physics PhD can be attributed partially to disparities in STEM education for children in grades K-12 and subsequently in college where only 2.2 percent of Latinos and 2.7 percent of African Americans earned a bachelor’s degree in the natural sciences or engineering. [2] Thus there is simply not a large enough pool of applicants for graduate school among these groups. It could also be attributed to poor schools with poor teachers and fewer available AP and other advanced courses. Although the number of physics faculty who are female has been rising, it was only 14% overall in 2010 and 23% of Assistant Professors were female in 2015 (and see Figure 2).[3,4] Finally, LGBTQ physicists often experience isolation, uncomfortable or hostile environments, and do not have support systems that are needed.[5]

In the Supreme Court case of ABIGAIL NOEL FIHER vs UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT ET AL in 2015, a Supreme Court Justice asked “what unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” Our answer is that physics is performed by physicists and physicists are people, each with their own individual background.  Having diverse backgrounds leads to more creativity and innovation.  One example of this is that of Marietta Blau (1894-1970) who was excluded from the mainstream physics community due to her gender and religion, yet developed the nuclear emulsion technique which was vital to the development of particle physics.[6]  The famous physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman was excluded from Columbia University due to his religion, yet it is hard to imagine modern physics without his contributions.[6]  Thus, establishing diversity is not only the right path from a perspective of fairness, but also from a perspective of what is best to move the field forward.
diversity_action_plan-fig_2p [Figure 2]
The percent of women earning degrees and working as postdoctoral fellows in Physics over time,  Credit: APS/Source: IPEDS Completion Survey &
NSF-NIH Survey of Graduate Students & Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering

Generally we aim to increase or maintain diversity broadly defined and including attributes such as different religions, gender, sexual orientation, geographic origin, socioeconomic background, and ethnicity.   Our Action Plan to increase diversity in terms of underrepresented minorities (URM) is outlined below:

Goal Task
Facilitate departmental discussion on diversity Invite speakers interested and involved in enhancing diversity in Physics to weekly colloquium series or alternate workshops.  Consider partnering with other departments and Centers (like Bioethics).  Consider a speaker series with help from the Intercultural Center
Discuss diversity issues and progress of this plan at Physics faculty meetings
Establish short- and long-range visions for recruiting faculty and students


Enhance visibility of the department’s dedication to improve diversity by putting up a new diversity poster in a highly visible, centrally located place and including a statement about diversity on our website (perhaps include this document).  For the poster, consider also having one focus on a single physicist and have that rotate.
Work with admissions and existing programs (like LENS) to increase diverse applicants likely to become physics majors
Begin a “Bridge” program with nearby HBCU similar to the program at Vanderbilt to recruit upper-level undergraduate students in Physics.  Start with a pilot program.
Increase diversity of colloquia speakers to include underrepresented minorities and potential future opportunity hires – at least one a year.  Consider working with ethnic groups on campus and have joint activities including extending lunch with the speaker to other groups outside Physics.
Broaden all faculty position searches so they are not discipline specific to increase URM applications
Pursue a Target of Opportunity hire.
Explore mentoring and advising “best practices” that support student retention and success Work with the committee on undergraduate advising to dispel myths about difficulty of doing Physics and STEM and need for “natural ability”. Also partner with ethnic and gender groups on campus to raise awareness.
Work the with the Learning Assistance Center to extend tutoring services for URM undergrad and grad students, including prelim exam tutoring
Assign student URM mentor to each new URM student (grad and undergrad) to the degree possible and desired.  Perhaps do this through asking all students if they would like a mentor.  Include mentor training.
Increase Faculty awareness of diversity issues and best advising practices through seminars and webinars
Implement yearly metrics for measuring the success of the diversity action plan


Add questions addressing department climate related to diversity on annual senior survey and discussion sessions.  Just have 1-3 questions that assess student views.
Write up a report on status of this plan

1.     http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=61
2.    Advancing Equity through More and Better STEM Learning, a report from The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund, 2015, http://www.civilrights.org/archives/2015/1510-STEM-report.html External link icon
3.    https://www.aip.org/statistics/reports/women-among-physics-astronomy-faculty External link icon
4.    https://www.aip.org/statistics/physics-trends/women-among-physics-faculty-members-0
5.    LGBT Climate in Physics: Building an Inclusive Community, American Physical Society, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740-3845, U.S.A.
6.    Stanley, Matt. Why should Physicists study history?.  Physics Today, 69, 39-44, 2016.