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Dismissals and Disparity: Racial Inequity in Harvard’s Biostatistics Department

By Alex Ocampo
Alex Ocampo received his Ph.D. in Biostatistics from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 2020.

Earlier this summer, the chair of the Biostatistics department at the Harvard School of Public Health, John Quackenbush, wrote to the entire department that he is “convening a committee … to make recommendations about how we can best promote diversity, inclusion, and racial equity within our department.” As a recent Ph.D. graduate of this department who has met with the department leadership to address these very issues over the last five years, receiving this email was incredibly frustrating.

I’m glad that recent protests are finally causing many to “wake up” to the fact that racism is engraved into our institutions. Yet at the same time, I’m skeptical of the Biostatistics department’s supposed commitment because their treatment of underrepresented-minority — Black, Latinx, Native American — students in the past has revealed a disturbing pattern of racial disparity.

The shroud of secrecy surrounding evaluation processes, dismissal criteria, and minority enrollment statistics in the Biostatistics department makes it hard to protect URM students from bias. In the absence of such transparency, I must rely on what I witnessed in the department to shed light on the treatment of URM students.

I myself am the son of a Mexican father and white mother, but I pass as white; therefore, I haven't felt the wrath of racism in the same way my minority colleagues have. I watched as URM students were continually pushed out of the program. Most notably, of the last four students I know were dismissed from the Ph.D. program, three have been African American or Latinx.

Students in the Biostatistics Ph.D. program are required to pass a written qualifying exam in order to progress and ultimately graduate. When I began my Ph.D., students who failed the exam the first time were customarily given a second chance the following year. This has included at least one African American student, who was dismissed in 2015 after their second attempt.

When my cohort took the exam in 2016, I was aware of two students who failed the test. One, a white student, was granted a second chance. The second, a Latinx student, was asked to leave the program after their first attempt. Our cohort was shocked, as we were under the impression that students who failed were guaranteed a second chance. However, the department student handbook stated: “Students may be allowed to retake the examination at most once, with Departmental approval.” Ambiguity in the handbook language put the fate of students in the hands of an “academic standing committee” with little apparent oversight.

Still, the most atrocious dismissal of a minority student happened the following year in 2017. An African American student received a handful of poor grades during their first year of study. The Director of Graduate Studies, Paige L. Williams, knew this and gave the student the option to defer the qualifying exam. The student accepted, as another year to review the core material would be invaluable. Yet the day before the student’s cohort took the exam, the student received a letter from Williams:

“In general, students who are put in “grace” in their first year remain there until they take the qualifying exam in January of their second year. However, we understand that you have opted not to take the qualifying exam, partly at my advice as your advisor along with recommendations of the department. Based on the most recent meeting of the Academic Standing Committee, and review of your record to date, we regret to inform you that we do not feel your continuation in the doctoral program of the biostatistics department can be supported.”

It’s hard to read the email as anything short of cruel.

In contrast, when in 2018 a white student failed the qualifying exam for the second time and was dismissed from the Biostatistics Ph.D. program, the same Director of Graduate Studies wrote a statement of support for their successful matriculation into another Harvard Ph.D. program.

The problem with the current state of affairs in the department’s graduate program is that a student’s academic advancement is determined by unchecked, potentially biased subjective opinion. As a result, minority students in particular face the task of constantly proving negative expectations wrong, and any perceived imperfection serves as proof that they cannot in fact contend with their non-URM peers.

During my time in the program, I’ve seen three URM students take longer than the usual five years to complete their doctorate degrees. Indeed, dismissal is not the only barrier minority students must face. On top of the rigors of coursework and research, minority students deal with social isolation due to the lack of diversity in our department. There are typically only one or two URM students per cohort. Study groups often form naturally along racial lines, leaving minority students to fend for themselves. Racial microaggressions from classmates and professors can affect their mental health and exacerbate imposter syndrome.

Most disheartening is that minority students have repeatedly offered recommendations and seen no changes. It is not students’ responsibility to fix the issues of systemic racism, but the school and department continually rely on those who have been most oppressed by the system to take on the additional burden of correcting it. I attended focus groups of URM students held by the School of Public Health’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion in 2015, 2018, and 2019. Additionally, URM members of the Biostatistics department presented recommendations aggregated from URM students to leadership in 2018 and 2019. Many of these suggestions have remained consistent: randomized study groups to ensure the inclusion of minority students, URM-specific programming to build community, and transparency on the numbers of URM students in the department and their retention rates.

The department has, however, recently revised the guidelines to allow all students the chance to take the qualifying exam twice. While this is a step in the right direction, it does not address the underlying issue: The criteria for passing the qualifying exam and ultimately being dismissed from the Ph.D. program remains the opinion of a small group of professors and administrators. The current guidelines give too much subjective power to the academic standing committee, leaving the opportunity for both conscious and unconscious biases against URM students to manifest themselves.

I urge the department to use our unfortunate history as a guide to make improvements and focus on concrete systemic changes. It is imperative to define objective dismissal criteria in the student handbook to guarantee that implicit biases will not bar minority students from chances to take or pass the qualifying exam, and thus a chance to obtain a Ph.D. I encourage department chairs to compile the suggestions emailed to them from URM focus groups over the last five years. Lastly, the department should either stop outsourcing labor to minority students and faculty or compensate them accordingly for extra hours spent addressing diversity and inclusion practices.

It is easy to form committees and make official statements, but I challenge the department, and academia more broadly, to focus on changing policies and practices. We must identify and dispose of practices that create disadvantages for underrepresented minority students and move towards institutionalizing racial equality in graduate programs. Minority students are counting on it.

Alex Ocampo received his Ph.D. in Biostatistics from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 2020.

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