While more and more St. Olaf students have been choosing STEM majors over humanities majors in recent years, students of color often choose neither. Domestic students of color have been underrepresented in the humanities, fine arts and STEM and equitably or overrepresented in interdisciplinary majors and social sciences, according to data from the “To Include is To Excel” webpage compiled by Institutional Research and Effectiveness and the Financial Aid Office.
Since 2005, the average percent of students majoring in interdisciplinary and general studies (IGS) in a given year who are domestic students of color has been 16 percent. Conversely, over the same period of time the average percent of students majoring in the humanities in a given year who are domestic students of color has been only 6.9 percent. Fine arts, natural sciences and math also have relatively low levels of representation. Since 2005, an average of 8.5 percent of students in these majors have been domestic students of color.
In fall 2018, nine percent of students majoring in the humanities were domestic students of color. The corresponding percentages for IGS, fine arts, social sciences and STEM were 20, 11, 18 and 16 percent, respectively.
“I think our inclusivity comes from being outsiders at the college ourselves.” – Karil Kucera
“I think our inclusivity comes also from being outsiders at the college ourselves – Interdisciplinary and General Studies was created as a catch-all area of the college in the 1990s in order to house new programs and a few faculty librarians,” Department Chair of Asian Studies Karil Kucera wrote in an email. “Maybe it makes us more nimble. It definitely makes us more aware of the concerns of those who come to the college with less and are striving to get the most out of their education.”
Department Chair of Philosophy Charles Taliaferro argued that there is substantial diversity in the philosophy department, one of the humanities at St. Olaf. Taliaferro cited the presence of faculty members from underrepresented groups and the creation of a new Asian philosophy course. He also mentioned that many of his colleagues study issues of race and racism and cited his own work discussing these issues.
Department Chair of Classics Anne Groton wrote in an email that there are relatively high percentages of racially diverse individuals in classics courses, but that many of them decide not to pursue classics as a major. She also discussed how the classics department is working to increase diversity.
“We do our best to spread the word about how naturally multicultural the ancient Mediterranean was (e.g., we offer a course in Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient World) and about how diverse the career paths open to Classics majors are,” Groton wrote.
Department Chair of Art and Art History Irve Dell thinks lower levels of diversity in the fine arts may be due in part to biases “towards the presentation of and the upholding of white male artists.”
“There has been an increased recognition of the contributions of people of color to the arts and also putting them in the same pantheon that everybody else is, but there’s been a long-time focus on Euroamerican-centric white male art forever,” Dell said.
Dell also thinks there may be less opportunity for young people of color to get involved in the arts due to racial disparities in wealth that limit the availability of extracurricular activities. He said the racial wealth gap may also discourage people of color from majoring in art due to the widely-held perception that an art degree cannot lead to a stable job.
The prevalence of other historically underrepresented groups in academic majors follows a different pattern. While a relatively low percentage of humanities majors have been non-white domestic students, the percentage that have been first-generation students is closer to that of other majors. The category with the greatest proportion of first-generation majors is social science, with first-generation students comprising an average of 9.6 percent of social science majors since 2005. Other majors have seen less representation of first generation students, with the average percentage of first-generation students in non-social science majors hovering around seven percent.
The percent of humanities majors who are low-income is also comparable to that of several other department categories, though low-income students have been somewhat underrepresented in natural sciences and math and overrepresented among fine arts majors, according to the Primer on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion on the “To Include is To Excel” website. According to this same page, international students have tended to be underrepresented among humanities majors and overrepresented among social science majors.
Between 2009 and 2018, the percent of graduates majoring in math and science rose while the percent of graduates majoring in the humanities fell – this trend is one of several that led the Strategic Resource Allocation Project (SRAP) Steering Committee to cut the number of courses offered by some humanities departments while increasing the number of courses offered by the Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science.
Data on diversity in academic majors may likewise influence the work of “To Include is To Excel,” an initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supporting faculty development and curricular changes to better serve an increasingly diverse student body.
The initiative has funded 25 projects thus far, many of which aim to create more inclusive classroom environments and increase the diversity of academic departments.