“But if we adopt quotas, we run the risk of losing the standard Unicamp student.” I heard this phrase in 2015, in one of the lectures on affirmative actions I gave at the University of Campinas. At the time, a group of professors promoted affirmative policies in the institution’s postgraduate programs with the aim of increasing adherence to them. The phrase was said to me by a professor from a renowned hard sciences postgraduate program, who seemed to me to be sincerely concerned about the quality of his students.
After that, I began an imprecise, unsystematic and impressionistic research into the characteristics of the so-called “standard Unicamp student”. With each visit to an institute or postgraduate program, I questioned those present about their attributes. Intelligence, discipline, creativity, rigor, sagacity, dedication, etc. they were predicates mentioned here and there. But there were two other attributes that caught my attention in this concept of native unicamp scientists.
First, the implicit premise that the “standard Unicamp student” was already trained in society and the university could only identify him. In fact, postgraduate selection notices usually present numerous phases in all universities that range from the written test to CV analysis, from the foreign language test to the interview. This shows the obsession, to a certain extent justified, with academic excellence. But the underlying idea was not that it was up to the university to form higher level cadres, but rather select them in society, as if their qualities were already genetically given.
Second, the logical conclusion was that the standard Unicamp student was not black, since at that time the university was still hegemonically white. It is clear that that professor, nor any of those I consulted informally, believed in skin color as an index of intelligence. However, if the “standard Unicamp student” looked like those I saw around campus, he would certainly not be black.
The obsession with a fetishized view of academic gifts not only makes selection processes absurdly competitive and complex, but also prejudiced. In a selection made up of several phases, in which many compete for a few places, it is very common to reach situations of a tie or almost a tie between some candidates. And, in these cases, the decision often involves the inflation of marginal qualities: “this candidate used the crasis better in the project”, or “this other one took a holiday course in London”, or even “that one seemed calmer in the interview” . It is not uncommon for lateral attributes like these to end up deciding who enters and who leaves.
In a condescending estimate, produced by the Group of Multidisciplinary Studies of Affirmative Action (GEMAA), black, brown and indigenous people make up around 7.4% of postgraduate teachers in hard sciences in Brazil, a country with 56% of the population made up of these groups. In some areas such as geosciences, they do not reach 4%. For those who know the corridors of science, this fact is unfortunately not shocking: the more technological or cutting-edge the scientific institute, the fewer black men and women are seen within it.
“If the standard Unicamp student does not have a predefined color, Unicamp is wasting countless intelligent, disciplined, sagacious students, etc., but who were born poor and/or black.” That was my answer in that talk eight years ago. Today, Unicamp has one of the most complex and effective affirmative action systems in undergraduate and postgraduate studies in Brazil and, apparently, continues to have an enviable performance and train excellent scientists, as do several other universities that followed the same proposal.
Diversification does not harm the production of quality science, on the contrary. It helps to unmask the mistaken faith in fetishized conceptions of merit, and thus improves its functioning. Black scientists were born and are there in the world, it remains to include them in science.
Luiz Augusto Campos is a professor of sociology at the Institute of Social and Political Studies at UERJ, editor-in-chief of the academic journal DADOS and coordinator of the Multidisciplinary Study Group on Affirmative Action, GEMAA.
The Fundamental Science blog is edited by Serrapilheira, a private, non-profit institute that promotes science in Brazil. Sign up for the Serrapilheira newsletter to keep up to date with news from the institute and the blog.
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