Expert on Stereotypes Hopes to Bring Diverse Students Together

Linda Cicero

Claude M. Steele
June 02, 2014

Claude M. Steele has spent much of the past 25 years examining how negative stereo­types might impede the performance of students who too often live up to the low expectations set for them.

The prominent social psychologist, who recently became provost of the University of California at Berkeley, says his research on stereo­types and academic underperformance "gives me a certain empathy or perspective on the kinds of stresses involved in making institutions like this more diverse."

His appointment began March 31, a few weeks after the release of the results of a systemwide survey in which about a quarter of Berkeley’s students, faculty members, and staff members said they had experienced conduct they considered exclusionary, intimidating, or hostile. Mr. Steele says he is eager to lend his expertise to continuing efforts "to make the climate more comfortable for a diverse set of students." His goals also include helping increase the number of women in the STEM fields and improving the academic performance of under­achieving students.

While serving on a faculty committee at the University of Michigan in the late 1980s, Mr. Steele noticed that black students were consistently earning lower grades than their white classmates did, even when they had higher SAT scores.

Twenty-five years of research into potential environmental culprits culminated in the publication of his 2010 book Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (W.W. Norton). The book examines how people often underperform because they fear living up to negative stereotypes, whether it’s that black students are less intelligent, women struggle more with mathematics, or white men rarely excel at basketball. Those perceptions, he says, can distract students, create anxiety, and prevent them from realizing their potential.

Mr. Steele, who is 68, taught psychology at Stanford University for 18 years before becoming provost of Columbia University in 2009. In 2011 he returned to Stanford to become dean of its Graduate School of Education.

At Berkeley he has reunited with a close colleague from his Columbia days. Berkeley’s chancellor, Nicholas B. Dirks, worked down the hall from Mr. Steele at Columbia while Mr. Dirks was executive vice president for arts and sciences and dean of the faculty.

For Mr. Steele, returning to the role of provost has been exciting and demanding. "I like to think of myself as a sponge, but a sponge that’s in front of a fire hose," he says with a laugh. He expects to share with faculty members strategies he’s developed to assist struggling students. Simply referring someone to tutoring can amplify insecurities, he says. "What does seem to work is telling people that the work is very challenging, but you really believe they have the potential to do it."

Encouraging students to reach across racial lines also helps, he says. "At Michigan we’d have bull sessions late at night in the dormitories," focusing on personal topics "like relationships with parents and finances. It had an amazing effect on the academic performance of underrepresented minorities."

Sometimes, when students get together with people from different identity groups, they find that they aren’t alone in feeling belittled or misunderstood.

"You can interpret it as a hostile climate against your group," he says, "but when you see that it happens to a lot of people, the environment suddenly seems less threatening, and you're more comfortable in it."