A dynamical systems description of privilege, power and leadership in academia


As the diversity of people in higher education grows, universities are struggling to provide inclusive environments that nurture the spirit of free inquiry in the presence of these differences. Throughout my career as an astronomer, I have witnessed these struggles first-hand. Exclusive cultures result in unfulfilled potential of all members of the institution — students, administrators and faculty alike. This Perspective draws on insights from dynamical systems descriptions of conflict developed in the social and behavioural sciences to present a model that captures the convoluted, interacting challenges that stifle progress on this problem. This description of complexity explains the persistence of exclusive cultures and the inadequacy of simple fixes. It also motivates the necessity of prolonged and multifaceted approaches to solutions. It is incumbent on our faculties to recognize the complexities in both problems and solutions, and persevere in responding to these intractable dynamics, on our administrations to provide the consistent structure that supports these tasks, and on all of our constituents to be cognizant of and responsive to these efforts.


I am a professor of astronomy at Columbia University. My research explores the encounters and mergers between galaxies that are responsible for shaping these magnificent structures in the Universe, as shown in Fig. 1. I teach classes on galactic dynamics, on stars and on cosmology. I mentor students and junior researchers in their own projects. And, along with my fellow faculty, I share the power and responsibility of setting the research and education mission of our great university.

Fig. 1: Interacting galaxy pair Arp 87.

NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Like organizations in human society, this physical system is shaped by the mutual dynamical interactions of its constituents. These interactions are both individual (microscopic) and collective (macroscopic) in nature and are perpetually proceeding on many scales.

It’s not hard to be motivated by these roles. In my ideal Universe, academic institutions aspire to be places of unfettered exploration, where people congregate to pursue knowledge, share their ideas and learn from others. It is the people — students, administrators and faculty — who are the university, not the buildings or the campus. The faculty serve as both the creators of knowledge, as well as curators of knowledge generation and dissemination. Our charge is to make the very most of the human imagination, tenacity and capacity to explore.

Implicit in this ideal is the assumption that academia is a meritocracy that brings the most talented intellects together and supports them in constructive exchanges. And underlying this assumption is the requirement that our differences — the full diversity of our experiences, learning and talents — be explicitly recognized and celebrated so that they can be used to maximize our collective impact on the boundaries of human knowledge. Indeed, this vision — the pursuit of knowledge in an egalitarian, inclusive community — drew me to a research and education career in the first place.

Academia in the real Universe

There remain significant challenges to achieving these ideals. While my own ‘ideal Universe’ is unlikely to encapsulate every academic’s vision, the underlying concerns are broadly applicable. For example, the demographics in science departments clearly do not yet reflect the talent pool. Studies by the American Institute of Physics’ Statistical Research Center have shown that the fraction of PhDs awarded to African American students in physics has remained flat at a few percent for the past two decades, far below their representation in the US population1. At the other end of the academic career path, science leadership remains dominated both culturally and demographically by (almost exclusively white) men. Indeed, during my last year as department chair in the 2016–2017 academic year, I was the only woman among the chairs in the Division of Science in Columbia’s School of Arts and Sciences, and my peers and leaders in science research and education up the chain of command to Columbia University’s president were all men. (This adds up to a total of 16 people including 8 other science department chairs, the Dean of Science, the Dean of Graduate Studies, the Dean of Columbia College, the Vice President for Arts and Sciences, the Vice President for Research, the Provost and the President.)

A vocal few attribute these biased demographics to the innate superiority of certain groups in the pursuit of knowledge. This belief in innate qualities misrepresents a very real problem and is a betrayal of the principles that academia is built on in the first place. It is used to justify the creation and maintenance of artificial barriers to potential fulfillment for vast swaths of our talent pool.

There are three very clear failures that need to be addressed: (1) disadvantages in background and opportunities2; (2) biases in admission3; and (3) failure to make room for all people who are admitted. This Perspective focuses on the last of these failures — the inability to effectively include, support and develop our full talent pool even after admission to graduate school or advancement into faculty positions and beyond to chairs or deans, provosts or presidents. This represents a significant underutilization of human resources in our institutions today. Moreover, the loss is not limited to a lack of contributions of the individuals themselves: research suggests that inclusion of diverse perspectives enhances the breadth and depth of discussions and leads to more creative solutions to problems4 and that a positive climate enhances the contributions of all faculty5.

In principle, we should be able to learn from the experience of different incoming groups as they are first admitted and subsequently advance through academia. We could use this learning to create cultures that welcome difference and accelerate the progress of other incoming groups. In practice, I have found that tensions around the differences we should be learning from limit the scope of constructive exchanges and progress to action even at the individual level. From conversations with astronomers at institutions nationwide, it seems that these problems are very common, and from the vast literature on the topic they are far from unique to our field.

As all scientists know, the starting point for solving a complex problem is to describe the problem itself with great care6. This Perspective is a contribution to this aspect of problem solution. It reviews the work of our colleagues in social and behavioural sciences, and summarizes it in a model that encapsulates the complex barriers that challenge inclusion in academia.

A toy model to explore problems and solutions

The model I outline here is inspired by and adapted from the work of Peter Coleman, a professor at Columbia’s Teachers’ College, whose expertise is in finding resolutions to situations of extreme conflict. Coleman and his collaborators characterize social interactions apparent in multicultural organizations in the language of dynamical systems7. This is a language that is very familiar to astronomers who spend their lives thinking about analogously complex systems, influenced by physical processes on multiple scales. In many physical systems, microscopic effects can manifest with macroscopic consequences. In my own field of galaxy evolution, the fusion of atoms influences the evolution of stars, the collective dynamics of stars shapes galaxies, and galactic interactions play a key role in the formation of the structures we see in the Universe. Moreover, these interactions are mutual, affecting all galaxies involved in ways that can amplify their influence through self-reinforcing feedback loops. Merging galaxies, like the pair shown in Fig. 1, are stunning examples of the power of such self-reinforcing loops: as the two galaxies approach they suffer distortions due to each other’s tidal fields; these distortions convert orbital energy to internal energy so that the orbits decay; the decay of the orbits in turn enhances the tidal interaction and accelerates the merger rate.

Coleman’s work was instrumental in helping me piece together my day-to-day experiences as a professor in science with what I had learned from colleagues in social science and psychology and thus to fill in the puzzle of the bigger picture: how the individual (what astronomers might term ‘microscopic’) dynamics within our own communities can, despite our best intentions, collectively manifest as (‘macroscopic’) barriers to admission and advancement of incoming groups that differ from those already present; and how these dynamics can reinforce each other to result in unwelcoming, unproductive work environments.

Any community seeking to encourage diverse perspectives needs to recognize these dynamics. From my perspective as a white woman in astronomy, my academic community has already evolved from being dominated by and working effectively as a single culture (monoculture), and is transitioning through a difficult period when two or more cultures are present, but in tension with each other (multiculture). However, for the full potential of different groups to be jointly realized, we need to establish a productive polyculture where the entire range of viewpoints and talents are effectively utilized.

Strengths and limitations of the toy model

Figure 2 provides a visual representation of our toy model that describes evolution from a monoculture (purple) to a polyculture of several groups (purple and orange).

Fig. 2: Schematic representation of in-group and out-group contributions in monocultural, multicultural and polycultural organizations.

The purple and orange filled ellipses represent the in-group and out-group, respectively, with the area indicating the contributions enabled by the status and influence of each group. The dashed lines represent the potential for contributing to academia for both groups, whether through research, education or beyond. The monoculture is dominated by one group both in numbers and in the environment it produces. In the multiculture, more than one group may be present, yet the potential remains unfulfilled as differences are unrecognized, and hence underutilized, and the culture remains that of the in-group. In the polyculture, where differences are celebrated and there are open discussions of inclusive environments, both in-group and out-group members benefit. The challenge of exploring differences leads to more robust conclusions4 and the culture supports the full range of possible contributions.

It is important to acknowledge that the representation in Fig. 2 and all subsequent plots is a vast over-simplification. In reality, there are many more than two demographic groups to be considered, and many people’s experiences are complicated by sitting in the intersection of several groups8. Moreover, the linear progression shown is just one cycle of a repeating pattern as the culture in an institution is constantly evolving — and needs to constantly evolve — in response to the continual influx of new viewpoints. To be specific, successfully including my demographic group of white women in science will not solve the problem of including all groups. Nevertheless, our discussion will be limited to the interactions of just two groups and one cycle of adjustment with the purpose of characterizing interactions that may be common to all such transitions. In astronomy, this would be considered a ‘toy model’ of a more complex system that allows a clear and overarching vision of how to describe important facets of the evolution of such systems more generally.

In addition, the reader is warned that the toy model that is presented here, while inspired by Coleman’s work, is one that reflects my own experiences in science rather than strictly reproducing the formal discussion of complex systems in social science.

The terminology that is adopted is that used in social science unless otherwise noted. A summary of definitions is stated in Table 1, with further explanations and references given in Box 1. The choice to use this terminology was deliberate, and again informed by experience. Being able to clearly name problems is empowering. First, it allows individuals to realize that difficulties they may be told are their own are in fact shared by many (to the point that they are studied and named in the social sciences!). Second, naming requires careful definitions of what those problems are, which is the first step towards explicit, focused discussions about solutions.

Table 1 Definitions of terms used in this Perspective and technical terms borrowed from the social and behavioural science literature

The unstable multiculture

Most astronomy departments at universities in the United States are in the state of the unstable multiculture. They are dominated by the Western, (mostly) male group that has contributed hugely to scientific progress for several centuries, and it is this group that sets the norms (termed ‘masculine defaults’ in a recent article — see Table 1; S. Cheryan and H. R. Markus, manuscript in preparation). Many of these departments have significant fractions of (mostly white) women, but very few or zero other groups that are not Western and/or not male9.

The environment in a department can be significantly influenced by interactions at the individual, unit (department or centre within an organization) and organization (university or other academic institution) levels between the dominant (or ‘in-group’) and subdominant (or ‘out-group’) members. Many of the effects can interact as self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating feedback loops within and across the different levels. Figure 3 and Box 2 sketch how these cycles at the different levels combine to stifle progress towards inclusion, as discussed below.

Fig. 3: Feedback loops in interactions at individual, unit and organization levels between in-group and out-group cultures in a multicultural organization.

Dynamics that are salient for the in-group and out-group are highlighted in bold and nonbold text, respectively. These loops are described in more detail in the text. Table 1 outlines the usage of the terms in each rectangle in this context. Box 1 defines the terms in more depth and highlights a few relevant studies.

Individual dynamics

Various terminologies, highlighted in the top-left rectangle in Fig. 3, have been adopted in the fields of social science and psychology to isolate and identify different types of interactions at the individual level that can negatively affect the experience of the work environment. Brief definitions of these terms are given in Table 1 and expanded on with references in Box 1. The arrows in the figure emphasize how these social interactions combine in a self-perpetuating loop that exacerbates problems, as described in Box 3. This loop can exacerbate the loss of out-group members as they advance through their careers (commonly referred to as a ‘leaky pipeline’, for example, ref. 10), lead to disengagement of those that do stay11 and contribute to the lack of diverse members taking on leadership positions in academia.

Unit dynamics

The individual interactions described above can manifest collectively, and often destructively, within a unit, as highlighted in the top-right rectangle in Fig. 3 and summarized in Box 4.

The in-group is privileged in being able to set the cultural norms that dominate a community2. Members of this group typically enjoy, often without recognizing that privilege, an environment that is homophilic for them, where they easily belong and are free to concentrate on their work, unfettered by worries of implicit bias or the distracting effects of stereotype threats or imposter syndrome.

Attempts by the out-group to broaden the culture — through new approaches to research, teaching or community — can be experienced as a challenge to the comfortable position of the in-group. There is increasing evidence that discomfort with these perceived challenges should be embraced as growing pains necessary to realize the full benefits of diversity. Discussions in diverse communities are indeed typically more contentious than homogenous ones. However, these disagreements lead to deeper and more robust explorations, and innovative decisions4.

Unfortunately, rather than attempting to adjust and grow to encompass difference, the tendency of the in-group is defensiveness against the requests the out-group are making for change, which may be attributed in part to group status threat12,13. In addition, there exist significant social and academic inhibitions that prevent effective discussions of difference, in particular as they approach the topics of racism, sexism and homophobia14. The result is that any investigation of the origins of biased decisions can easily devolve into individuals’ protesting that their intentions are not racist/sexist/homophobic and withdrawing their support for the work that needs to be done. This withdrawal pulls the in- and out-groups further apart from each other, which reinforces the impression of an exclusionary culture. The out-group reacts with frustration to this dynamic, but expression of this frustration only exacerbates the in-group’s defence of both their privileged position and good intentions7.

Without explicit recognition of how individual interactions manifest destructively at the unit level, both in- and out-group members can fail to take account of the care needed to (for example) make unbiased decisions to set a positive work environment for all. In-group members in particular need to be prepared to remain engaged in uncomfortable discussions of biases and privilege for progress towards inclusion to be made.

Organization dynamics

The culture of the organization has been set historically by the in-group. Many institutions are aware of the benefits of a diverse community, and even have statements or programmes to encourage hiring and retaining diverse members. However, without a consistent culture to support this breadth, decisions about reward and recognition (that is, promotion and tenure within the institution or the award of prizes more generally) often reflect the systematic biases at work at the individual and unit levels. These rewards reinforce the in-group norm for achievement and continue to exclude the out-group15. Some rewards may appear merely prestigious, not carrying any formal power, but all imbue the individual with status and influence, and hence reinforce the existing culture.

The effect of lack of recognition may be exacerbated if there are at the same time mismatches in requests for service between in-group and out-group members. Such mismatches may be a consequence of the gradual evolution of populations, which means that the demographics at the faculty level does not reflect the student populations. This can lead to disproportionate mentoring and committee work falling on out-group members16. If this work is not appropriately recognized as valuable to the institution, this can be discouraging to out-group members.

While many organizations also actively encourage members of out-groups to aspire to positions of prominence and leadership, there are particular challenges to leading (and learning to lead) from an out-group position. As the fraction of the out-group dwindles with distance along the pipeline, the individual dynamics of homophily, implicit bias, stereotype threat and imposter syndrome are again relevant. The standard of leadership is that of the in-group and it is this style (currently dominated by ‘masculine defaults’ in academia (S. Cheryan and H. R. Markus, manuscript in preparation)) that is described in training programmes and modelled by mentors. Yet many of the attributes of this style may be neither comfortable nor advantageous for an out-group leader to adopt. It has been shown that out-group members face increased scrutiny and criticism in leadership positions, in particular if they display behaviours that may be acceptable in the in-group but are not characteristic of expectations of the out-group11. These criticisms are exacerbated if out-group leaders are themselves advocates for diversity, with the consequence of being silenced on the very issues to which they bring special insight17,18.

Failure to adapt to the out-group and encourage breadth in style at leadership levels both perpetuates the lack of role models that might encourage out-group members to enter academia and limits the diversity of perspectives in positions with decision-making power. The latter creates a glass ceiling of inexperience, as those who have rarely been excluded struggle to imagine what is missing in their attempts to include. This increases the difficulty of re-framing institutional culture towards inclusion.

The bottom rectangle in Fig. 3 summarizes these dynamics at the organizational level.

Figure 4 and Box 5 summarize how the interactions described at the individual, unit and organization levels combine. In this state, neither out-group nor in-group populations are able to fulfill their potential as the vibrancy of free and open interactions is lost.

Fig. 4: Destructive dynamics in the unstable, exclusionary multiculture.

Effects outlined in Fig. 3 at the individual level manifest collectively at the unit level as destructive tensions between the in-group and out-group (orange and purple arrows). The culture of the organization level reflects and supports the in-group (thick purple line). As a consequence, recognitions and rewards (plus signs) remain biased towards the in-group. Under-representation of out-group members at the faculty level relative to the student population can mean that disproportionate mentoring and committee work falls on out-group members (minus signs).

Transitioning from multiculture to polyculture

On a recent panel of under-represented minority students sharing their experiences in graduate school in STEM fields, one panelist demanded:

“Don’t just tell me about imposter syndrome: stop treating me like an imposter!”

This demand eloquently characterizes our inability to include members of out-groups after they are admitted to our institutions.

This issue of Nature Astronomy highlights some initiatives in our community that have been shown to positively impact diversity efforts (for example, ref. 19). Elsewhere in the literature, there has been recent success reported in addressing statistically significant gender bias that had been found in the acceptance rate of observing proposals: 19% for those led by women compared with 23% of those led by men over many years20. Following the adoption of a dual-anonymous review process, the fraction of successful proposals led by women exceeded those led by men for the first time during the 18 years that records have been kept21. In addition, when faced with the uncomfortable evidence of systematic demographic biases in the results of the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) physics test (summarized in ref. 3), members of our community have reported correlations (or lack of correlations) with these scores for the subsequent career paths of those admitted to graduate school (for example, ref. 22), and this discussion has encouraged many departments to review their graduate-admissions process.

While the success of individual initiatives is encouraging, there is growing evidence that some common first responses to enhancing climate (for example, mission statements, codes of conduct, diversity trainings), if adopted in isolation, can be ineffective or even counter-productive to genuine progress on inclusion15. The dynamical systems literature, from which the descriptive model presented here was adapted, explains these failings by elucidating the complex and subtle nature of interactions within and across individual and department levels around diversity efforts7. This literature also: clarifies why individual initiatives need to be placed within a larger, co-ordinated and multifaceted programme that looks comprehensively and critically at the institutional context; and motivates finding solutions that disrupt the feedback loops that reinforce destructive patterns of interaction while emphasizing the loops that support the positive patterns. Any such comprehensive programme needs to be institutionalized so that the principles of embracing and benefitting from difference can be sustained as populations entering academia continue to evolve. Research suggests the effectiveness of ‘inclusive multiculturism’ where the inclusion of both the out-group and in-group are explicitly endorsed and ‘perspective training’ to support engagement across viewpoints23. Efforts at Columbia can be described in these contexts: a recent survey of climate for faculty in the School of Arts and Scientists acted as a disruption when it uncovered significant gender differences in perceptions of climate24; and we are now in the middle of building our own institutionalized and comprehensive programme with a variety of approaches in response.

Figure 5 and Box 6 summarize one perspective on approaches to solutions within the model above, where each component is essential and ineffective without the others.

Fig. 5: Breaking the destructive cycles in the stable, inclusive polyculture.

Acknowledging the dynamics endorses the value of both the in- and out-groups (double-headed arrow). Articulating guiding principles that encourage exploration of difference promotes an environment that removes limits on potential (thick outlines in purple and orange). Updating the framework — cultural norms in policies, procedures and rewards — to include the full breadth of possible contributions provides support for all individuals in their pursuit of excellence (plus signs).

Privilege, power and leadership in academia

The description of the social dynamics that resist culture change highlights the importance of giving agency and self-determination to key people in an organization. With many organizations, this would be the people in power at the managerial level, and indeed engagement of management on these issues and introducing them to diverse junior people are both advocated as useful15. While this sounds like a question of leadership at the institutional level in academia, the power structure within universities is rather unique. Many relevant decisions — the admission and advancement of graduate students, postdocs and faculty — are made at the department level, jointly by the faculty. It is also the faculty who set the day-to-day environment for each other, their students and department staff. Yet the reward structures at many academic institutions do not recognize constructive team behaviours, but rather encourage faculty to excel as individual leaders with intense focus on and promotion of their specialized research subfield. These mixed messages can lead to an imbalance between individual and collective interests.

My own conclusion is summarized in Box 7. We need courage, resolution and tenacity to persist with this difficult and unwelcome task of self-criticism. But this persistence is imperative if academia is to live up to the ideals of inclusion that support free investigation and discovery.


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I acknowledge support from National Science Foundation (NSF) grant AST-1715582. I am grateful for the hospitality of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (supported by NSF grant PHY-1748958) and the University of California at Santa Cruz during my sabbatical. I thank my fellow members of Columbia’s Committee on Equity and Diversity, colleagues in astronomy (S. Hawley, S. Ho, D. Hogg, J. Holbrook, J. Kollmeier, A. Shapley, R. Somerville and D. Spergel) and beyond (P. Coleman, G. Justice, C. Kaiser and D. Kardia), and friends in the PDPG for feedback as the discussion in this paper was being developed. I thank B. Starling for reading and re-writing.

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Correspondence to Kathryn V. Johnston.

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Johnston, K.V. A dynamical systems description of privilege, power and leadership in academia. Nat Astron 3, 1060–1066 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-019-0961-2

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