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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.

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Fig. 1: Interacting galaxy pair Arp 87.

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

Fig. 2: Schematic representation of in-group and out-group contributions in monocultural, multicultural and polycultural organizations.
Fig. 3: Feedback loops in interactions at individual, unit and organization levels between in-group and out-group cultures in a multicultural organization.
Fig. 4: Destructive dynamics in the unstable, exclusionary multiculture.
Fig. 5: Breaking the destructive cycles in the stable, inclusive polyculture.


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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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Peer review information Nature Astronomy thanks Kim Coble and Laura Kramer for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Johnston, K.V. A dynamical systems description of privilege, power and leadership in academia. Nat Astron 3, 1060–1066 (2019).

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