Memorial Day Week: Extinctions and why Broadening Participation (BP) needs sunsetting and rethinking by Rodney Hopson

I am Rodney Hopson, Professor of Evaluation (Educational Psychology: QUERIES) at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign where I serve as Associate Director and Senior Fellow in the Center for Culturally Responsive Evaluation and Assessment and Program Director of the AEA Graduate Education Diversity Internship Program.

In spirit of remembering and foreshadowing extinctions, I hope we can put to an end the notion of broadening participation (BP) in science, technology, engineering, and math(STEM), an agency-specific term used by National Science Foundation (NSF).  On the website page from the Office of the Director describing BP are key documents and definitions that purport to describe this initiative birthed in 2008.  As it reads, BP refers to a performance area designed “to expand efforts to increase participation for underrepresented groups and diverse institutions throughout the US in all NSF activities and program.”

When my Dean shared a recent article in The Atlantic, “The Disciplines Where No Black People Earn PhDs”,  I wondered if BP might need a funeral.  In the article, and with reference to sets of 2017 NSF Science and Engineering doctorate data tables that presents demographic characteristics, educational history, sources of financial support, and post-graduation plans for doctorate recipients, the continual dismal number of black (and other underrepresented groups) PhDs in STEM is more than about “broadening participation”  or increasing representation, as if Black, Latinx, and other groups in the field need only to enroll or participate.  Participation may be a beginning, but may breed tepid complacency and may in fact distract from a needed focus on outcomes and systemic barriers and critical structural changes.

If BP only addresses factors at the individual/student level (e.g. their experiences acquiring PHDs, their interests in pursuing the credential, familial connection, social support, or their own individual academic achievement) without attention to the concomitant forces at program, field, institutional, or societal levels, then BP will continue to be unrealized. In fact, is the term BP even the right notion to address these systemic and institutional barriers?

One of the results of the recent 2015-2016 report of Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering (CEOSE), a working group focused on advising NSF on BP programs to increase diversity and inclusion in America’s workforce makes it clear that we need to look beyond student level factors.  According to CEOSE, the systemic and institutional barriers related to imperfect indicators of merit, explicit and implicit bias, and inequalities and barriers across our schooling and society are more challenging and make BP more a euphemism than a reality the way it is currently conceived.

And the implications for evaluation?  What’s our stance on BP?  In a recent NSF EAGER award (Grant No. OIA-7550-1849102), we are raising a central question to answer: what factors drive the successful development of sustainable intergenerational evaluation pipeline and pathways mechanisms to promote BP in STEM?   In our exploratory peer and grey literature review, we are finding themes that echo the need to develop more understanding about the theories and strategies used to address these mechanisms that extend beyond individual factors and deterrents of success for implications to programs and institutions that are committed to address these more systemic issues that surround BP.  If we are concerned about efforts to broaden participation in evaluation, it behooves us to have these same conversations and discussions about what it means to widen these notions in our field.


The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Memorial Week in Evaluation. The contributions this week are about the concept of extinctions — those long past, recent, imminent, and foreshadowed. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to . aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.


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