Message from Department Head Barry Braun

Barry Braun outdoor portrait
Barry Braun, Head, Department of Health and Exercise Science

Dear Alumni and Friends,

As we transition to a new year, I share the universal hope that 2022 is what we hoped 2021 would be back in 2020. As I started to write this message, I immediately veered to talking about our response to the pandemic, a reflex honed over the past 21 months.

However, I’d like to put COVID aside for a few minutes and talk about something we care about deeply but, like others, have struggled to make real progress on; creating an HES where everyone can thrive, succeed, and feel like a valuable part of the “family.” Statements expounding on a commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice abound of course but making statements is easy, real progress is harder.

So, let’s start with things we all generally agree on: having a diverse set of backgrounds and perspectives makes us stronger, that it is important for students to see and interact with people who share their backgrounds and experiences, that we must train our students to work and live in an increasingly diverse world. And because so many of us spent a lot of time playing sports as kids and/or adults, we have a visceral belief that the playing field should be level for everyone. Which it has not been.

Allow me to use another sports analogy – Canadian hockey players. In 2013, a study published in “PLOS One” identified a “relative-age” effect in Canadian NHL players: 36% of players drafted by NHL teams between 1980 and 2007 were born between January and March, compared to 14.5% of draftees born from October to December. The likely explanation is that drafts for youth hockey leagues use January 1 as the cutoff – so that a kid with a January birthday is 11 months older than a kid born in December – not a big difference as adults but huge when kids start playing organized hockey when they are in early elementary school.

The kids with birthdays early in the year are more likely to be bigger and stronger than their younger counterparts. They stand out in tryouts and in practices, end up in more elite junior leagues where they get better coaching, attend more all-star camps, and get more recognition. Those early advantages accumulate over time so by the time they are eligible to be drafted to the NHL, they are valued more highly and drafted earlier and more frequently. Interestingly, they are not necessarily more successful as professional players, in fact there is some evidence being born later in the year makes you more likely to have a successful NHL career – more on that later (if interested, you can see the study online: “Born at the Wrong Time: Selection Bias in the NHL Draft.”)

What does that have to do with the world of academia? Let’s use me as an example. I was raised in a home with zero educational resources – no college experience, no intellectual discussions, no books in the house (well, we did have a subscription to “The Readers Digest,” a somewhat cheesy publication only familiar to those of you in my age group). You could say I succeeded in an academic career on my own but that isn’t the case because along the way, high school teachers and university professors frequently offered me opportunities to work in their lab or help them with a project. And those opportunities led to other things – because I had some experience, I was offered a great work-study job in a biology department that led to co-authorship on research papers and getting to present my work at a conference.

Those things made me more competitive for graduate school and a university fellowship that paid my stipend and allowed me more time to do research – leading to more publications that translated into recognition and awards. Because of those early opportunities and how they amplified over time, when I was applying for faculty positions I had a resume packed with things that are highly valued by search committees. Did I get those early opportunities because I was a good student? Yes. But I also got them because I was the kind of kid who looked and sounded and acted like the professors who taught me; basically, I reminded them of their younger selves.

Would I have gotten the same opportunities if I were in a wheelchair? Or a woman? Or black? Or openly gay? Let’s be brutally honest, probably not. Despite coming from a family with few financial or educational resources, the playing field was still tilted in my favor. We perpetuate this bias when we choose the “most qualified” candidate for a job or an award or a scholarship. Until we account for the context that led to those qualifications, we will continue to perpetuate the uneven playing field.

That was a long way of saying our goal in the areas of enhancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice is to embed those principles into all of our decisions – who we hire, who we put up for awards, who we accept as grad students, etc. To the counterargument that we will be diluting quality by not choosing the “most qualified” people, I would counter that we will be selecting the people who made the most of the circumstances they had available to them.

Returning to the study showing that players with later birthdays are less likely to be drafted but more likely to have successful NGHL careers, the authors suggested that “relatively younger individuals, because they have faced greater social challenges, compensate by developing greater adaptability to different roles or better work habits; these traits then lead to greater long-term achievement.” Aren’t these the types of people likely to be successful in academia as well – those with the persistence, creativity, and work ethic to overcome the inevitable challenges and setbacks? I could go on…. but I already have.

As we head in 2022, our challenge is to create the conditions in HES conducive to pushing us forward in our quest to level the playing field and make the HES family more diverse, inclusive, equitable, and just. Which will also make us fundamentally better. And that’s the goal, right?

Go RAMS! Barry