Claude M. Steele

Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco awarded Claude M. Steele an honorary degree during the University's 157th Commencement ceremonies on Sunday, May 19, 2013.

Your research into human nature has changed how we think about ourselves and how we interact with one another on personal, professional, and cultural levels.  You discovered that who we are, what we achieve, and even our happiness are often influenced by the stereotypes we internalize.  All of us—young and old, male and female, black and white, Northerner or Southerner, American or not—are defined by preconceptions of our group identity.  You demonstrated that negative stereotypes can influence academic, professional and personal performance in myriad ways.  But you did not just identify the problem: You went on to help develop strategies for overcoming the damaging effects of such stereotypes.  Your work has offered awareness and, perhaps more important, allowed a new generation of students to excel.  Your scholarship in the social sciences has advanced the vision of a society in which everyone has the opportunity to succeed.  For your leadership in this field, Tufts is proud to award you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.

 

CLAUDE M. STEELE begins his book, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, with a story about how he first became aware he was African American. 

He was in the second or third grade, walking home with his friends after the last day of school. They complained they couldn’t go swimming in the pool that was just three blocks away. It was in a white neighborhood, and blacks were only allowed in on Wednesday afternoons. That would be the only time they could swim during the long summer.

Such realizations, he came to recognize, make the consequences of stereotypes concrete, not abstract. Stereo-typing, he would come to discover, also influences performance and identity.

Over two decades, Steele, the I. James Quillen Dean of the School of Education at Stanford University, has researched the myriad ways negative stereotypes have influenced academic, professional, and personal performance. Most importantly, he has helped develop strategies for overcoming the damaging behavior that stereotypes can cause. For this and other work on the psychological experience of the individual, Steele is recognized as a leader in the field of social psychology and for his commitment to the systematic application of social science to problems of societal significance.

While Steele’s early work focused on why African American and other minority students seemed do poorly at large institutions of higher education such as the University of Michigan and Stanford, he found that there is no group—young, old, Northerners, Southerners, WASPs, Californians—that doesn’t have at least some negative stereotype associated with it.

Through rigorous testing, Steele saw that the pressure to overcome a stereotype, such as the notion that women are poor at math or Asians will outperform white males, affects cognitive performance. The work allowed Steele to refute the prevailing notion of the 1990s that the problem of academic underperformance among African Americans stemmed from the black students themselves and such issues as poor motivation, lack of family values, or social and economic deprivation. Instead, he found that black students, minorities, women, and others would test on par with their traditionally more successful white male counterparts if language that triggered a stereotype were removed from the test instructions.

Prior to leading the Stanford School of Education, Steele was provost of Columbia University and a professor of psychology there. Before that he was the Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences at Stanford and director of the university’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity and its Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. He was educated at Hiram College and at Ohio State University, where he received a Ph.D. in psychology in 1971.

Steele has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Education, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. He is a board member of the Social Science Research Council and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He has received numerous fellowships and awards, including the William James Fellow Award for Distinguished Scientific Career Contribution from the American Psychological Society.

Steele will be awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.