A few months ago, a new term cropped up on Twitter to describe an all-too-common phenomenon at academic institutions: a dude wall. In science departments, these walls honor historical figures by portraying retired faculty, previous heads of an institution, or even just preeminent scientists in a field. But they’ve been attracting negative attention for their lack of diversity—almost all the portraits are white, male scientists. Students from underrepresented backgrounds report that such institutional portraiture stands at odds with their schools’ stated values of diversity and inclusion and can lead to lower self-esteem (J. Gen. Internal Med. 2019, DOI: 10.1007/s11606-019-05138-9).
As a result of the conversations happening both on- and off-line, many universities are changing their portrait walls. But the idea of taking down dude walls—and the term itself—has also stirred up controversy. Some see the dismantling of these walls as downplaying historical advances made by white, male scientists. The term dude wall has also come under fire for potentially alienating male allies who might otherwise agree with the idea that these walls should be changed. The term, says University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign chemist Jeffrey Moore, “turns up the heat on the whole conversation.” In addition, those committed to dismantling these walls must walk a line between inclusivity and erasure, especially when the wall celebrates past leaders of an institution as opposed to influential scientists.
The director’s conference room at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was decorated with portraits of the institute’s benefactor, Arnold Beckman, and all the previous directors. When Jeffrey Moore became the institute’s sixth director in 2017, he says, he surrounded himself with a diverse leadership team. He credits the team with opening his eyes to the issue of the portraiture. “This set of portraits sends a message that says unless you look like one of these people, your input doesn’t matter,” Moore says. “And the likelihood that you will be on this wall is not high.”
Once he came to that realization, he says, the next step was obvious. The portraits were removed and are being scattered around the institute. As Moore puts it, the problem is not the pictures themselves but their high concentration. Spreading them around allows the continued celebration of important figures in the institute’s past while creating a more inclusive environment. The institute held a contest and selected aesthetically appealing scientific art to replace the old portraits (read that article "Elizabeth Murphy is one of the winners in the Beckman Institute Research Image contest"). The process, Moore says, “stirred up a very healthy conversation and self-reflection. I truly believe that this will make us a better place.”
Exerpts from the article "Chemists grapple with lack of diversity displayed in ‘dude walls’ of honor", c&en, by Giuliana Viglione