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Top Research Universities Overlooking Minority Faculty Candidates, Panel Says
Donna Nelson describing results
An increasing percentage of researchers from under-represented minority groups are receiving Ph.D.s in science-related disciplines, but the increases are not leading to improved numbers on the faculties of the top U.S. universities, speakers said at a Capitol Hill briefing organized by AAAS and the American Chemical Society.
A new survey released at the briefing shows critical leaks in the academic pipeline—and the speakers said the numbers demonstrate that many top-tier research universities aren't hiring qualified underrepresented minorities. The results of the 2007 survey were collected by University of Oklahoma chemistry Professor Donna Nelson.
"We have a problem of demand, not supply," said panelist Richard Tapia, a University Professor and the Maxfield-Oshman Professor in Engineering at Rice University. Tapia said that universities often claim that they do not have any minorities or women apply as an excuse for why none are hired. With further probing, Tapia said, some universities will admit that they do have such applicants but none that they deem suitable enough on paper to be invited for interviews.
"When they say that no minorities or women apply, they mean that no one applies who fits what they want," he said.
"Even as the numbers in the available hiring pool have increased—albeit slowly—the hiring lags," said Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, one of the panel speakers. "We will all keep pursuing efforts to increase the numbers of those available, but recognize that things must also change in our universities to move the faculty numbers."
The trend was detailed during a 31 October briefing in Washington, D.C., that was co-sponsored by AAAS and the American Chemical Society and held in conjunction with the House Diversity and Innovation Caucus. A public luncheon, including presentations by Tapia and others, preceded the event.
Prompted by her curiosity over low numbers of underrepresented minorities in chemistry, Nelson compiled what she and her colleagues say is the most accurate survey of its kind. She obtained complete counts of underrepresented minorities, Asians and whites as well as women and men holding faculty positions at the top 100 departments in 15 science and engineering disciplines. She analyzed her data in bins of only the top 50 departments versus the entire top 100 departments in order to show more precise populations of minorities.
The survey found that the low numbers of underrepresented minority faculty members in science and engineering departments are not due simply to the low numbers of blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans pursuing those fields. Rather, it found that the academic path from bachelor's of science (B.S.) degrees to tenured faculty members loses underrepresented minorities at each step.
"It's essential that we do something about this—and rapidly," Nelson said at the luncheon. As the nation's fastest growing segment of the population, underrepresented minorities could help replace many of the nation's scientists and engineers as they retire—if those with scientific interests are identified and supported.
The ranked departments, which are listed by discipline and institution in the appendix of her report, are designated by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as top departments according to research funds expended.
The count allowed Nelson a broad view of how low the overall numbers of minority faculty members are in the top research universities. In the 100 surveyed computer science departments, only six had more than one underrepresented minority faculty member, while 99 had more than one white faculty member. And no Native American faculty members were counted in astronomy or civil engineering.
Nelson said that her survey shows some good news for women in science and engineering, as the percentage of women faculty members climbed from 14.9% in 2002 to 17.9% in the top 50 departments in 2007. Her survey also shows that critical mass, which is essential for providing the momentum that boosts future numbers, has been achieved for women in a few science and engineering disciplines.
Based on another study establishing critical mass as 15-20% of a group, Nelson wrote in her report that her 2007 data "reveal that women faculty have achieved critical mass in social sciences, life science, and astronomy." Physical science, computer science, math and engineering are approaching critical mass, she wrote.
But as Nelson tightened her focus to the progress of minorities at each step of academia, especially at the top 50 research universities, a more troubling trend emerged.
In one analysis, she compared the proportion of minority students with B.S. degrees at given institutions in 2000 with Ph.D. recipients in 2005.
Some fields reported good numbers: In earth sciences, for example, 5.4% of B.S. recipients were minorities in 2000; by 2005, the proportion of Ph.D. candidates who were underrepresented minorities had grown to 6.7%.
In computer science, however, the numbers plunged: 17.6% of the graduates receiving B.S. degrees in 2000 were minorities; five years later, just 4% of Ph.D. recipients were minorities.
In another analysis, Nelson looked at how the percentages of minority Ph.D. recipients compared with minorities in tenure-track faculty positions.
Sociology fared best in retaining minority scholars, with the 9.5% of sociology Ph.D.s awarded to blacks between 1996 and 2005 and blacks holding 12% of assistant professorships in the field in 2007.
However, most disciplines show drops in the percentages of minorities receiving Ph.D.s versus obtaining tenure-track professor positions. For example, blacks earned 3.5% of chemistry Ph.D.s from 1996 to 2005 but comprised just 2% of assistant professors in chemistry at the top 50 universities in 2007. Similar figures for blacks were seen in math: 2.5% of Ph.D.s from 1996 to 2005 versus 1.4% of the assistant professors in 2007.
In assessing the trend, Malcom said that most universities do not use a method of hiring faculty that allows valuable qualities of underrepresented minorities to be apparent. During the press event, she described traditional hiring practices as "sorting" according to measures such as numbers of scholarly publications as opposed to "searching" for new talent. To find potential faculty members from underrepresented groups, she advised that universities should actively search at meetings and in other settings for talent that might not be evident in using traditional hiring practices.
"The bottom line of the story: There is a pathway through sciences, through the education system. At each stage of the pathway, we're losing critical talent," said Malcom. "This is not good given the changing demographics. The faculty is looking less like the student body as the student body becomes more diverse."
The panelists discussed how to boost the U.S. science and engineering workforce by mixing tried and true strategies with new approaches. For instance, programs are in development to help minorities at community colleges—a relatively overlooked talent pool—transfer to four-year colleges, said panelist Irving Pressley McPhail, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, Inc.
Ted Greenwood, project director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, called the study unique and critically important for the country. "The existence of these data should not have to depend upon the labor of a committed faculty member and a grant from a private foundation," he said. "The National Science Foundation should collect and publish these data on a regular basis, just as they collect and publish a vast amount of other data related to the science and engineering workforce."
Nelson's research was funded by grants from Sloan, NSF, and the Ford Foundation
20 November 2007