Study: Minority Faculty Severely Underrepresented in Top 100 STEM Departments

U.S. policymakers need to step in with policies that help boost the number of tenured and tenure-track minority faculty members in science and engineering fields, if the United States is to remain competitive on global scale in these areas, argued a group of minority scholars at a press conference on Capital Hill.

According to a recent survey conducted by Dr. Donna J. Nelson, associate professor of chemistry at Oklahoma University, minorities and women faculty are significantly underrepresented in the fields of science and technology among the top 100 departments of science and engineering.

Between  the years of 2002 and 2007, the number of underrepresented minorty faculty at the top 100 departments for science and engineering increased by only .5 percent rising to 5 percent, the survey revealed.  Female faculty members fared better, making a 3 percent gain over the five-year period increasing 17 percent.

Researchers along with members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science are urging Congress to develop policies that help to increase participation among underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Failure by the U.S. government to move quickly to remedy the situation could prove injurious for American to innovation, scholars suggest.

“The U.S. science and engineering work force is aging; “baby boomer” scientists and engineers are leaving the U.S. work force, increasing the need for scientists of color who will make up the largest proportion of the population,” Nelson says.

Scholars argue that minority faculty in STEM fields should reflect the growing minority student body. “Underrepresented minorities are projected to constitute almost 32 percent of the American population by 2020, therefore proactive steps should be taken now in order to insure that the proportionate inclusion of such a large part of the population in science and engineering, throughout all levels of academia,” Nelson says.

One solution being considered to meet U.S. needs for scientists and engineers is to import them. However, Nelson recommends an investment in U.S. citizens to replace “baby boomer” retirees. “If people from overseas become a majority of U.S. scientist and engineers, then U.S. women and minorities will continue to be underrepresented,” Nelson says.

The study suggests the current lack of minority faculty at top-tier institutions may “influence” self-esteem among minority students. In most, disciplines, minority faculty are so few that minority student can get a B.S. or Ph.D without being taught by or having access to a minority professor in that discipline.

“Most of us old-timers were mentored by White males so we know that it can be done and be done well. But it is hard to become something that you have never seen. Having minority faculty members to intervene and to support is very important,” says Dr. Shirley Malcolm, head of the directorate for education and human resources programs at the Association for the Advancement of Science.

While a growing number of underrepresented minorities are completing undergraduate and doctoral degrees in science and technology, they are not matriculating into the faculties of science and engineering departments.

In 2005, nearly 10 percent of underrepresented minorities received doctoral degrees in science and engineering, up 1.4 percent from 2002.  However, this number did not make a significant contribution to the overall increase in minority faculty (.5 percent). For women, however, the situation was better. In 2005, 3.2 percent more women earned Ph.Ds than in 2002, equaling the 3 percent increase in female faculty.

“The under representation of minorities in academe is not a new problem, but efforts to address this issue over the past 10 years or more have had little or no impact,” says Stanley C. Israel, chair of the American Chemical Society Board task force on minorities in academe.

–Michelle J. Nealy

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