Xavier Sets the Pace in the Information Age — To a Degree

Xavier Sets the Pace in the Information Age — To a Degree

NEW ORLEANS — Adding to its reputation as a leader in the sciences, Xavier University this fall will become the nation’s first historically Black college or university to independently offer a degree in the red-hot field of computer engineering.
The small liberal arts college will become the second university in the city and the fourth in the state to prepare students for one of the more lucrative jobs in the high-tech work force.
“It’s the single most important initiative in the new millennium for Xavier in terms of academic programs,” says Xavier’s president, Dr. Norman C. Francis, of the evolution of the 3,820-student university’s department of computer science into a department of computer sciences and computer engineering.
Xavier joins Tulane University, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Louisiana State University here in taking advantage of what the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will be the fastest-growing occupation in the next eight years.
Xavier’s computer engineering program increases the school’s participation in the technology revolution and should increase the number of African Americans able to design computer products — hardware, software and networks.
“It’s the first engineering degree offered at Xavier in its 75-year history,” says George Baker, the Catholic university’s associate vice president for technology administration. “It builds on our expertise in math and the sciences.”
Xavier ranks first in the number of African American students earning undergraduate degrees in biology, physics and the physical sciences overall, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The university leads the nation in placing African American students in medical schools, even though it has a significantly smaller student body than many other universities.
And about 25 percent of the African American pharmacists practicing in the United States graduated from Xavier’s College of Pharmacy. The acceptance rate of Xavier graduates at medical and dental schools is 70 percent, almost twice the national average.
Xavier’s students, 89 percent of whom are African American, will begin receiving computer engineering degrees in 2003, says Marguerite S. Giguette, the chairwoman of Xavier’s computer sciences and engineering department who organized the new degree program.
Some students who enroll in the computer engineering program in late August will be sophomores who have taken prerequisite courses, she says.
“There’s no question about it, what Xavier’s doing is critical to the country,” says Dr. Henry Ponder, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.
“In 10 years, I predict the program there will double the number of African-Americans with degrees in computer engineering.”
Ponder says he’s not surprised the college is setting the pace for its peers.
“Xavier has been out front in higher education,” Ponder says. “President Francis and his crew have been on the cutting edge of what’s been happening in higher ed.”
But Xavier isn’t the only historically Black university to offer such a degree. In the fall of 1999, Florida A&M University began to offer a degree in computer engineering through a joint program with Florida State University. An African American student in the spring of this year is the first and only graduate of the joint program, says Reginald Perry, chairman of that school’s department of electrical and computer engineering.
Xavier has been developing its computer engineering program for the past five years. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation sped up the process last year when it provided the university with a three-year, $1.2 million grant to study the feasibility of launching the program and to finance its implementation.
Xavier’s state-of-the-art, five-story science building opened in the fall of 1998 and more than tripled the number of labs for the department of computer sciences and computer engineering.
Five of the labs are new and were financed in part with money from a multimillion-dollar grant from the National Science Foundation. The department already had two labs.
“Without those infrastructure improvements, we would not have been able to offer a degree in computer engineering,” Giguette says. “We need the labs for hardware instruction.”
Another reason Xavier can do this now, but could not before, is that the university has a larger faculty with a broader range of expertise, Baker says.
“We have a substantial computer science department, professors with expertise in robotics and faculty conducting research in material science and image processing, collectively providing the foundation for the computer engineering program,” he says.



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