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Bridging the Gap That Divides America

The early 1970s, the aftermath of the civil rights movement, was a
time of great promise for America’s minority population. Nowhere was
the promise greater than in engineering. Engineering was the nation’s
largest profession, the root of its economic development, the source of
wealth creation. It was a field in which half of the CEOs of Fortune
500 companies had earned their stripes.

While African Americans were still virtually invisible in
engineering — comprising only 1 percent of the engineering workforce
— the social, political, and economic pressures of the day demanded
change. Corporate, academic, and government leaders, recognizing that
the historical exclusion of minorities deprived the profession of
desperately needed talent, vigorously championed equal opportunity

Progress during the ensuing quarter century has been no less
astounding. Under-represented minorities are almost 6 percent of
today’s engineering workforce. Universities produce more than 6,000
minority B.S. graduates in engineering annually, up from just a few
hundred thirty years ago. Since 1980, NACME (National Action Council
for Minorities in Engineering) alone has invested more than $110
million in its programs, yielding 6,700 engineering graduates.

The story, however, does not have a happy ending. The 6,422 African
American, Latino, and American Indian B.S. degrees in engineering in
1997 comprised only 10 percent of the total. The 197 minority
doctorates granted in 1997 amounted to only 2.8 percent of the total —
this from ethnic groups that make up 28.5 percent of the college-age

More discouraging than the number of degrees, however, is the
current climate of resistance. The well-organized, well-funded, and
effectively articulated anti-affirmative action movement is sweeping
the nation with litigation, voter initiatives, and legislative action
pending in at least sixteen states.

The climate not only threatens further progress but jeopardizes the
gains already achieved. There were 1,574 fewer minority freshmen in the
entering engineering class of 1996 than there were in 1992, a 10.4
percent decline. African American enrollment was hit the hardest,
experiencing a devastating 16.2 percent drop.

Perhaps the greatest danger is that recent court decisions are
driving us further and further toward one-dimensional criteria — such
as standardized test results — in determining university admissions.
We already know that, for minority students, standardized tests do not
yield a good measure of their academic potential. The tests are much
more reflective of parental education and income.

A more authentic assessment in selecting students for college
admissions would involve measurable attributes which are highly
correlated with academic achievement and career advancement — such as
analytic thinking, creativity, determination, and commitment.

As efforts to bring minorities into the economic mainstream meet
with increasing hostility, the demand for engineers is growing
explosively. During the past four years, actual engineering employment
increased almost 20 percent — from 1.7 million to 2.1 million.
Unemployment for engineers is virtually nonexistent. Moreover, there
are almost 200,000 unfilled jobs in computer and information
technology. The average starting salary for 1997 engineering graduates
with only a bachelor’s degree rivaled the average starting salaries for
1997 law school graduates.

To meet our workforce needs, the United States now relies heavily
on foreign-born engineers. More than 65,000 immigrated in 1995 — as
many as American universities produced that year. Forty percent of the
doctoral engineers in the United States are foreign born, as were 30
percent of American engineering faculty. This over-reliance on foreign
engineers while neglecting the development of intellectual talent from
all segments of our own population, makes the United States very
vulnerable in a world where other nations are rapidly expanding their
investments in research and development, and are aggressively
recruiting engineers.

We cannot successfully continue down the path we’re headed as a
nation — divided into haves and have-nots, stratified by ethnicity and
with limited access to higher education. The gains we’ve made are
tenuous, and the infrastructure that supports them is fragile.
Eliminating policies that create equity stress our moral fabric and
imperils the standard of living for all Americans.

Dr. George Campbell Jr. President and CEO NACME, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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