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Breaking New Ground on Faculty Diversity in STEM Fields

Just over 10 years after releasing a groundbreaking report on the status of their women faculty, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has made public a much-anticipated review of their small community of underrepresented minority faculty in an effort to shed light on the need for greater diversity within the MIT professoriate. The importance of faculty diversity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields cannot be overstated. Faculty represent the face of their institution and carry a great responsibility in that they exemplify, in the eyes of many students, the profile of individuals that successfully generate and disseminate knowledge.


A key strategy to increasing diversity in STEM majors is increasing the number of tenured faculty who stand at the front of STEM classrooms. Furthermore, growing the number of diverse faculty translates into the expansion of learning through diversity of thought, pedagogy, and life experiences. As higher education scholars have repeatedly shown, diverse learning environments not only result in positive learning outcomes, but they are critical to sustaining a democratic citizenry.


MIT is a leader among both highly selective and technical institutions when it comes to undergraduate diversity, with one quarter of the class of 2013 representing students from underrepresented minority backgrounds (and, laudably, 45 percent women). Yet, U.S.-born minority faculty represent just 3.5 to 4 percent of the more than 1,000 professors employed by the university.


As one of the world’s preeminent contributors to innovative thought and scientific discovery, MIT is in a position of national responsibility to not only assert the need for racial and ethnic diversity in STEM, but to create the change that other selective campus leaders should seek to emulate.


The Institute must also look outside its own halls of inquiry and turn to the practices of colleges and universities that are successfully moving underrepresented students through the STEM pipeline. Majority-population campuses like MIT could learn a great deal from minority-serving institutions – colleges and universities that educate many of the nation’s students of color and successfully launch the education of the majority of doctorate and professional degree holders from minority backgrounds in the United States. Expanding the institutional network by which faculty are recruited – including potential partnerships with MSIs and other institutions that graduate a large number of minority undergraduate and graduate students – is a first and necessary step to increasing diversity in the professoriate.


What can other campus leaders learn from this report? A great deal. The authors continually point to the use of their findings in other institutional settings, including the need to pay critical attention to faculty peer mentoring relationships and the importance of supporting faculty in the first three to five years of the tenure process. Also critical is creating an environment in which faculty and the overall campus community can discuss issues of race openly. For this to occur, however, faculty, departmental leaders, and other senior administrators must be held accountable for promoting an inclusive environment.


On a final note, if campuses are to embark upon similar analysis as presented in the MIT report, they must do so in an empirically rigorous fashion and draw upon a broad community of STEM professionals and social scientists to direct the analysis and dissemination of this important and much needed work. To reach the next generation of scientists, we must speak their language. And, to create change, we must embrace the practices and culture of the communities we seek to impact.


Dr. Lorelle L. Espinosa is the director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based independent, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world.

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