Six years ago Dr. Onyeka Ezenwoye received his doctorate in computer science from Florida International University in Miami. He was the first Black person to enroll in the program and the first to complete it.
Two other Blacks enrolled before he graduated—and that was it.
Though minorities have made advancements in academia, like assuming presidencies of prestigious universities or chancellorships of large college systems, STEM is still an area where minorities are lacking. At most STEM programs at the colleges and universities nationwide, diversity, not just among students, but among the faculty, is the exception, not the norm.
According to data from the National Science Foundation, the percentage of underrepresented minority faculty has remained flat over the last 20 years, hovering at just a little over 5 percent. In contrast, the percentage of women in STEM faculty positions has soared to about 25 percent.
Many attribute the low numbers of minority STEM faculty to a variety of factors, including a weak pipeline at the K-12 level in predominantly minority, public school systems that fail to prepare most young people for the rigors of mathematics and science; a dearth of jobs in academia coupled with an inflexible system for hiring faculty; and the availability of attractive options in industry and national labs for STEM doctorate degree holders.
“We know that among all recipients of Ph.D.s in science and engineering, regardless of race and ethnicity, fewer than half will end up in academia,” says Dr. Keivan Stassun, a professor of physics and astronomy at Vanderbilt University, adjunct professor of physics and co-director of the Bridge Program—a partnership between Fisk and Vanderbilt that aims to boost the number of underrepresented minorities earning doctorates in the STEM fields.
“There are only so many academic positions, and there are multiple ways for individuals to be engaged in and contribute to the STEM workforce,” Stassun adds. “We very much need to increase representation of minorities in national labs. We very much need to increase representation of minorities in [research and development] in industry. They all represent successful outcomes for engaging the domestic talent pool in the STEM work force.”
Ezenwoye, now an assistant professor of computer science at the Georgia Regents University in Augusta, Ga., says he chose to go into academia after graduation because he believed it gave him the option to teach and do research.
“I thought academia was a better option because it gave me the sort of flexibility I needed,” he says, adding that one of his job offers was from a national lab in Oregon. “I thought the progress I would make professionally was better in academia. In academia you can go all the way [to full professor]. In your later years, you can go into administration, whereas at a national lab you’re pretty much doing research the whole time.”
But many minorities with newly minted STEM Ph.D.s don’t have options, particularly in the academy.
Dr. Richard Tapia, a mathematician and Maxfield-Oshman professor in engineering at Rice University, says the low number of minority STEM faculty is due, in part, to a hiring process that sometimes overlooks candidates who are not graduates of elite programs, as well as a hiring system that vests much of the decision making in a faculty selection committee with rigid rules.
Tapia—a child of Mexican immigrants who has served on Rice’s faculty for 40 years and in 2011 received the National Medal of Science from the White House—has long been a champion of diversity in U.S. education. He says universities need to expand their criteria for recruiting and hiring faculty members.
“We need to look at a broader spectrum of people” who have the potential of being better teachers, mentors and researchers, he says.
Although Tapia has earned many notable awards over the years for his scholarship and mentorship of graduate students and faculty, he doubts he could pass muster with many faculty search committees today.
“You have to look more at broader criteria for hiring,” he says, “such as the ability to mentor students, work with students, direct programs, build support programs and make everybody feel like they belong. There’s a traditional model for hiring and they [the faculty search committees] don’t want to deviate from that.”
Tapia says underrepresented minorities are not broadly represented at universities that offer doctorates in STEM fields.
Many schools, he says, like to hire faculty from certain types of schools, usually institutions that they are familiar with or fit a certain profile in terms of prestige or ranking. For example, he says, a STEM department at a school like Stanford is more likely to hire a graduate of a school of equal stature, such as Harvard, Princeton or the University of California at Berkley. Tapia says that, at many of these top schools, the percentage of underrepresented minorities is very low. That presents a separate set of challenges in getting hired at one of the elite schools, he says.
“We’re not everywhere,” he says. “We need to be everywhere.”
Still, everyone agrees that the real work in nurturing STEM talent for the academy must begin at the K-12 level.
“The pipeline is leaking in several areas,” says Dr. Sonya Smith, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Howard University, which runs a charter school devoted to improving proficiency in mathematics and science. “The K-12 is one area that needs addressing.”
Tapia notes that a disproportionately high percentage of minority students are educated in city school districts that underperform academically. This, he says, puts them at a serious disadvantage in their ability to handle a curriculum in mathematics and science.
Dr. Larry L. Earvin, president of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin and a longtime advocate for science education, says the frequency that teachers change jobs, particularly at schools in the inner city, negatively impacts the ability of students to master science and mathematics.
“So there is no long-term engagement,” says Earvin, whose college offers a seven-week summer pre-freshman engineering program for minority students from Central Texas middle and high schools and a weeklong robotics camp for girls. “Where you find teachers who stay for a long time, you find different results.”
Dr. Arnold Burger, a professor of physics at Fisk and a coordinator of the Bridge program, says the absence of a large number of role-model scientists makes it harder to attract young minorities to STEM and ultimately to the academy.
“Many students think about becoming engineers rather than scientists,” he says. “It takes someone to really influence them or direct them into becoming scientists.”
Stassun says filling the pipeline also needs to happen at the graduate school level. He notes that graduate programs place a heavy emphasis on quantitative factors like GRE scores. But minorities and women are more likely to get lower scores on these exams than White males, he says. The Bridge program takes into account other factors besides standardized exams, including grit, performance and undergraduate academic preparation. By combining these attributes with other issues, such as undergraduate preparation, explains Stassun, officials at Fisk and Vanderbilt have learned how to best identify talented graduate students who can go the distance.
Since Bridge was established nine years ago, only three out of more than 60 students that enrolled in the program, which begins at the master’s level and concludes with a doctorate at one of several top universities around the country, have dropped out, says Burger. Six students have so far attained their doctorates. Several others are expected to follow in the coming months.
Fisk and Vanderbilt officials hope their program could serve as a model for the rest of the country.