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Getting to Know Dr. Juan A. Gilbert

Getting to Know Dr. Juan A. Gilbert

Can computer software help college admissions officers create a diverse freshman class? 

Dr. Juan A. Gilbert thinks so.

The 37-year-old Auburn University associate professor of computer science and software engineering has developed a program that can sort thousands of student applicants by academic performance, geographic background, socio-economic status, gender, race and other attributes, allowing admissions officers to build a freshman class that is a mosaic of of student types. 

“When you do a holistic comparison of applicants, you’re going to be able to get some of everybody into your student pool,” Gilbert says.

The idea for the software came to Gilbert after the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action. Even though the court allowed the race of applicants to be considered, Gilbert feared schools might drop race-conscious affirmative action practices to avert the risk of lawsuits. He recognized that schools could benefit from tools to help them provide holistic evaluations of their applicants.

So Gilbert developed “Applications Quest” software, which organizes students into clusters based on a range of shared characteristics chosen by admissions offices. The officers can then select the person who best adds to the overall diversity of the class — or they can just adjust the variables and regroup the students.

“This is an opportunity for admissions offices to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and promote holistic diversity within their respective institutions in a fair and equitable manner that does not disenfranchise any individual or group,” Gilbert says.

Half a dozen universities are quietly testing the software, which Auburn University and Gilbert are offering for free.

Gilbert was the first member of his working-class, Hamilton, Ohio, family to attend college. He earned a bachelor’s in applied science from Miami University of Ohio and a master’s and doctorate in computer science from the University of Cincinnati.

He has made a career-long quest of helping recruit and retain underserved and under-represented minorities. At Auburn, Gilbert and two other African-American colleagues have worked to recruit Black doctoral students into their program. In spring 2006, Auburn had 13 of the nation’s 160 Black computer science doctoral students, more than any other one institution.

This month, Gilbert presides over the Brothers of the Academy’s 2006 Think Tank conference in Atlanta, with BOTA’s affiliate, Sisters of the Academy. As the newly inaugurated president of the national organization, Gilbert has vowed to make the organization the nation’s most visible and most community outreach-oriented of minority academic groups.

Gilbert also leads a National Science Foundation program, underwritten by a three-year $385,000 grant. The NSF program focuses on minority doctoral computer science students, as he once was.

Currently, only 53 of the 5,179 computer science and computer engineering faculty in North America are Black — numbers Gilbert is determined to improve.

“I’ve always had the desire to build things and fix problems,” Gilbert says. “I’m having a great time. I couldn’t have asked for a better life.”

 — By Ronald Roach

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