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From our readers



The October 2002 article in Prism titled "Facing the Problem" brought to mind the "elephant in the room" metaphor. It ignored or scarcely acknowledged issues that loom large and are highly pertinent.

First, most applicant pools for engineering Ph.D. study are not dominated by white U.S. males, but instead by foreign students with exceptionally diverse backgrounds. Many are from countries where women still are discouraged from advanced education, let alone engineering. We admit some of our best research students from this pool and they go on to dominate the pools of applicants received in faculty searches. Like most immigrants before them, ours in academia often experience discrimination in forms such as more rigorous admission and selection criteria, and the best work harder and are more inclined to make financial and lifestyle sacrifices to establish a better life in the future for themselves and their families. U.S.-born people of all races and genders seem much less inclined to endure added years of esoteric doctoral study just to take the low-paying faculty jobs at unranked universities or in states with less hospitable climates and amenities.

The relevant question here is why do the U.S.-born not find engineering doctoral studies and university faculty jobs more attractive than the careers to which they must be going? The article largely ignores that question. Only at the end of the side bar on page 21, in the quote from Kay C. Dee, does it come out that engineering faculty jobs might be less attractive than alternatives available to well-educated Americans. Finding answers to this dilemma could do far more to attract women and minorities than any of the reverse-discriminatory search policies advocated by various academic administrators quoted in the article. But, like with "the elephant in the room" metaphor, we might prefer not to contemplate or accept what those answers could be. For example, consider the irony that the criteria used for faculty hiring—dominantly research and publications—hold little interest or relevance for most students who go elsewhere, or for their employers. The article takes as gospel the requirement for a Ph.D. to become a faculty member. It thus ignores the legions of distinguished faculty, long since retired, whose education and practical experience of a different type made them legends still enshrined on their campuses in the names of buildings, endowed chairs, and scholarships, and in teaching and professional-service award plaques displayed in the halls by the offices of today's insular academics who fail to see the connections to the alumni and donors who made these memorials possible.

Sadly, while academia remains dominated by people with the selective vision and attitudes of some of those quoted in the article, I do not foresee much prospect for the changes espoused. Most if not all of the "tricks of the trade" suggested at the end of the article are already in practice and the results remain what we see.

Boyd C. Paulson, Jr.
Charles H. Leavell Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Stanford University

Someone "screwed up" big time in the October issue of Prism and in the request for diversity statistics. How did our country and the engineering profession come so far without worrying about diversity? The answer is simple. Diversity has absolutely nothing to do with engineering, and vice versa. Let's get real out there. If we can be diverse, the more the better. But to make diversity a prime topic is absurd, as any intelligent person knows. Please, get ASEE out of the political correctness business now.

John Barry Crittenden
Associate Professor, Division of Engineering Fundamentals
Virginia Tech

The cover of your October issue of Prism contains a statement with which I must take issue. I do not see the lack of diversity in engineering education as a major problem—or any kind of problem. I could say that the question of diversity does not interest me. But it interests me greatly. And I am positively hostile to any expenditure of money, effort, or ink to address it.

For at least 25 years now there has been no rational person in the United States who seriously thought his chances of getting an engineering education to be hindered by any association with the wrong race, class, or sex. The same applies in spades to the matter of who is doing the teaching. The record will show that I was practically alone at the time in calling for the encouragement of more women students in the 1960s when I was a professor at the University of Tennessee. And we saw great success in luring large numbers of black students into our engineering program in the following decade. Alas, their retention rates were not an indicator of glowing accomplishment.

In my strongly held opinion, the craze for diversity has been the cause of much grave damage to American academia. If this becomes a paramount factor in engineering education, it will only reduce it to the absurd depths pioneered by our elite liberal arts institutions. And if ASEE persists along that line, it may drive me out of its membership.

William E. Stillman
Former Associate Professor
University of Tennessee


As a former engineering professor at Old Dominion University, I must respond to the Last Word column in the September issue of Prism. While the problem that the authors address [attracting minorities to engineering] is certainly real, it is only a part of a larger problem. Furthermore, the hypothesis that engineering faculty bear primary responsibility for the lack of minorities in engineering education has not been justified to my satisfaction.

The larger problem, of which the small number of minority Ph.D.s is a part, is the small number of Ph.D.s awarded to U.S. citizens. A more accurate way for the authors to make their point would be to compare the number of Ph.D. degrees awarded to minorities to the number awarded to U.S. citizens, and then compare those to the number awarded to foreign nationals. It has been my experience, and that of my colleagues across the nation, that engineering colleges would do almost anything to increase the number of U.S. citizens (minorities and women especially) enrolled in graduate programs. The problem is principally one of economics.

Graduates with a B.S. in engineering are being offered salaries three to four times larger than the stipends they would receive as graduate students. Starting salaries for minorities and women are often more attractive because of the very shortage that the authors point out. These graduates often expect that they can go back to obtain a graduate degree later, but unfortunately few actually do so.

In my opinion, it is grossly unfair to lay the blame for a supposed hostile campus culture at the feet of the engineering faculty. In most engineering colleges, faculty promotion, tenure, and salaries are heavily weighted to reward external funding and publications, factors which far outweigh even teaching. Mentoring and encouraging students of any race or gender is not a factor—or may actually be a negative factor, since time spent with students takes away from time that could be spent securing external funding and writing more papers.

I believe there is substantial evidence that most engineering colleges have moved from the belief that research is a by-product of education to the belief that education is a by-product of research. If there is a culture at engineering universities that is hostile to minorities (and I believe the culture may be hostile to all students), the responsibility lies at the feet of college and university administrators who have abandoned the aims of higher education in favor of the business of research.

Donald L. Kunz
Contractor, Westar Corporation
Yorktown, Va.