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PAVING THE WAY

By Margaret Loftus

UAN GILBERT had reached his breaking point. He was a Ph.D. student in computer science at Ohio State University and his adviser, who had been turned down for tenure, had just left. No other professor in his department had an interest in his research in human computer interaction. Gilbert was ready to give up his dream of becoming a professor and get a job in industry. In all his years of schooling, he had never even seen an African American who had a Ph.D. in computer science. “I thought maybe it wasn't going to happen,” he recalls. “I didn't know if there were any of us out there.”

Then, by chance, he met Andrea Lawrence. When he first spied her at a conference, he assumed the African-American woman was one of the psychologists interested in human computer interaction. Upon introducing himself, he learned she not only had a Ph.D. in computer science but was a full professor and department head at Georgia Tech. When he confided to her that he was on the verge of leaving academia, she told him she had experienced a similar setback while working toward her doctorate. Lawrence encouraged him to transfer programs and offered her help. “She introduced me to the community of African- American computer scientists.” Thanks to Lawrence, Gilbert got back on track at the University of Cincinnati. Today he is a professor in computer science at Auburn University and is collaborating on a research project on the digital divide—funded by a $3.2 million National Science Foundation grant—with Lawrence and three other African-American computer science professors from across the country.

Gilbert credits his meeting and subsequent collaboration with Lawrence to luck. Now he and other professors are working to create a more formal community of African Americans in engineering education in which nothing is left to chance. Through their work with local and national programs, like Brothers of the Academy, a network of black male scholars, of which Gilbert is a founding member, these academics hope to attract more African Americans to the academy and, ultimately, help them achieve tenure.

As it is, African-American males make up just 2.6 percent of full-time faculty nationwide. Last year, 587 doctorates were earned by African-American men. That's half the number awarded to African-American women and 2.2 percent of the total. It was this scarcity that led Lee Jones, an associate professor of educational leadership at Florida State University, to found Brothers of the Academy. After a 1998 meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Jones and a few other African-American professors were chatting in a hotel lobby. “We discovered that there weren't many of us at a conference of 10,000 people. Rather than complain about it, we [decided we] should do something about it.” The Brothers, who call themselves “new jack professors,” wanted to create a network to encourage each other and nurture young black scholars. Since then, the Brothers have spread the word by giving speeches, sponsoring conferences like the 2003 Think Tank in Kansas City last fall, and publishing a book, Brothers of the Academy: Up and Coming Black Scholars Earning Our Way in Higher Education (Stylus Publishing, 2000). Next year, they'll start their own publication, the Journal of the Black Professoriate. Today, the group has 200 members and four employees and has just spun off its sister group, Sisters of the Academy, to its new home at Auburn University.

Of course, this sort of community is nothing new. Gilbert points to international scholars in computer science and engineering, Asians and Indians in particular. “You never just find one of them, there is always a collection,” he says. “The ethnicity of the faculty is related to the ethnicity of the student body.” For example, he says, if there are a lot of Chinese faculty, there is no doubt a large contingent of Chinese students. When he was a student, Gilbert says, he thought many international students were successful because they were better prepared, “but what I found out is that they had better support systems.”

Creating that support early on is crucial to raising the numbers of black Ph.D.s, especially in engineering, says Frank Snowden, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Minnesota. He runs the school's Community of Scholars program, which lends support to underrepresented minorities working toward their doctorates. Among students who pursue engineering, 27 percent had someone in their family who is an engineer and an additional 13 percent knew an engineer while growing up. In a vicious Catch 22, that excludes many African Americans. For example, growing up in a small farming community in North Carolina, Terry Alford, now a materials science and engineering professor at Arizona State University (ASU), did extremely well in math and science but never considered a career in engineering until a librarian from his junior high school suggested he apply to North Carolina State's Minorities Introduction to Engineering program. “A lot of minorities don't go into engineering because they don't see the social validity of it,” says Tonya Smith-Jackson, a human factors engineering professor at Virginia Tech. “Engineering has done a very poor job of showing students ways that engineering can help the masses.”

Snowden is trying to change that through the University of Minnesota's Material Research Science and Engineering Center's outreach program. In the hope of fostering interest in the discipline in classrooms, the program funds middle and high school teachers' summer research projects in materials science. Although it doesn't focus solely on minorities, the program's track record is impressive: last year 35 percent were minorities; 22 percent, African American.


FITTING IN

But attracting African Americans to engineering is just the first step. Pursuing a career in academia is a whole other challenge. “Quite a few of us are the first generation in our families to go to college,” notes ASU's Alford, “so we weren't really exposed to the career path of becoming a professor.” Indeed, when Alford decided to get his Ph.D., his family was apprehensive. “They said, ‘Everybody should go out and get a job. All you do is go to school, you've got to become a responsible adult sometime in your life.'” Brothers founder Jones remembers being told by a professor in graduate school at Ohio State University, “You people don't get graduate degrees.” He later sent copies of his two master's degrees and Ph.D. in organizational development to the offending professor. “I run into students all the time who are told, very subtly, that the environment is not for them,” says Jones. “It happens more than people realize.”

Such lack of support can make for a long and lonely road through graduate school. When Alford arrived at Cornell from N.C. State to get his Ph.D., he realized he wasn't just the only black in his class, but the only one for miles. “Now I'm in the middle of the woods in upstate New York,” he recalls, “It was like, ‘You're no longer in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.'” He took comfort by delving into his research. “Grad school can get very isolating,” says Gilbert. Through Brothers, members can network with other members across the country. “It helps just to know there is someone out there moving along in their career,” says Gilbert. “It doesn't matter if they are in the next state, it can provide a sense of community.” Today, Alford strongly encourages his graduate students to consider the academic life. “When you are working with a student who is struggling with a concept and through your training and sheer luck you see that light bulb go on in their brain and they say ‘thank you,'” he says, “there's nothing like it.”

Then there is the unpredictable business of tenure. Brothers can help younger members navigate the often murky waters on the road to full professorship. Snowden advises his Ph.D. students who are interested in becoming tenured to find out as much as they can about the culture of the department in which they are considering working. In his department, for example, the number of new hires matches the number of tenured positions available. Not so at some schools, where the coveted tenure spots are reserved for those who are lucky enough to be well mentored and connected.

By matching members with common research interests, Brothers is fostering the collaborative research projects that are so crucial in attaining tenure. For example, as a direct result of Brothers, Gilbert is working with Jerlando Jackson, a professor of higher education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a fellow Brothers member, on a software project to help college admission counselors analyze applications. “It's that network and collaboration that help you advance your career.” As a result, Gilbert will likely get tenure when he goes up for it next year.

But he isn't waiting to share his success. Today, he is advising four African-American Ph.D. students he personally recruited, out of a total of 15 African Americans in Auburn's computer science department—the largest collection nationwide. Today, there are about five computer science Ph.D.s awarded to African Americans each year. Gilbert is optimistic that the number will increase—which is not only good for the Brothers but for everybody. “The only way to advance our society is through diversity,” he says. “The more diverse the group of engineers, the better the solutions.”

 

Margaret Loftus is a freelance writer in St. Michaels, Md.
She can be reached at mloftus@asee.org.

 

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