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 dividefunded by a $3.2 million National Science
Foundation grantwith 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.
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
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 departmentthe
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 increasewhich 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,
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.