ASEE Prism Magazine - October 2002
Facing The Problem
All The RIght Moves
Natural Borne Killers
Teaching Toolbox
ASEE Today
Last Word
Back Issues

Facing the Problem

Everyone knows that engineering education has trouble attracting women, African-Americans, and Hispanics to its ranks. Now, a new study shows just how bad the problem is.

- By Margaret Mannix

Bleak. Shocking. Appalling.

Those are just a few of the words used to describe the puny number of minority faculty members at colleges of engineering across the country. Given the actual statistics, those terms could be considered mild. According to the American Society for Engineering Education, last year women comprised 8.9 percent of tenure/tenure-track faculty in engineering schools. The percentage of Hispanic professors in the same category was 2.9, while African-American professors comprised 2.1 percent. Of course, the dearth is no surprise to leaders in engineering academia and industry, many of whom have strived to increase those rates for several years. But addressing the minority deficit has never been at a more critical juncture. “What was once a moral obligation to promote diversity by providing equal opportunity for interesting, high-paying careers for all citizens is now a national imperative,” Kristina Johnson, dean of Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering, told Congress in July. “Simply put, unless we bring more women and minorities into science and engineering fields, we will not have the intellectual capital to address the major economic, environmental, health, and security issues facing our nation. Developing our underutilized human resources can be our competitive advantage.”

There does seem to be a ray of hope on the horizon. In 2001, the prevalence of female assistant professors was measured at 18 percent. While not an earth-shattering figure, the rate does signify that colleges of engineering are moving in the right direction.

Most everyone associated with engineering in higher education agrees that the root of the problem lies in the abysmally low number of females and minorities that graduate from Ph.D. programs each year. “You cannot increase the faculty overnight if you don't have the available pool from which to pull,”says Eugene DeLoatch, dean of the School of Engineering at Morgan State University. Thankfully, many colleges of engineering, professional groups, and industry members have been working hard to up the ranks of doctoral graduates (see box).

Still, increasing graduate enrollment is a long-term solution. What can colleges of engineering do now to increase the diversity of their staffs? “I think institutions just have to get real,” says John Brooks Slaughter, president and CEO of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering. “They can't do business as usual and expect that it is going to attract minority faculty members. It is not easy.”

You can say that again. Whether small or large, public or private, colleges of engineering say increasing diversity among their faculty is a major goal. Even those schools that have records others envy are struggling. “We have done much better in hiring women than we have in hiring minorities,” says Narl Davidson, associate dean of engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology. “The number of women we have hired has continued to increase, and we are now over 10 percent.” But it's not the same story with African-Americans and Hispanics. “We have pretty much plateaued at a pretty low level,”says Davidson. “The competition is stiffer, and we need to ratchet it up a little.”

Unfortunately, no one can provide a road map to a diverse faculty roster. Instead, engineering deans, chairs, and committees tasked with recruiting try a little of this and a little of that, tossing what fails and fine-tuning what seems promising. “Everybody's feeling their own way,” says David Wormley, dean of the College of Engineering at Pennsylvania State University. That may mean rethinking the status quo. “Faculty hiring is the most traditional, most conservative, and most out of date of processes of any processes we use in universities,” says Richard Tapia, professor of Computational and Applied Mathematics at Rice University's George R. Brown School of Engineering.


Recruiting 101

Denice Denton, dean of the University of Washington's College of Engineering, has found success in going back to square one. “One of the key issues is that in academia we tend not to be very good at human resource-related issues—not just in engineering but in all of academia,” says Denton. “We don't tend to build the skills among faculty that they are going to need to take on greater responsibilities down the line.”

Take the four to six members of your average search committee, says Denton. Maybe they've been on such a committee before, but maybe not. “How will they know how to do it?” asks Denton. “ I am in no way denigrating the talent of the faculty. If you don't provide people with skills and they are just winging it, they are not going to do as good a job as if they are provided with information and skills.” That's why the University of Washington has developed a “Faculty Recruitment Toolkit,” which explains the nuts and bolts of a faculty search—with an emphasis on diversifying the applicant pool.

More than anything, success in this endeavor lies in a school's commitment. “The thing that makes a difference is intention,” says Davidson. “It takes work to identify candidates, follow their careers, and eventually successfully woo them.” It helps immensely if the commitment is an institutional priority. When you bring people to interview at the campus and it is not a priority anywhere else, “your candidates can sense that,” says Davidson.

Of course, that commitment comes much easier if it starts at the top. “We have six underrepresented minorities,” says Tapia. “That's not by accident. That's because the president is sensitive, the provost is sensitive, and the dean is sensitive.” If academic leaders are up to the task, the rest comes naturally. Denton says that means going beyond hiring two junior women each year. Give more women and minorities endowed chairs. “Senior people are the ones who are in a position to affect the change. Import the leadership you need to get the job done,” says Denton, who can't stress enough the importance of deans and department chairs taking on personal responsibility for the search process. “There is a fine line here. This is not micro-managing. I work closely with them [the search committee] to ensure they have the support to be successful.”

One of the most important jobs of the leadership is to track progress. “It's relatively easy to find out the availability of minorities in different disciplines,” says Janie Fouke, dean of the College of Engineering at Michigan State University. “You look at Ph.D. graduates last year.” If eight percent were, say, African-Americans, and there are fewer than eight percent in the applicant pool, “I want to know why,” says Fouke. Of course, the number of doctoral graduates dwarfs the number who will choose the academic route. But it's a benchmark, says Fouke. “If you don't measure it, if you don't track it, how are you going to change? How are you going to know that you changed?”

Many deans say the applicant pool is key to the diversity recruiting process. Dean Ilene Busch-Vishniac of the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University says her school will not interview one single candidate unless there is some diversity in the pool. “This is important, because typically what you do is you look to the candidate pool. If it isn't terribly diverse, you choose those you think are best,” says Busch-Vishniac. “You find by and large that it's pale and male.”

Fouke is also a stickler for broadening any applicant pool. “If you bring me a pool that has all white males in it, I will not sign it.” And she makes sure the search committees know that from the start. Why? Because no matter what you do, says Fouke, the modified pool will be considered second class. “The fact that you have had to go back and do that in order to meet that need is going to put a stigma on that person whether we interview them or not, whether they are brilliant or not. Do not do that to your colleagues.”


Two For One

One of Johns Hopkins' diversity strategies takes full advantage of a diverse applicant pool. The engineering school reserves a few positions for candidates who will enhance its diversity. Say a search is being conducted for a biomedical engineering position, says Busch- Vishniac. There are 10 interviews, resulting in five acceptable hires—which are then ranked. “Suppose number one is a white male,” says Busch-Vishniac. “If person number two happens to be a Hispanic female, let's make two offers instead of one. By doing it that way, we are making sure we are not compromising in quality.” We are simply holding back a few positions for those eventualities, she says, that “could make a dramatic change by making an additional offer.”

Several deans also stress that curricula vitae may need to be read in a new light, as the credentials and backgrounds of underrepresented groups do not typically mirror those of the majority. “So they [underrepresented groups] are less likely to be invited in to be interviewed,” says Busch-Vishniac. “You have to look for expertise in unexpected forms,” says Fouke, who suggests looking more carefully at, say, those with government experience.

Obviously, one of the most popular and successful recruiting methods is to identify promising applicants early on in their careers and lives. “Most new minority faculty coming into schools are probably coming fresh out of Ph.D. schools,” says Wormley. “We really look very hard at who graduates at other universities. We would try to keep in touch with Georgia Tech and find out who is graduating in their various degree programs. It really requires being somewhat proactive.”

Reaching out to the engineering community and organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers can help with the introductions. “If you can get to the leadership of some of those organizations, letting them know what you want, they can shoot people your way,” says Denton. Talk to other engineering schools and ask for recommendations. Develop relationships with historically minority universities. Meet a potential candidate at a professional or industry conference, introduce yourself, and keep in touch.

But networking isn't what you would call, ahem, an engineer's strong suit. “This is all about relationship-building, and it is an area that engineers tend not to focus on,” says Denton. In fact, engineers “are just not out of the quadrant of extrovert. To ask a big group of people like that to become people-oriented and fuzzy and warm, that's a stretch. We have people that do rocket science. If they can do rocket science, they can do this.”


Tricks of the Trade

Indeed, many engineering deans have developed their own recruiting methods. While no single method works like magic, all—with the future of engineering at stake—are worth a try. In total, these methods should help keep the push toward diversity at full speed. Here's some advice from the trenches:

Grow your own. “We need to reach out more,” says James Johnson, dean of Howard University's College of Engineering, Architecture & Computer Sciences. “Faculty in majority institutions need to look at minority students and identify them and encourage them” to choose a career in academia. In his civil engineering department, for example, he boasts three female minority professors—one a Ph.D. from the University of California-Berkeley, another from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the third from Johns Hopkins. But guess what? “All went to Howard undergrad,” says Johnson.

Consider your own graduates. The culture of not hiring a school's own graduates has got to go, says Davidson. “One of the things we are starting to look at very strongly is our own minority graduates, because we graduate some of the best. We will look at our own graduates more closely.”

Poach. It's the old supply and demand thing. Engineering departments are not shy about raiding each other's ranks. “We are playing musical chairs. We are stealing from each other,” says Roland Haden, the just retired dean of the Dwight Look College of Engineering at Texas A&M University. Howard University, for example, recently hired minority professors from Cornell University, North Carolina State University, and Florida State. “It goes both ways,” says Johnson, “and we hope to keep the positive net on our side.”

Reach out. That Florida State prof now at Howard? “I saw him at an NSBE conference,” says Johnson. “There should be people courting him much more than I did,” says Johnson, pointing to his new hire's credentials from a top 10 institution in computer engineering. “If you are not where they [minority candidates] are, you cannot interface with them to find out who is out there and what kinds of things they are looking to do. You have to go where they come together.”

Go private. Given the bust, layoff mania, and the ever-expanding group of flailing corporations, engineers in the private sector might be ripe for wooing. Yes, it's tough to compete on salary, but some universities are finding that other factors can trump the money issue. DeLoatch, for example, says he recently hired an African-American engineer from a major corporation who jumped ship for one simple reason: to help increase the number of minorities in engineering.

Target advertisements. Place an ad in one of the ethnic-oriented engineering magazines. The American Indian Science and Engineering Society, NSBE, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and the Society of Women Engineers all boast magazines. A quarter-page ad may run $1,200, but it will get a lot of bang for its buck. The subscribers “are very loyal members, and they really rely on the publication to identify where areas of opportunity are,” says John Goodrich, director of advertising for the three latter magazines.

Hit the Internet. Barry J. Farbrother, dean of Ohio Northern University's Thomas Jefferson Smull College of Engineering, recently discovered that advertising a faculty position electronically—posting the position on three higher education job sites—wielded a plethora of minority candidates. (Farbrother turned to the Internet after a “very late resignation” by a faculty member, and he wanted to jump-start the interview process.) Of the three top candidates (out of a pool of 30), two are minorities. “In fact, the minority candidates are our first and second choices,” says Farbrother, noting that many online applications come from overseas.

Consider the world. Sometimes the ideal candidate lies outside American borders. The only way we can make significant increases in the near term is to hire international faculty, says Haden. “A number of our Hispanic faculty are actually from Mexico or Latin America.”

Polish your reputation. Make sure your own college offers a welcoming, hospitable atmosphere. “They [minority candidates] are not going to go where somebody says they are treated poorly,” says Johnson. Davidson points to a study his college undertook a few years ago that looked at the climate for women in engineering. “We found some problems that we have solved.” Davidson says, such as the feeling of isolation. Davidson has undertaken a similar study for minority engineering faculty and expects the results soon. Adds Fouke: “You certainly have to have a comfortable working environment because if you don't, the word gets out right away.”

Think creatively. Dianne Dorland, dean of the College of Engineering at Rowan University, attributes Rowan's success in hiring female faculty members—26 percent of her tenure-track faculty are women—to the clinic-oriented nature of engineering at Rowan. Students get hands-on experience initiating, developing research, and completing projects. The vibrancy of the clinics, says Dorland, was what clinched many hires. “It works, it absolutely works. We have attracted faculty from significant institutions like Stanford and MIT,” says Dorland. “I think our faculty and students can see an immediate benefit in terms of how we affect society, how we affect technology within our own area, how we affect our particular industries,” says Dorland. “They want to have a more immediate impact, and I think that might be part of why we are successful in attracting and keeping good faculty.”

Keep your eyes open. Fouke has been keeping tabs on three local women she has met recently who boast Ph.D.s in engineering. Her immediate goal: “I want them to teach one course,” says Fouke. “I want to keep them lively and interested. Two to three years from now they might be interested in a faculty position. If we were all doing that, there is no telling what our faculties would look like in 10 years.”

Initiate retention efforts. Supporting new talent goes a long way. “We recognize [the minority faculty],” says Dorland. “We reward them appropriately, and we continue to ask them for their ideas about and support for where we need to be going. They are definitely empowered to be active faculty in our college,” says Dorland. Many universities also boast mentoring programs, formal and informal, for faculty. Alert new hires to the existence of such programs—and groups. At the University of Washington, for example, there is an informal network of Latinas. “Making sure that a new Latina faculty member knows about that is an appropriate thing to do,” says Denton.

Even simple things mean a lot. “It's the people, stupid,” says Denton. “We just don't focus on our people. Let's have a nice office ready for them. Let's have a parking space for them. Let's do all that before they get there.”

Protect new hires. Avoid the every-committee syndrome. “Deans and chairs have to make sure that this individual is not being committeed to death,” says Denton. “because everyone else wants this young, African-American woman on his or her committee.”

No matter what steps universities are taking to recruit more minority faculty, the end result means a better future for the engineering profession. Since academia aims to prepare students to enter the work world, diversity among faculty remains a high priority. “The best way we can do that is to make sure students experience an environment here that parallels those workplaces,” says Farbrother. “To isolate students in a homogenous environment that isn't reflective of the workplace is a disservice to them.”

What's more, “an awful lot of what we do in engineering is design,” says Busch-Vishniac. “We are looking at a whole host of alternative solutions to problems and trying to evaluate which ones are best.” And the best way to bring all of the issues that lead to design is “to have as diverse a population as possible.” That also means in the classroom.




Margaret Mannix is a freelance writer based in suburban Washington, D.C.
She can be reached at

A Bumpy Pipeline

No matter whom you talk to about the dearth of female and minority faculty members at the nation's colleges of engineering, all agree that the optimum solution lies in increasing the pipeline of undergraduates headed for graduate school. Of the 6,085 Ph.D. graduates in engineering last year, only 16.9 percent were women. The percentage of African-American and Hispanic doctoral graduates was even worse—3.9 percent and 3.3 percent, respectively.

The booming economy of the go-go 90s exacerbated the situation. “The economy has been so hot, all the kids are going to work with bachelor's degrees—whether minority or majority,” says Roland Haden, dean of the Dwight Look College of Engineering at Texas A&M University. While the lingering recession that began in 2000 is causing a major headache for the economy and the population, it may be boon to engineering schools: Economic downturns typically lead to upticks in graduate school enrollment.

Still, the discipline can't depend on a tight job market to pump Ph.D. candidates into its pipeline. “We must find a way to attract, to stimulate, to encourage, and to do what is necessary to get more of the undergraduates to consider graduate school,” says Eugene DeLoatch, dean of the College of Engineering at Morgan State University.

One of the most successful efforts aimed at expanding the doctoral student head count belongs to the Georgia Institute of Technology. In 1991, its College of Engineering started the “FOCUS” program to encourage African-American students to pursue advanced degrees in engineering. Every year during Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday weekend, the school invites undergraduates—this year 350 were called—for three days of learning about the school, including various panel discussions and seminars. “We pitch Georgia Tech to them,” says Narl Davidson, interim dean of Georgia Tech's College of Engineering.

Some experts believe current faculty members need to take a more active role, talking up graduate school to undergrads. Say to them: “Have you ever thought of graduate school? That little set of words could do it. Coming from a faculty member, that is sometimes flattering,” says DeLoatch. Others urge
faculty to educate undergrads on what life as an academician is like. “If exposed to these opportunities as undergraduate and graduate students, perhaps they will continue studying for their doctorate and find that they enjoy the academic environment—thus increasing the numbers of minority faculty,” says Bruce Carr, director of the Minority Engineering Program at the University of Dayton.

With no critical mass of role models, though, that's a tough task. “There are no mentors; there is no encouragement,” says Cathy Trower, principal investigator of the Study of New Scholars at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. And “engineering is particularly non-nurturing.” Thankfully, a number of outside organizations have stepped in to fill the void. “We want to basically manage the pipeline from pre-college, undergraduate, graduate, and then moving into faculty,” says Delano White, national chairman of the National Society of Black Engineers. “Individuals that have already traveled that journey can help others to take that same journey,” says White. Other groups bent on erasing the Ph.D. deficit include the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees in Engineering and Science and the Women in Engineering Programs & Advocates Network.

But some in academia believe colleges of engineering need a major overhaul if they are ever to attract diverse faculty. “There is still the culture of ‘there is only one right way to get research, only one right way to get tenure, only one right way to move up,'” says Trower. “It's an isolated discipline, totally focused on your research, that doesn't leave much room for a life.”

That can be a big minus. Kay C. Dee, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Tulane University, can attest to that. Dee tells of two women Ph.D. students who entered the program with the intention of becoming faculty members. “They told me this was their calling,” says Dee. Alas, both have recently decided against academia. Why did they change their minds? One “was tired of seeing people get reamed,” says Dee, the other “wants to have a life.”

While sad, Dee says both are fair critiques. “During the semester, I work seven days a week,” says Dee. “That's the culture.” And the students see that. “I was supposed to be a good role model and bring people to academia,” says Dee. “They pretty much looked at my life and said ‘no thanks.'”