Prism - September 2002
Engineering Their Way to the Top
A Quiet Sort of Revolutionary
Feeling The Pinch
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Last Word

Right Under Our Noses

- By Daryl E. Chubin and John Brooks Slaughter

We might call it a “stunted pipeline.” Fed by decades of uneven pre-college preparation, appalling undergraduate student retention, a seeming indifference to attracting minorities to graduate study, and a campus climate welcoming of some but not others, the absence of minority faculty members in engineering education comes as no surprise. The American Association for Engineering Education's fall 2001 survey of teaching faculty tells the tale in stark terms: barely 1,000 African Americans, American Indians, and Latinos are among the 25,000 engineering educators in the nation's colleges and universities. This is the legacy of a stunted pipeline.

Engineering—as a profession and academic field—has been slow to respond to demographic shifts and compete for talented minority students. And that must change. At every juncture in the pathway from school to the workplace, minorities and women leave engineering at higher rates than non-minority men. This cannot be explained by waning interest in the coursework or lack of skills alone. Rather, another hypothesis must be considered: Something in the environment or campus culture signals that certain students are cut out for engineering and others are not (this is an insidious stereotype—no more, no less).

Who are the purveyors of this culture? The engineering faculty. We don't have to look far to see the results. Historically, about 9 percent of college freshmen seek degrees in engineering. Most of those baccalaureates in engineering—nationally, 2 in 5 minority students and 2 in 3 nonminority students who graduate—form the pool of graduate applicants in engineering. Many who go on to obtain a Ph.D. opt to teach in institutions of higher education. Today, only 8 percent of those faculty members are women and 2 percent are minorities. There could be many more, but we lose them as much due to what we—as faculty, mentors, and role models—fail to do as what the students fail to do, learn, or aspire to achieve.

Do engineering faculty members in the United States help students succeed? Or do they pride themselves on watching students fail? If the answer is the latter, the profession is in the death-grip of an outmoded “best and brightest” mentality, a condition by which science suffers so miserably. Such a mentality robs the nation of many prospective American-born engineers. The demographics of the student population tell us who's coming to college, but those same demographics cannot predict the choices students will make—which fields, which professions, and which careers. That's where faculty members come in. Indeed, they may be the single most potent influence on who comes, and who ultimately joins them as colleagues.

According to the ASEE survey, one Ph.D. is granted for every 10 bachelor's degrees awarded. In 2001, 20 percent of bachelor's recipients in engineering were women, and less than 12 percent were minorities. In absolute numbers, 1,000 women and barely 200 minorities earned a Ph.D. in engineering last year. You only have to do the math to see how far engineering needs to go for minorities to reach parity in degree awards relative to their numbers in the general population. The time to act was the 1980s, a generation ago, when the future composition of the school-aged population became clear. Hundreds of reports and studies later— federal, foundation, and corporate alike—coupled with affirmative action laws that are now under assault, little has changed. It's regret time now, but not too late to intervene.

Some institutions have done just that. Minority-serving institutions figured it out a long time ago. These are the schools that demonstrate faculty dedication, campus leadership, and good use of research. Their faculty members know how to instill confidence, employ group learning and teamwork, and prepare a generation of engineers that are more representative of the population. They understand that “diversity” does not refer just to the student body. Instead, a campus must demonstrate pluralism and inclusivity from the topmost administrators to the support staff. Above all, faculty members must assume responsibility for the success of minorities.

ASEE should be commended for quantifying the national dimensions of the problem. The data documents an unequivocal reality: Engineering schools have the capability to produce more minority members. But do they have the will? In 2001, 45 universities employed engineering teaching faculty that numbered 140 or more. Faculty and administrators at those and other engineering institutions must examine their practices and traditions, re-examine their networks and strategies for recruitment and hiring, and resolve either to compete for talented minorities or concede it to other fields, professions, and nations. The solution, like the problem, is right under our noses.

Daryl E. Chubin is Senior Vice President, Policy & Research, at the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), Inc.
John Brooks Slaughter is President and CEO of NACME.
The authors can be reached at nacme@asee.org.

 

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