Universities Unite to Boost Number of Minority Ph.D. Students, Faculty

UC Berkeley Ph.D. student Sidney Hill. Photo by Michael Barnes and courtesy of UC Berkeley News.

UC Berkeley Ph.D. student Sidney Hill. Photo by Michael Barnes and courtesy of UC Berkeley News.

By Gretchen Kell, UC Berkeley News

An unprecedented alliance formed among four West Coast universities aims to remedy a seemingly intractable nationwide problem: Too few underrepresented minority Ph.D. students in the mathematical, physical and computer sciences and in engineering are advancing to postdoctoral and faculty ranks at top-tier research universities.

 

The new consortium – the California Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate– is being led by the University of California, Berkeley, and includes UCLA, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Stanford University.

The group has launched the project with a $2.2 million grant, which the National Science Foundation (NSF) provided to increase diversity in these targeted STEM fields at both universities and national labs.

Mark Leddy, the NSF’s program director, said the alliance “draws on the strength of the institutions involved and is developing a model for moving the needle in this area.”

“As we become an increasingly diverse state and nation, this is a crisis,” said Mark Richards, UC Berkeley’s executive dean of the College of Letters and Science.

“The participation of underrepresented minorities in academic STEM careers is especially important given the pivotal role that faculty members have as role models for future scientists and engineers,” he said.

Together, the four schools are creating a cross-institutional community of underrepresented minority Ph.D. students, postdoctoral scholars and faculty members in the targeted fields; developing faculty training to better recognize and help these students thrive and advance; and conducting research that includes annual surveys of Ph.D. students about what factors impact their attitudes, experiences and preparation for the future.

“Not everyone is made to go into these academic careers,” said Rebecca Hernandez, a Stanford Ph.D. student in environmental earth system science who was the first in her family to attend college and aspires to a tenure-track position at a top research university.

“But if we want to change the demographics, we have to have underrepresented minorities applying for faculty positions. So, what is it that’s making people feel discouraged? It’s a multi-factor problem,” she said.

Together, the four schools in the California Alliance produce almost 10 percent of the nation’s underrepresented minority Ph.D.s in the science and engineering fields that the alliance is targeting.

With UC Berkeley and Stanford in the north, and Caltech and UCLA in the south, they span the nation’s most populous and ethnically diverse state, are each other’s closest peer institutions and are similarly ranked.

Individually, the four institutions have explicit policies and commitments to increase diversity, and model diversity programs to recruit, retain and advance underrepresented minority students – African Americans, Hispanic Americans, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders – in these STEM fields.

But while the share of Ph.D. students from these groups has been increasing very gradually for decades, California Alliance data show that “there continues to be significant fall-off at each level of the pipeline – 10 percent for new Ph.D.s, 9 percent for continuing Ph.D.s, 8 percent for conferred Ph.D.s, 6 percent for postdocs and 4 percent for faculty,” said Jerry Harris, associate dean for multicultural affairs in the Stanford School of Earth Sciences and a professor of geophysics.

Among the California Alliance schools, in 2011, the year for which the most current data exist, 845 new Ph.D. students in the targeted STEM fields began their doctoral programs – 81 of them were from underrepresented minority groups. Of the 753 doctoral degrees awarded in these fields, 59 of them were to underrepresented minority students. Of the 1,050 postdocs in the mathematical, physical and computer sciences and in engineering, 58 were from underrepresented minority groups. Fifty-one of the 1,189 faculty members employed at all four universities in the targeted fields were members of underrepresented minorities.

Sidney Hill, a Ph.D. student in UC Berkeley’s College of Chemistry, said he loves his department and finds the environment supportive, but longs for “more people like me, more African American males in chemistry.”

He has a diverse group of friends, but said his African American peers, who are in other academic fields, “find it difficult to relate to the 12 hours a day I spend in the lab behind a hood doing wet chemistry.”

Of the 403 Ph.D. students in the chemistry department, only five are African American. Nineteen are Chicano/Latino and two are Native American/Alaska Native.

Jeremy Brown, a Ph.D. student in geophysics at Stanford, said his university makes him feel welcome and aggressively seeks to help its minority students. But of the 82 students in his program, there are only two underrepresented minority students – Brown and a Hispanic woman.

Among the program’s 18 professors, there is one underrepresented minority faculty member; he is African American.

 

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