Wanted: A Better Way to Boost Numbers of Minority Ph.D.s
Managing Editor:Yolanda S.
Making Strides is a quarterly (April, July, October, and January) research newsletter published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Directorate for Education and Human Resources Program. Its purpose is to share information about minority graduate education (MGE) in the fields of science, mathematics, and engineering. It is available in print and electronic format. Inquiries, information related to MGE, and all correspondence should be sent to the editor.
Wanted: A Better Way to Boost Numbers of Minority Ph.D.sby Jeffrey Mervis (Reprinted with permission from Science, Volume 281, Number 5381 Issue of 28, Aug 1998, pp. 1268 - 1270.)
With set-aside programs under fire, "majority" institutions are being asked to find new approaches to achieve diversity.
For years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has reserved a portion of its prestigious graduate research fellowships for minority students seeking to launch a career in science. By holding a separate competition among underrepresented minorities-notably, African-Americans, Hispanics, or American Indians-for approximately 15% of the 900 slots, NSF officials hoped to increase their pitiably small number in academic science. But yesterday, when NSF announced the rules for its 1999 awards, the minority component was gone.
The decision is triggered by a recent pretrial settlement of a white student's lawsuit claiming that the separate competition discriminated against majority students (Science, 26 June, p. 2037). And it's part of a much broader review of some two-dozen NSF programs, which last year received $110 million to help diversify the U.S. scientific work force. "This is a big issue," says Joe Bordogna, acting deputy director of NSF, who oversees the effort.
NSF is not alone in questioning such activities. In the wake of a string of legal and political reversals for affirmative action programs, federal agencies, universities, and private foundations are seeking ways to increase the number of minorities in science without running afoul of the law. They range from trying to change the culture of research universities to promoting mentoring and building bridges between predominantly white institutions and historically black colleges. Some also try to "prime the pump" by reaching down into high schools or even earlier, and others also target women, an underrepresented minority in many fields.
A shaky record
This rethinking is coming at a time when, despite more than a generation of programs aimed at giving minorities a greater opportunity to compete for scientific Careers, all but Asian-Americans remain dismally underrepresented in science. While African-Americans, His-panics/Latinos, and American Indians comprise 23% of the U.S. population, they make up only 4.5% of those holding scientific doctorates. When physicist and university administrator Walter Massey, president of Morehouse College and former NSF director, challenged graduate science departments almost 10 years ago to produce more minority Ph.D.s from underrepresented groups, he noted that many of them had yet to produce a single minority Ph.D. Recent figures show little change in that situation (see tables).
As universities struggle to improve their record, two events have complicated their efforts. One was a 1996 California referendum, Proposition 209, that makes it illegal for state institutions to use race-based criteria in admissions and hiring decisions. The other is a 1996 federal appellate court ruling, Hopwood v. Texas, that imposed a similar prohibition in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. This fall, residents of Washington State will vote on an anti-affirmative action referendum, and educators are also awaiting the outcome of a pending suit that accuses the University of Michigan of discriminatory admissions policies. These decisions would apply only to specific states or institutions, however; the Supreme Court has yet to go beyond its 1978 Bakke ruling, which allows education officials to use race as a factor in their decisions.
That situation has created widespread confusion over whether a particular law, court decision, or agency policy applies to a specific action by an individual institution. "As private and public institutions, we're not supposed to have set-asides," says Gary Ostrander, associate dean for research in the arts and sciences at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "But federal agencies like NSF and NIH can have [campus-based] programs that target minorities and that we must administer without violating the law. It's a fine line that we all walk." Private philanthropies like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Sloan Foun-dation are also struggling with the issue.
Many science educators say that the recent judicial and legislative activity has cast a pall over efforts to attract minorities into the profession. "It has a chilling effect on the groups you are trying to reach," says Herbert Nickens, head of minority programs for the 123-member Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), which in April issued a ringing 13-page defense of affirmative action in medical education. It calls the termination of such programs "a threat to diversity [that is] even more serious than the backlash in the mid-1970s." Notes Nickens: "Even as you're trying to drum up interest in academic science, it sends the clear message to minority students that, 'We don't want you.' "
However, others say that there's no point longing for something that's not coming back. "I think phase I of affirmative action is dead, and I don't lament its passing," says Richard Tapia, an applied mathematician at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and a member of the National Science Board, which oversees NSF. "It gave us a jump start, but it was never supposed to be permanent. Now, we have to find other ways to achieve real gains."
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