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Study Shows Top Chemistry Departments Lag Behind in Minority Hiring

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by Black Issues

Study Shows Top Chemistry Departments Lag Behind in Minority Hiring
By Hilary Hurd

Norman, Okla.
When Dr. Donna J. Nelson, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma, decided to look at the numbers of underrepresented minorities at the top 50 chemistry departments in the country, she was not quite prepared for the results of the survey, which found that no new African American faculty members had been hired in 10 years.
“As we received the surveys, I expected to find a low number of African American assistant professors,” says Nelson. “I did not expect to find none. Even though the African American faculty (already on staff) had predicted to me that there might be none, I was astonished.”
A survey, by gender and rank of the faculty of the top 50 chemistry departments as ranked by the National Science Foundation according to chemical research expenditures, appeared in a September 2000 edition of Chemical and Engineering News. Nelson says up until that time, diversity issues hadn’t received enough attention to warrant such an article.
Within the past two years, Congress has established the Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology (CAWMSET).
“Now gender issues were becoming of interest, but issues pertaining to race/ethnicity were still not receiving an adequate amount of attention,” Nelson says. “I thought it was a topic that merited study because there seemed to be so few underrepresented minorities.”
Nelson gathered some students to assist her with the research. The students did a preliminary investigation by simply looking at the faculty Web pages of the top 50 chemistry departments. They contacted minority faculty that they identified to collect their opinions and to see if they (faculty) could identify other minority faculty members. Nelson decided that word of mouth would not be convincing enough. She needed hard data.
 Nelson and her students mailed out surveys in late February of this year. They had a 100 percent response rate, with the exception of Stanford University, which declined to participate. They obtained information from Stanford, which has 22 White chemistry professors and no Blacks or Hispanics from the university’s Web page and department faculty.
Overall, the study found the top 50 chemistry departments employed 14 Hispanic, 13 Black and three American Indian chemistry professors who were educated in the United States. Asian Americans are not considered an underrepresented minority and therefore, were not reported in the study.
Nelson’s study does not indicate whether African American chemistry doctorates are choosing industry over academia, but Nelson says that several Black chemistry professors have told her that the opportunities to hire Black faculty have arisen over the years, however, the candidates ultimately were not hired.
Dr. Gregory H. Robinson, distinguished research professor of chemistry at the University of Georgia, says that despite his positive experience as an African American chemistry professor, hiring minority faculty in his department does not appear to be a priority. Robinson, who arrived at the University of Georgia in 1995, is the only Black professor in his department.
Robinson also says the silence that he has received from departments who say they are looking for minority faculty has been deafening.
“Over the past several years, I have taken the opportunity to apply to a number of well-known universities whose chemistry departments are in the top 50,” Robinson told Black Issues. “A pattern soon emerged. After receiving a form letter from the respective search committees acknowledging that they had received my application — nothing happened. After several months passed, I withdrew my applications (having heard that interviews had begun at all of the institutions).”
Dr. Gene Hall, associate professor of chemistry at Rutgers University, is also the only African American professor in his department. He, too, says diversifying the faculty does not seem to be a priority, adding that African American candidates have been interviewed during his 21-year tenure, but have not been hired
“It’s (hiring) based on the ‘old boy’s network…who you know from other universities…That’s how the system works,” says Hall.
Twenty-one years has passed since Hall began interviewing for his first teaching position. He says now it’s more competitive, adding that upon receiving his doctorate, there was an intense recruitment effort to hire African American chemistry doctorates. 
“It’s tough,” says Hall. “All of the ads say, ‘Must be outstanding this, must be outstanding that. My own personal sense is that many African American chemistry doctorates are going into industry. But that’s just my own observation.”
One African American chemistry doctorate who chose industry over academia is Crystal Harrell, 31, a scientist in food and beverage analytical microbiology at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati.
Harrell says when she briefly considered teaching, she considered teaching chemistry on the high school level instead of college.
“I didn’t want the stress of getting tenure, writing grants…the thought of it is stressful to me,” says Harrell, who received her doctorate in chemistry in 1999 from Louisiana State University. Harrell adds that the lower pay and racial tensions also could be contributing factors into Black chemistry doctorates’ decisions to choose a career in industry. Those who do opt for an academic career may choose to teach at a smaller school or at a historically Black college or university, which would explain why they would not show up in the faculty ranks at the top 50 chemistry departments.
The study’s author, Nelson, who is one-quarter American Indian and whose own chemistry department at the University of Oklahoma has only one Black professor, hopes that her study will generate some dialogue within chemistry departments that may need to examine their hiring practices. However, that is not the response Nelson has received just yet.
“Many organizations have contacted me requesting our research data, which I always provide,” says Nelson, “but I have been unable to find one interested in funding this work or our future efforts to correct the problems identified.” 

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