National Science Foundation Reports Low Minority Representation on STEM Faculties

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

While the number of minority students who have earned doctorates in science, engineering and health has steadily risen over the past two decades, minority doctoral holders are still poorly represented as faculty members within the ranks of American academe.

That’s the key finding of a new brief from the National Science Foundation, or NSF, titled “Academic Institutions of Minority Faculty with Science, Engineering and Health Doctorates.”

“Both minority doctorate numbers and minority faculty numbers remain low, especially in the leading research institutions,” the brief states. “Data on SEH doctorate recipients show that Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaska Natives, as a group, earned about 3,300 SEH doctorates from U.S. universities in 2008, 9 percent of all SEH doctorates. Asians earned about 10,900 SEH doctorates in 2008, 31 percent of all SEH doctorates, most of which (81 percent) were earned by temporary visa holders.

Besides just listing the sheer numbers of minority faculty members, the new NSF report provides a more nuanced, qualitative picture of the kind of institutions from which minority doctorates are graduating, the kind of faculty posts that they are landing, as well as more detailed information about the types of institutions where they are finding work.

In short, the study found that minority faculty members are less likely to land full professorships, less likely to win tenure, and less likely to work at research universities with very high research activity, or RUVHs, in relation to non-minority faculty.

Dr. Ansley Abraham, director of the Atlanta-based SREB-State Doctoral Scholars Program, which seeks to diversify the ranks of American college and university faculty members, says that aside from the need for American academe to be more accepting of minority candidates and their interests, the NSF brief also points to the need for minority candidates to navigate the system more wisely to reach higher ranks.

That could mean compromising on or forgoing minority-focused research interests in the early stages of one’s career, Abraham said.

“You’ve got to survive in your profession, but maybe you’ve got to compromise on what you’re doing at the moment until you position yourself to be able to do that,” Abraham said. “You may have to play the game really smartly until you get tenure, and then you can indulge and engage in the kind of research you want to do without fear of someone outing you or ousting you from your job.”

Not all students who go through the SREB-State Doctoral Scholars Program are willing to make such compromises or sacrifices, Abraham says, and don’t complete as a result.

Among other things, the NSF brief found that of the 291,000 SEH (science, engineering and health) doctorates that were employed in educational settings in 2008, about 221,000 were employed as faculty in universities and colleges. Of those, the brief states, 13 percent were Asian, 4 percent were Black, 4 percent were Hispanic and 1 percent two or more races, while less than 1 percent belonged to other races or ethnicities, that is, American Indian/Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.

The brief also found that lower percentages of Black faculty than of White, Asian or Hispanic faculty earned their doctorate at RUVH institutions, while higher percentages of Blacks earned their doctorates at research universities, high research activity (RUHs), or doctoral/research universities (DRUs). Specifically, whereas 80 percent, 79.3 percent and 77.1 percent of White, Asian and Hispanic faculty, respectively, earned their degrees from RUVHs, only 62.7 percent of Blacks had earned their doctorates from RUVHs.

Consequently, the study found, lower percentages of Blacks were employed at RUVHs. “Faculty with SEH (science, engineering and health) doctorates who earned doctorates at RUVH institutions tend to teach at RUVH institutions,” the report states.

Abraham said that’s because RUVHs tend to recruit from other RUVHs.

“They tend to recruit from a very small cadre of institutions,” Abraham said. “They’re getting their faculty out of a very limited number of institutions, and unless we’re getting student positions at those institutions to graduate and earn degrees and work in those research labs, we’re probably not getting as many into the pool at institutions from which those institutions will recruit from, which is keeping our numbers low.”

The NSF brief also found that smaller percentages of Black, Hispanic and Asian doctoral faculty with science, engineering and health doctorates are full professors, and that larger percentages are assistant professors.

“Similarly,” the brief found, “smaller percentages of Black, Hispanic and Asian faculty than of White faculty are tenured.”

Abraham said the reasons for lower tenure rates among minority faculty are varied and complex, but he cited a number of prime suspects that transcend where a candidate studied.

“There are other very serious factors that are in play there,” Abraham said. For one, he said, minority faculty may be inclined to do research that focuses on an issue as it relates to their respective minority group, but such research is not always valued or seen as legitimate.

“If your peers do not value your research, if they don’t consider it legitimate, then you don’t progress through that system,” Abraham said.

As a result, Abraham says, the program he leads tries to help prepare doctoral students to navigate the system of peer review by balancing their interests with what the system values.

On the other hand, Abraham said, not the entire burden rests on minority candidates, but rather a shift in the mindset of their peers may be needed as well.

“Isn’t it incumbent on those to who are evaluating research to say, ‘Maybe this person’s research is legitimate’? Why should it be what they want?”

Abraham says while the brief shows steady progress in the number of minority doctoral holders in faculty ranks, it also shows there is much work to be done to achieve racial and ethnic parity.

“You know that we got a real problem on our hands, because we know the need (for minority faculty) is going up. We know the classrooms are getting more diverse,” Abraham said. “And yet the groups that we’re going to need the most to fill these gaps, if you will, we’re not preparing.”

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