Advocates for Diversity in STEM Still Priming Pump for Pipeline - Higher Education
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Advocates for Diversity in STEM Still Priming Pump for Pipeline

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by B. Denise Hawkins

Baltimore, Md. — In the 1970s, Norman Francis’ epic tenure as president of the nation’s only Black Catholic University was just beginning, and at the same time, he learned that the number of Black students in the nation’s medical schools was dwindling. Unequal education, he concluded, was robbing Black students of their chance to even get into college, let alone medical school.

Francis decided to take on the country’s problem and seize an opportunity for his small campus to help fill the gap.

Xavier University of New Orleans, which housed its science department in a donated Army warehouse, operated on shoestring budget and lacked new equipment, was an unlikely training ground for science majors, most of whom were the first in their families to go to college. But Francis’ plan succeeded where even Ivy League schools failed.

Today, more than four decades later, the national pipeline for African-Americans entering and graduating from medical school begins at Xavier. His vision catapulted Xavier students to the top — the university is first in the nation in graduating Black students with bachelor’s degrees in biology and physics.

Last week, Francis, now president emeritus of Xavier, was among five honorees inducted into the STEM Leadership Hall of Fame during a special ceremony here at the STEM Solutions National Leadership Conference sponsored by US News & World Report. The award “recognizes individuals who have been instrumental in leading national efforts to improve STEM education and workforce development,” said Brian Kelly, US News editor and chief content officer.

National Urban League President Marc Morial, in his keynote conference address, made an impassioned call for change in the STEM fields. That’s because the diversity needle hasn’t shifted upward. The 2016 US News/Raytheon STEM Index, released last week, showed women, African-Americans and Hispanics still lag far behind White and Asian men in earning degrees and landing jobs in science, technology, engineering and math — the STEM fields.

“You can’t keep doing the same old thing” and expect the STEM landscape to change, Morial said. In the 1970s, “before STEM was a word,” Morial recalled, Francis was that kind of change agent the field needed when he made growing the number of Black students in the STEM pipeline his focus. 

Francis, Morial added, “was also running against the grain,” making science education Xavier’s niche — something that few if any other Black institution had done. It proved to be a successful strategy, said Morial, pointing to Xavier’s academic rankings.

Today, Xavier is among the top four institutions graduating Black pharmacists. It is third in the nation in the number of Black graduates who go on to earn doctorates in science and engineering. And its College of Pharmacy, one of only two pharmacy schools in Louisiana, is among the nation’s top three producers of African-American Doctor of Pharmacy degree recipients.

These kinds of results, said Morial, demonstrate “what can happen when you invest in young people. What Dr. Francis did for Black students in STEM took vision, leadership and focus — and a sincere belief that they could achieve.”

Then, like now, Morial said, ushering in the kind of change needed to narrow the nation’s STEM diversity gap “is a matter of will. It’s not that complicated.” Investing in and looking to minority-serving institutions for talent, Morial added, is a starting place. Research shows that historically Black colleges and universities outperform most others that are larger and better-funded — and award nearly 20 percent of undergraduate degrees in STEM. In K-12, the results for students of color could be just as promising.

Early education and exposure to STEM are key. But without access to schools equipped with science and computer labs and trained STEM teachers in the classroom, said Morial, students of color ultimately will be left out of a booming STEM workforce — and a middle-class lifestyle.

“To prepare them is … about preparing them for the quality, high-paying jobs that are going to dominate the high-paying jobs of the future,” said Morial. “It is a way to close that economic gap, if we invest, if we do it right.”

Francis, who was a math major at Xavier before going to law school, said he is evidence of education’s promise.

“I realized that I could do more to help young people through education than as a lawyer.” On a panel with his fellow award winners, Francis said he grew up poor, but “learned early on that, in this world, the road out of poverty is paved with education.” That pathway hasn’t changed, he said, but today, it must also include education in STEM.

“The STEM fields represent the future in our workforce, but we still need STEM teachers who can serve as role models for our students.”    

Also inducted into the STEM Leadership Hall of Fame were Anna Maria Chávez, CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA; Ellen Kullman, retired chair and CEO of DuPont; Edward B. Rust Jr., chairman of State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company; and Dr. John J. Tracy, chief technology officer of Boeing.

Says Brian Kelly: “If STEM was an enterprise, they would be the board of directors.”