A System in Need of More Than Tweaking: Inequities Persist for Minorities in Math, Science, and Engineering

October 21, 2006


Juan Guzman, an undergraduate from the University of Texas–El Paso, spent the summer at Rice University doing research in electrical engineering. Guzman is one of 65 summer 2006 participants (graduate and undergraduate) in Rice’s AGEP (Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate) Program. He’s shown here at Diversity Day in Boston with Richard Tapia, director of AGEP at Rice.

"I became a professor at schools that I could not have gotten into as a student," says Richard Tapia of Rice University. Tapia, the Maxfield and Oshman Professor of Engineering and, since 2005, a University Professor at Rice, conjectures that he would not have a PhD if he had gone to Rice as an undergraduate in math (rather than to a junior college, followed by transfer to UCLA, from which he did graduate with a degree in math). At UCLA, moreover, his record as a B student would not have earned him admission to a doctoral program in the computational and applied math department at Rice.

In an invited talk at the SIAM Annual Meeting in Boston, "Diversity, Innovation, and our Scientific and Technological Workforce," Tapia stepped in on short notice to replace the scheduled speaker, Shirley Jackson of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who was unable to attend the meeting. The catchy references to his own career weren't (just) a way to get the attention of the audience. "I could have very easily fallen through the cracks," he pointed out.

"Therefore, I must watch out for those similarly situated."
He has built one significant side of his career watching out for the similarly situated. The creator of a variety of successful programs for underrepresented minorities---Hispanic Americans, African Americans, Native Americans---he has also been a mentor to many students, including numerous women. The success of these and other programs, at Rice, in Texas, and throughout the U.S. notwithstanding, Tapia is not sanguine about the position of underrepresented minorities in science and engineering today. Here too, he has analyzed the situation and was ready in Boston with facts, explanations, and recommendations for change.

Tapia is in demand as a speaker, and as he told SIAM News in a wide-ranging phone conversation, he loves to talk---about optimization; about drag racing, the subject of his community lecture at the 1999 SIAM Annual Meeting and of a slew of variations on it ever since; and about opportunities and pitfalls for underrepresented minorities in math and science. He cares passionately about all these subjects, which makes him a dynamic, upbeat speaker. The Boston talk was no exception; against the background of an uninspiring progress report for minorities in math and science, he offered insight into the persistent inequities, while balancing the bad news with a series of success stories.

Bad News
In a related minisymposium, David Manderscheid of the University of Iowa pointed out that of the 116 U.S. PhDs awarded in the math sciences in 2004–05, 39% went to U.S. citizens---the smallest percentage in 10 years. This is the basis for Tapia's observation that the U.S. has a demand problem, not a supply problem. What keeps U.S. students, and especially underrepresented minority students, from careers in math and science is their unwillingness to choose those fields. The challenge---which he and many others take up by speaking on topics like mathematics and drag racing---is to motivate students to see mathematics as interesting, useful, and a feasible choice for them.

Faculties and graduate student populations at research universities in the U.S. are diverse, Tapia said in Boston. Diversity, however, is not the same thing as underrepresentation. Underrepresented minorities are not included in proportions even close to their proportion in the general population (about 30% for Hispanic Americans, African Americans, and Native Americans together). A chart titled "Problem at the Top: PhD's," for example, shows the representation of different groups among U.S. recipients of PhDs in science/engineering/math/techology:

PhD Recipients 1977 1998

Total 9003 12,051

White 85.5% 75.5%
Asian 7.0% 15.0%
Black 1.2% 2.5%
Hispanic 1.2% 3.5%
Native American 0.2% 0.4%
Other 4.9% 1.4%

In short, Tapia said, "Representation of members from underrepresented groups is nonexistent."

Tackling the Problem
As to the causes of the unequal representation of minorities, Tapia is willing to consider the politically incorrect suggestion of differences in academic ability. But even if such differences exist, he said, they are not enough to account for the disproportionately low representation of minorities in science and engineering. What is significant, he said, is the "extra baggage" minorities, especially minority males, accumulate as they grow up in the U.S.: low expectations, lack of role models, police intimidation. . . . "The underrepresented minority's worst enemy is poorer preparation at all levels." Also operative is the culture problem---the elitist, sink-or-swim-mentality, minority-unfriendly culture of many mathematics departments. Sweeping changes are needed if minorities are to see mathematics as a field in which they are welcome to succeed.

Admission of minority students to a university is not in itself a success story, Tapia said. Success comes only with retention and, eventually, placement in a job that makes use of the graduate's degree. Citing an over-reliance on minority institutions, Tapia identified another criterion for success: minorities at majority institutions.

"Things That Make Me Feel Good"
The "Texas Top 10% Rule"---one of five success stories Tapia recounted in Boston---is a good story, most obviously because of its astonishing outcome: 28% of the math majors at UT Austin, the flagship of the University of Texas system, are underrepresented minorities (who account for the same percentage of engineering enrollments, and for about 40% of the freshman class). Representation of minorities in math is "on par with other science and engineering disciplines," Tapia said. "Wow!"

What makes the story especially compelling is that it could so easily have ended in failure. It was, in Tapia's words, "A Fortunate Outcome from Unfortunate Circumstances." The unfortunate circumstances are two: A UT system made up of a flagship and several far less prominent satellites, and a Texas public school system that, for all practical purposes, is segregated. The story dates back to 1997, when, looking to make up for the loss of affirmative action, the Texas legislature voted that any Texas high school student who is in the top 10% of his or her class is guaranteed admission to the UT campus to which he or she applies. The outcome: Large numbers of minority students applied and were admitted to UT Austin.

The math department vowed to make sure that the minority students would not fail, and their efforts were successful: Retention rates for the minority students have been roughly the same as those for all students. Tapia, who looks forward to recruiting minority students from UT Austin for graduate programs at Rice, says that the Austin math department should be credited not for its vision, but rather for its effective response to a decision imposed from the outside.

The story illustrates one of Tapia's main points: Tweaking the system doesn't work; only major perturbations, like that set in motion by the Texas legislators, can turn the situation around.

Looking ahead, Tapia points to another cause for optimism: the fourth Blackwell–Tapia Conference, scheduled for November 3 and 4, 2006, at the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications at the University of Minnesota.---GRC


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