The recruitment of minorities into mathematics is extremely important for departments to thrive, since the demographics suggest that the target audience of undergraduates will gradually shift and become overwhelmingly minority. National studies have shown that the pipeline of students interested in mathematics shrinks as students pass through stages from high school to graduate school and my experience indicates that the same or worse happens to minority students.
My colleague, James Turner of Florida State University, (Slide 2) and I have spent a lot of time thinking about how we can do better at all stages of the pipeline. We have mostly thought because we have day jobs, but what I am going to say today is very much influenced by conversations with him.
There are many people who have helped me to understand how to help our minority students succeed. I cant recognize them all in a short speech, but I want to cite two. Lee Lorch, who could not attend this meeting, did all this fifty years ago at great risk to his professional life and to his family. When I carried out my recruitment efforts, they ignored me; when he did it, they took his job. He has always been a source of advice and support for our students; in fact, he came out and talked to our students about life in graduate school.
One of the most important things Lee did was to train Dr. Etta Falconer, who died this year. (I know Lee would disagree with me because all of his students were important.) Dr. Falconer was one of the wisest and most effective people I knew. Here is a slide with some scenes from her career at Spelman. The programs she started and left at Spelman; the achievement of a 35-40 per cent level of science, engineering and mathematics graduates remain as her achievements. The wisdom and knowledge about life matters she freely shared will be sorely missed. I frequently called Lee and asked him for advice. (I met him first because he traveled more than Etta, who did not like to fly.) He was always helpful, but his advice was often to call Etta. I learned to cut out the middle man and begin by asking Dr. Falconer for advice.
I am very impressed with the first three women to graduate from our program, as you will hear. Tasha has the commitment to the community and working with women; Sherry has the keen understanding of the political environment in which we operate. Kim and Tasha have the dedication to Spelman. Etta Falconer had all three.
I could make this a very short speech. To have a successful program, recruit good students, tell/show them how they can interact with each other, and listen to them and fix the problems they tell you about. But it took me a long time and several failures to understand this. Let me start by telling you about some of those failures because no one knows the best way to make a program work at some particular institution. You might try the things I did and find that they dont work at all. Some experimentation is needed, and some failures are inevitable.
Phase I. Responsibility without authority (Slide 3)
I was pressed into service in the late seventies as the only black faculty member of the Mathematics Department at Maryland when the Department made a big push to recruit African American graduate students. As a relatively young Associate Professor, I was not involved in the decision to make this effort. The Department had recruited nice hard working students, and I tried very hard to help them, but I failed miserably. We were able to get three or four out of fifteen students through the program. I had responsibility with no authority. What I learned from that effort was probably instrumental in our later success so let me describe what I learned from my point of view.
I had not been involved in the recruitment effort and some of the students were drastically under-prepared. They were talented. But I have always made a distinction between lack of preparation and lack of talent; we sometimes confuse the two. The students who had been recruited had talent, but the preparation gap was too big to be overcome in the amount of time we allow in graduate school.
The students were there and I was black and willing to help them. They needed help in e.g. preparing for written exams, and in understanding what was expected of them as graduate students. The responsibility I had was self-imposed.
However, I did not know what it took to retain an assistantship. If students had a problem in the program, all I could do was raise questions that they told me about; the students' probably had as much power to resolve their problems as I did. However, because they knew I could not negatively impact their career, they freely shared their concerns with me.
It wasn't a total failure. One of our black students, Leon J. Chandler, was about to pass his exams when the Air Force transferred him to New Mexico, where he later got his doctorate from the University of New Mexico. Another student decided to write his dissertation with me, and in 1974 Al Wallace (Slide 4) became one of the first two African Americans to write a thesis with an African American thesis director. He has had a successful career in industry. Another of these students, Lorenzo Hilliard, received a doctorate and has had a successful career at the University of the District of Columbia. The very best of our students at the time passed his written exams with ease and began working on his dissertation, but was eventually lost to mathematics because of life issues.
While I learned from this process, I guess my overall lesson was that this is no job for a well-meaning amateur without responsibility.
Phase II. Responsibility with authority (Slide 5)
In 1987 I got a second opportunity when I was asked by Nelson Markley to serve as Director of Graduate Studies. Suddenly I had responsibility with authority.
I learned what was needed to retain assistantships. I was in charge of recruiting, and I tried to go to schools where the level of preparation was closer to what we had wanted. I visited Hampton when I visited the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University. I did not recruit at Howard because they had just started their own PhD program and I felt that they should keep their better students for it.
As a sort of aside, I grew up with the world-view that it is better for students to go off to a different school for advanced degrees after completing a bachelors' degree. Observations at many schools, including Howard, have led me to believe that that is not necessarily the best model for black students.
A key issue for black students is achieving credibility: "Do I/you belong here?" I spent two years on leave at Howard University. When I was first hired, I got just such a question on my first day there. I was asked a simple question, which I later named "Do you know how to prove the Hahn-Banach theorem?" Black students often receive such challenges. The virtue of staying at the same school for graduate work as your bachelors' institution is that the student does not have to re-establish their credibility. So I felt that it was appropriate for Howard to keep its undergraduates for graduate work.
I believe that we recruited some excellent students. My experience in the late seventies played into the choices I made. I focused our recruitment efforts on nearby schools that turned out minority students. We made some mistakes in admissions, but we were recruiting a relatively small number of students. Some students who applied were not strong enough to do well in the program at Maryland. One of my first decisions was to turn down some students like that. It wasn't always easy. I remember once I was struggling with the case of such a student. We dont require GRE scores but the student had submitted them. The problem was inconsistent information. His grades were very good; his GRE scores were marginal. As I was pondering the decision, I met one of our black PhD graduates, Lorenzo Hilliard. I described the student in general terms, and I'll never forget what he said. He said, "I had much higher GRE scores and I had a hell of a time with the program and you're thinking about this case." I decided not to offer the student aid. The student came anyway and did not do very well. Of course if he had had aid, he might have had more time to study. There is a feedback element in what happened.
We admitted some students who just weren't going to make it in the program. I tried to tell them as quickly as it was evident. There were also students who had the talent but not the preparation and I am very proud that in a few cases, we were able to intervene and get the help they needed to succeed. I worked very hard with students who had come into the program before my time and while struggling, still had been able to make substantial progress. I believe that by careful attention to their needs, I was able to make it possible for two or three of them to succeed. I helped three women choose an appropriate thesis director; I found money for a student who had exhausted his financial eligibility but was near the writing of a thesis, things like that.
A problem that I discovered during my term was that we had a calibration problem. We did a poor job of evaluating students from historically black colleges and universities. Race is part of the problem but far more relates to whom we knew and what we knew. There are many schools that regularly send us students and we get letters saying that student X is better than student Y. Then all we have to do is judge what that means given the actual performance of Y in our program. We did not have that experience with the historically black colleges and universities. As a result our judgments were all over the board.
We had an excellent student apply from a very good historically black college. It was one of the strongest files I had ever seen. The financial aid committee rated her at a level which would have precluded her receiving financial aid. I discussed it with Nelson and we decided to recommend her to the campus wide fellowship committee. That committee (which had seen far more strong African American candidates) rated her A+ and we were able to offer her an assistantship to go with the fellowship. She received her PhD.
One of the big problems, which we still have not solved in the calibrating of our rating scale. I believe that the critical mass enters here as well. I would rather have three students from one school than one student from each of three schools, in terms of setting the calibration for that school. I believe that we have made more progress than many because of the sheer size of our minority population. We now have the X's and Y's with which to compare students. The remaining problems are giving sufficient weight to the expertise of faculty at the sending schools.
I also learned some useful things. As Graduate Chair, as soon as the class of X arrives, my job was to start recruiting the class of X+1. It was easy to forget the class of X-1, etc. However, as we started getting more African American students, I began to realize that their undergraduate sponsors were very interested in knowing how their students were doing. I made it a point to keep up with the progress of students and to convey that information to those undergraduate sponsors whenever I met them; in some cases I wrote them letters. Professors at historically black colleges are used to keeping close tabs on their students progress and appreciate it when a graduate director does the same. I did that for black and for white students, especially when they came from smaller schools that might have questions about how their students would do at Maryland.
Once again we had both successes and failures. As I mentioned, we did not recruit a large class, but helped our small classes succeed. I watched with some amusement when there was such so much attention given to the three women students getting their degrees last December. Three black males (Jean Nestor, Rodney Kerby, and Don Martin) graduated in 1989, but one finished in the fall, one in May, and the other the next August. If their timing had been better, we could have again had half of the black doctorates finish at Maryland. This is Jean Nestor , Rodney Kerby (Slide 6) who is currently at Morgan and this is Don Martin (Slide 7) , whose wife Antoinette, also got her Master's from the program. Karen King started in the mathematics program but decided, for reasons that I understood, to switch to mathematics education; otherwise she might well have been the first woman to get a doctorate in mathematics.
Phase III: Authority without responsibility (Slide 8)
This is by far the best state. In 1991 I became Chair. Being Chair is a simple job; every year they would give me a budget and my job for the year was to cut it by $200,000. Fortunately, when I left there was still a balance, but now they are back to taking larger amounts.
The direct responsibility for graduate students, however, now lay with the Associate Chair for Graduate Affairs. Of course, the Chair is responsible for everything so I did bear some responsibility. I had sufficient budgetary authority to resolve financial issues that might arise for students.
I think I was successful at doing my job and not doing the Associate Chair's job. I walked downstairs to look at only one folder (that I can recall), which I will discuss in a second. The Associate Chair evaluated, while I recruited. A lot of the credit goes to Dr. Rebecca Herb's successful evaluations.
Evaluations and Calibration
Fortunately, the National Association of Mathematicians started their Undergraduate MathFests during my term. This allowed "wholesale" recruiting at one site. However, I dont believe we ever got a student directly from MathFest. I was more successful by attending them and by my presence, inviting people to contact me when they had a student they wanted to recommend, or to contact me when one of their students encountered our calibration problems. Some of the calibration problems were ours; some originated at the sending school. I remember being contacted by the Chair of a school who didnt understand why one of his better students had not received a single assistantship offer nationwide. The young man had applied to several top quality schools.
That is the one time I walked downstairs to look at a file. When I read the file, I discovered that one of the students letter writers had referred to him as "she". The letter writer was deliberately attempting to damage the students' chances. We asked for another letter. After it was added to the file, the student received an assistantship and got his doctorate. In other cases, our calibration was indeed off and when the Associate Chair looked at the record, a favorable decision was made.
Overcome the isolation of students
The small number of graduate students we had recruited had grown through successful performance to six to eight students when I learned something that would be reinforced when I attended a MER meeting at Michigan, namely, there is what we teach them and there is what they learn. When we brought in students, we had emphasized the importance of participation in activities of the school. We meant participation in all activities-join mixed study groups, form African American study groups, whatever. What the students learned was based on observation. They were in a majority white institution; the power and influence rested with whites and their interactions were geared toward acceptance by that white power structure. They were less sure about how they should relate to each other.
We learned this accidentally when we had a minor racial incident involving two black students in the lounge. Each came to the Graduate Program Assistant to report the problem and it became apparent that neither knew the other student involved. We started by inviting all the black students to a tea and cookies affair. Over time we invited black students to a number of events geared for them. I knew we had gotten the message across when the students organized a celebration for one of the African American students who had passed her written examinations. We continued to arrange meetings where black professionals in mathematics stopped by and discussed various mathematical issues. The students have continued to organize celebrations when members of the community succeed. I am also proud that they have kept in touch with members of their community who have graduated or taken jobs in the area. They always invite everyone to their celebrations.
You learn these things after the fact, but I should have known that this would work. Maxwell Reade was successful with the same ideas at Michigan in the fifties, Lee Lorch at Fisk in the fifties, and Clarence Stephens at Potsdam. We had learned the lesson again at Maryland with the Banneker Scholarship. A great deal of our success with African American undergraduates (admitted with far lower SAT's than our usual fellowship program) was because the Banneker program helped organize them into a community.
During this time, I also became sensitive to the overwhelming importance of life issues in success in graduate school. I sometimes think that mathematicians are particularly prone to viewing the natural process as a straight line from high school to college through graduate school. However, life frequently gets in the way. Parents and grandparents actually die in real life not just in excuses given as the final nears; friends die, students' interests change. Sherry might not have been in the picture I am going to show you later if James had not been able to provide some financial help at a critical moment.
If I could ask one thing that would tell me whether a student will succeed in graduate work, it would be if I could understand whether the student has control of his/her life, has a focused goal on completing a doctorate, and the flexibility to deal with crises. What I can say is that three of our most talented African American students did not receive doctorates. There is no way to peer into someones future and answer those questions. What we have to do is know enough about our students to know when they are facing a problem, and have the resources to help them get through the difficult times. I think that African American students are more sensitive, more easily knocked off their course, by what would be seen as minor problems by many white students.
We again had successes and failures. The numerical analysis group (my version) decided that they did not want any PhD students wrote exams that produced 10% passing rates. Ordinarily our exams lead to 25% to 33% passing rates. Unfortunately lots of African American students wanted to study this as a secondary topic and it had a catastrophic effect on the African American student population. Our successes included the first three women to graduate from the doctorate program at Maryland. Here are some pictures from our album (Slide 9 shows the three of them at graduation, Slide 10 shows Sherry's mom, Dr. Moore, helping her with her hood, and Slide 11 shows Tasha receiving a Centers of Excellence Student Worker of the Year award from Jane Garvey, Administrator of the FAA). They are their own best spokespeople.
In 2001 at NAM's New PhD presentations in New Orleans, half of the presentations were by Maryland students. Ten of the students will have received doctorates by the end of next year (I count one student who wanted a doctorate in biostatistics and so transferred to George Washington.) and four have passed their written examinations and two have completed working on candidacy exams.
James and I have concluded that unless we get to the level where we too can have authority without responsibility, we will only work in situations where we feel we have the authority to accomplish our goals. I feel that we have shown in our programs some of the same qualities I cited as important for graduate school success. We are focused yet flexible. When James went to South Africa to deliver $120,00 worth of computer equipment, he was arrested. We were able to move on and now have excellent relations with our partners in South Africa. I have been offered other opportunities to take positions in the University of Maryland with responsibility without authority, but I have stuck with the view that this is no job for well meaning amateurs.
I hope more people will be encouraged by our success to make an effort; many schools like University of Iowa have done so. The lessons I would offer from the Maryland experience to other schools (Slide 12) that want to do better is: 1) make sure the responsible person has the authority to do the job 2) work on getting a critical mass of students, 3) help them organize as a community of scholars, 4) pay attention to life issues and help when possible, and 5) be patient.
The final slide (Slide 13) is a picture of the current crop of graduate students and some recent grads at a celebration for Dr. Duane Cooper, who was leaving Maryland to assume a position at Morehouse.
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