Obstacles to recruitment of minorities into science and mathematics

Appeared in MER Newsletter, Vol. 15, No. 3, Summer 2003

I have chosen to highlight some instances of institutional practices or policies and governmental policies that hinder the process of involving more minority students in mathematics. The highlighted institutional policies concern the rotation of personnel running a program for minority students, and communications between schools recruiting minority graduate students and the schools from which they are recruited. The highlighted governmental policies concern efforts by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to assure buy-in by higher levels of the university administration to minority programs and implications of peer review of proposals for minority programs.

Institutional issues

It is not infrequent that an institution encounters difficulties in maintaining a program for minority students. The difficulty may arise from the change or rotation of the personnel who run the program. I believe in the need for periodic change of personnel, but I think it should be pointed out that it impacts minority recruitment, often severely. Often, a minority program is initiated by an individual, and frequently, the program goes away when the person leading the effort changes positions. This may be due to lack of department buy-in to the program. Other times, however, departments do wish to continue their efforts, but find themselves unable to perform at the same level as before the change of personnel.

Sometimes the problem of maintaining a program can be attributed to pipeline problems. With respect to programs for recruiting minority students into graduate study in mathematics, there is a calibration problem between the diversity of institutions from which minority students are coming and the institutions to which they are going for graduate work. The sending institutions, i.e., the students' undergraduate institutions, need to have some idea of the level of preparation required at the receiving school, i.e., the institution accepting the students for graduate study, and the receiving school needs to have some idea of the level of preparation given by the sending school. Both sides understand that these levels are changing with time, but in general they change sufficiently slowly that expectations can be adapted to the new situation.

At the same time as the undergraduate preparation of the students is changing, there may be changes of personnel in both the sending and the receiving schools. The undergraduate director at the sending school and/or the graduate director at the receiving school may complete their terms and be replaced by a new graduate director or a new undergraduate director. Once again there is generally a smooth transition and policies change gradually under the "new regime."

I have seen minority student recruitment affected disproportionately by types of personnel changes, because individuals hold strong beliefs, whether or not they are supported by facts, with respect to the ability of minority students to succeed in mathematics. Some new graduate directors simply de-emphasize minority recruitment. But even when the commitment is maintained, there may be abrupt changes of policies affecting minorities. For example, a graduate director might wish to continue the policy of minority recruitment, but it takes time to understand the culture and nature of a sending institution. A few disastrous admissions can lead to a decreased emphasis on minority recruitment. Since the targeted population of minority students is so small, the capacity for harm, of the new policies, to the program is immense. (Note that although these caveats refer to inter-institutional policies, if you layer on the affect of changing governmental policies, the capacity for major shocks is large.)

Governmental policies

I would like to highlight two governmental policies, in particular, policies of the National Science Foundation (NSF), and how they can have a negative impact on recruitment of minority students into mathematics.

NSF has initiated many programs that attempt to get higher levels of the university to buy into programs for recruiting minority graduate students. These programs, which seem to be increasing in number at NSF, require that the principal investigator be a provost or vice president of the university. I think this can lead to a classic situation of divided authority. What can happen is that someone is hired by the provost or vice president to do the work and is held responsible for the functioning of the program, but is not given the necessary authority to make substantive decisions and act independently.

An example of such a program is the Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professorate (AGEP). At a major state university, the provost delegated oversight of the program to the graduate dean, as was to be expected, and the project director eventually resigned after numerous instances of micro-management. In another major state university, this delegation seems to have worked smoothly.

I think situations where authority and responsibility lie at the same level have a better chance of working. My own experience with division of authority and responsibility can be found at http://www.math.umd.edu/users/rlj/cxtlbt.html.

NSF has also tried to get university buy-in by requiring cost sharing and the assumption of costs by the university. My experience is that universities are perfectly willing to put up x dollars to get themselves 10x dollars from NSF, but my experience is also that universities will spend the resulting 11x dollars just like they were spending their x dollars before the grant opportunity came on the scene, (and after the grant opportunity is no longer available). What is likely to happen (although this is an unintended consequence, I believe) is that programs are expanded to become universitywide (or collegewide) efforts, what I refer to as wholesale efforts. This is viewed as a positive outcome by NSF, but my personal experience is that, at the graduate level, efforts to match individual students with a department, what I refer to as retail efforts, are more likely to bear fruit.

There are many instances, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, in which a university brings in large numbers of potential students and attempts to persuade them that they should attend their university. Sometimes these programs are held across several institutions, such as a graduate school fair. These efforts I regard as wholesale efforts in that lots of students are invited to receive relatively small shards of information about a school. Efforts at the undergraduate level, like the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, can work effectively wholesale, but that is not my expectation for graduate level programs. The wholesale effort must also deal with the fact that expectations of two departments within the same college can be miles apart. Unfortunately, cost pressures are forcing schools toward wholesale efforts at all levels.

I believe that retail efforts work best at the graduate level, where a department invites a prospective student to campus, shows him or her what the department is like, gives the student opportunities to talk to other students in the program, and attempts to determine if the student's interests can be met by the offerings of the program. Unlike undergraduates, a graduate student spends most of his or her life within one department. Undergraduates can solve the matching problem by changing majors, which is more difficult for graduate students. The matching of departmental offerings and student interests is critically important for minorities. For example, a minority student may really want to work on an applied problem that helps his or her minority community only to find that no faculty in the department works on these applications.

Finally, I sometimes think NSF is so wedded to peer review institutionally that some of the weaknesses of the system have been forgotten. Peer review is a major strength of the NSF and some of the mission-oriented agencies seem to be requiring more peer review. The idea that experts evaluating in their area of expertise should work seems intuitive, and it has worked very well in the sciences. However, it runs aground in the area of the development of programs in mathematics for minority students because there are not enough experts. The dearth of minority mathematicians produced throughout the history of the American mathematics community shows that there are very few experts in this area. Not being an expert does not stop people from having lots of strong opinions-- ones that are often unjustified and wrong with respect to the facts-- about how to work in this area, and how not to work in this area.

I have seen more instances of expressions of prejudices than I have seen examples of working peer review in areas related to education and human resources. What happens is that the perceived level of a school's mathematics program determines whether the panel thinks an educational/human resources program will work. This perception introduces a bias against small schools that are unknown to the panelists and a bias in favor of schools well known to the panelists. I have seen panels produce reviews of proposed minority programs that bear little relation, in my opinion, to the results that the programs might achieve.

I have highlighted several institutional and governmental polices that may have a detrimental impact on the participation of minorities in mathematics. I would hope that these policies would be re-considered, and revised as appropriate. Our achievements overall in recruiting minorities to mathematics are low. We cannot afford to leave unquestioned policies that may impede programs that are capable of succeeding.

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