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Of the 56 black computer science professors nationwide, a full 10 percent are clustered in one place: Clemson University.

Clemson boasts six African-American tenure-track or tenured professors. Its doctoral students account for 10 percent of African-American computer science Ph.D. candidates, too. Those numbers come from the Computing Research Association, which surveyed 267 institutions and found that black computer scientists account for just 1.4 percent of computer science faculty.  

“Clemson is unique,” said Ashanti Johnson, executive director of the Institute for Broadening Participation, which promotes minority participation in STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and math. “It’s really inspiring for other institutions to be able to emulate that.”

Clemson's success can be attributed largely to professor Juan Gilbert. Gilbert, who heads the Human-Centered Computing division at Clemson's School of Computing, worked with the administration to create an environment that would attract minority computer scientists, and helped recruit prospective professors and Ph.D. students. Though Clemson does have a diversity office that offers support and development opportunities for minority faculty and students, the influx of African Americans to the computer science was more of an organic movement.

“It really occurred because of the extraordinary leadership of Dr. Gilbert,” said Leon Wiles, Clemson’s chief diversity officer. “He certainly has been very aggressive in recruiting individuals from underrepresented groups.”

Shaundra Daily, who started as an assistant professor at Clemson in August 2011, says Gilbert played a large role in her decision to work at Clemson. Daily met Gilbert about eight years ago, when he was advising one of her friends from her undergraduate years at Florida State University.

“He mentored me a bit through my graduate process, and so getting a chance to continue to work with him was a good plus,” Daily said.

Of course, the main reason Daily took the Clemson job was because of the research done there; she was interested in the Human-Centered Computing division because she wanted to use technology to improve the human experience.

In fact, Gilbert said, many African-American students and professors are drawn to Clemson because of the Human-Centered Computing program, which takes a hands-on, applied approach to computer science. For example, HCC projects include creating a machine that allows people with disabilities to vote and creating new educational technology.

“Research shows women and minorities tend to be attracted to the helping professions, areas where clearly what you do helps someone and gives back. We have that in Human-Centered Computing,” Gilbert said. That program plus the diversity of the department, he said, make the university an easy sell for African-American students looking for a graduate program.

Gilbert regularly gives presentations at high schools and colleges, particularly historically black colleges and universities, to expose students to career possibilities in computer science and to show them the value of graduate school. In these presentations, he said, he tries to combat misconceptions about the profession – like the one that African Americans can’t be scientists.

“African-American kids, researchers show, if you ask them, ‘Who is a scientist?’ they think it’s a white male that is socially inept and is married to an ugly wife,” Gilbert said. “When they see people in my lab or see me and my faculty, that breaks down stereotypes.”

One student who was convinced by Gilbert’s presentation, Jessica Jones, said she knew she wanted to go to graduate school, but was not sure where until she met Gilbert at a presentation as an undergraduate at Hampton University. Now in her second year as a Ph.D. student at Clemson, Jones said the diversity of the department was extremely important to her in choosing a graduate program.

“I came from an HBCU and it was a real family atmosphere,” she said. “I knew graduate school probably wouldn’t have the same exact atmosphere but some of those things I would need to have … Clemson, because of the unique make-up of the Human-Centered Computer Lab, it’s almost exactly like being at Hampton.”

For students transitioning from an HBCU to a large research university, the diversity of the department can help make the change less shocking, Daily said. Of all the African-American Ph.D. students at Clemson, 18 percent are in the School of Computing, and African-American professors account for about 16 percent of the department. This might be critical, as data from the National Science Foundation show that about a quarter of African-American students who earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science graduate from historically black colleges.

The other benefit to the department’s diversity is the plethora of role models available to African-American students. Research has shown that black students are more likely to succeed in a STEM major if they have a course taught by a black professor.

“Clemson provides excellent role modeling, having the opportunity for students who imagine themselves in those careers able to be validated,” Johnson said. “That’s something that strengthens the department’s appeal to recruit and produce additional graduates.”

Jones, who hopes eventually to teach at an HBCU, said the academy must produce more role models for minority students to keep students engaged in STEM fields. Following Gilbert’s lead, Jones returns to her high school and her church every year and talks to minority students about the opportunities available to them in the sciences.

“We have to do a better job of changing the messaging and the imaging,” Jones said. “I didn’t know anybody in the STEM field. All I knew was Steve Urkel and that’s the image that’s out there.”

While Gilbert, Jones, and others are working to change the image of computer scientists, Clemson as a whole is trying to increase its minority population in other fields.

“We’re still striving to develop a critical mass of underrepresented students and faculty,” Wiles said. “At this point in time computer science really leads the institution in terms of diversity of their faculty… We’re moving to try to double our enrollment of underrepresented students and the undergraduate and graduate levels and at the faculty level.”


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