As the conference session on recruiting and graduating minority graduate students into science and technology fields was set to begin, one audience member, a diversity officer at a major research university, remarked on the session's subtitle: "What Works?" "I was hoping they'd use an exclamation point instead of a question mark," he said wistfully.
Rare is the college official who isn't desperate for answers about how to get more black and Hispanic Americans (among other underrepresented minority groups) into their master's and doctoral programs in fields like mathematics, engineering and the physical sciences.
Although minority enrollments in graduate school are edging up, according to a report last month  by the Council of Graduate Schools -- even in fields in which they have historically been seriously underrepresented -- their overall numbers remain low. White students made up nearly three-quarters of the 1.1 million enrolled graduate students for whom the council had demographic information in 2004, at a time when they represent just over half of the U.S. population (and shrinking).
If those attending the session on minority graduate education at this week's meeting of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges sought some ready made, silver bullet solutions, they probably came away disappointed. It's not that the presenters -- provosts and vice presidents at Arizona State, Florida State and Louisiana State Universities and the University of Washington -- didn't have insights to share that might encourage and inspire their hopeful colleagues in the audience. But anyone who has worked in the field knows that there are no easy answers.
"We're going to try to concentrate on some of the things some of our institutions have done that have shown success," Dianne F. Harrison, vice president for academic quality and external programs at Florida State, said in introducing the session, "but it's clear we all have a lot more work to do."
Maria T. Allison, vice provost and dean of graduate studies at Arizona State, said that institutions needed to conform their diversity strategies to their own situations. Noting that her state and city, Phoenix, have rapidly increasing proportions of Hispanic and Latino residents that are projected to double over 20 years, Allison said that Arizona State was in a strong position to "grow our own" minority scientists and engineers, rather than merely joining the national competition for the relatively small pool from which many colleges and universities are drawing.
"We don't want to expand just by trying to recruit students from all of your universities," she said, to knowing chuckles from the audience. If Arizona State and others don't actively turn more minority students into scientists and engineers, "the number we all compete for will remain so small that we'll never move beyond these low numbers."
Allison said the graduate school has begun working cooperatively with the undergraduate honors program at Arizona State, as well as with the campus’s Gates Millennium Scholars, both of which she described as providing a ready pool of smart, talented minority students. Arizona State had just 62 minority students in master’s science, engineering and technology programs and 40 in Ph.D. programs in those fields, but nearly 1,300 minority undergraduates studying in those disciplines. “We just need to find more ways to move them into graduate work,” she said.
Steven F. Watkins, associate chairman of chemistry and director of graduate studies at LSU, said that in 1990, the university began an aggressive effort to ratchet up its enrollment of minority Americans – “we had plenty of international students” -- through partnerships with the many historically black institutions in the region. After producing four black chemists between 1970 and 1990, he said, the department now has about a “steady state” of more than 30 black Ph.D. candidates every year. “The proximity of the HBCU's has been a major factor” for Louisiana State, he said.
Suzanne T. Ortega, who recently became vice provost and graduate dean at the University of Washington, spoke of the impediments she has seen there and in several years dealing with these issues at the University of Missouri at Columbia, which, despite lots of effort and strong programs, made what she described as “incremental” progress in expanding the number of minority scientists and engineers it produced.
Most universities, she said, have a combination of federal, state and other programs that deal with minority graduate recruitment, and getting all those programs and various department heads to work together in an “integrated system” rather than in “silos” is difficult.
Ortega also said her research had indicated that minority doctoral candidates in the sciences were slightly (about 5 percent) less likely than their white counterparts to complete their Ph.D.’s. “We don’t know all the answers as to why” – though she suspected that it had to do with “issues of mentoring and career aspirations” – but figuring them out is essential, she said. “Five to six percent may not seem like a lot, but when the numbers are this small to begin with,” Ortega said, “it makes a substantial difference.”