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On Equal Ground

New York's Hunter College serves as a model for diversity in the sciences

June 28, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 26

The 10 undergraduate and graduate students in Drain's (top left) research team represent seven different nationalities.
The 10 undergraduate and graduate students in Drain's (top left) research team represent seven different nationalities.

Increased diversity among students and faculty has long been a goal of science departments in academic institutions nationwide. Although the number of women and minority science graduates continues to rise at a slow but steady pace (C&EN, Feb. 16, page 68), many still encounter barriers when entering the workforce, particularly in regard to academic jobs.

Some colleges and universities, however, seem to have found the magic mix of hiring practices and working environment that promotes strong faculty diversity. The chemistry department at Hunter College, the largest college of the City University of New York (CUNY), is part of one such institution. Hunter doesn't just attract women and minorities; it also supports them through a long and rewarding career in the sciences.

Hunter was founded in 1870 as a preparatory school for women teachers. Since being folded into the CUNY system in the 1960s, Hunter has become a coeducational institute with more than 70 different academic programs.

On average, women account for only 12% of the chemistry faculty at top research schools, according to data collected by C&EN for the 2003–04 academic year (C&EN, Oct. 27, 2003, page 58). Donna J. Nelson, chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma, collected data in 2001 that show underrepresented minorities--African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans--made up less than 3% of the total chemistry faculty at the top 50 research schools.

But in Hunter's 20-person department, 40% of the faculty are women, and 35% are non-Caucasian, including three professors from underrepresented groups.

In 1966, Maria Tomasz was one of the first women hired for Hunter's chemistry faculty. She became a full professor in 1979 and a distinguished professor in 1996.

Tomasz, who was born and educated in Hungary, came to the U.S. in 1956 and earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from Columbia University in 1962. She says she loved her research experience and did not consider any possible career other than an academic appointment, which she chose to pursue at Hunter.

"Hunter was obviously a women-friendly place," she says. She also cites the school's "promise of becoming a major research university" as an important deciding factor.

"The CUNY administration has been very supportive in hiring women and minorities," says Dixie J. Goss, professor since 1984 and current chair of the college's chemistry department. "The first criterion in hiring, though, is always excellent science."

According to Goss, hiring managers should evaluate applicants without relying on preconceived notions of what a good candidate looks like on paper. For example, a female student might have taken longer than a male to earn an advanced degree because she took some time off to start a family, not because she is any less capable.

In turn, Hunter might attract faculty candidates with an excellent background because it offers more than strong research opportunities.

"The first thing I liked about Hunter was the student body," Goss says. "The students are not just diverse, but often economically disadvantaged, so I feel I can help make a difference in people's lives."

In keeping with tradition, Hunter's population is primarily female. Even in the chemistry department, of the 50 doctoral students studying there, 24 are women. In addition, 12 of the 50 are from underrepresented minority groups.

Charles M. Drain, assistant professor of chemistry at Hunter, admits the possibility that the diverse demographics of Hunter's urban setting might play a part in the school's success. "New York City is a multicultural community," he says. "But an urban environment is not the only requisite" for strong student diversity. He cites special efforts Hunter makes to keep minorities in its science pipeline, such as participation in the National Institutes of Health's Minority Access to Research Careers undergraduate training program.

Drain worries, however, that the college's success in teaching women and minorities is undermined by the tendency of many universities and corporations to want to hire only candidates from schools with more prestigious reputations. This trend is hotly debated, although data from researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, and others would seem to support the claim (C&EN, Sept. 29, 2003, page 42).

"MINORITY STUDENTS who attend CUNY often have chosen not to go to large research universities because they think their backgrounds are weaker, or they feel more comfortable in an environment such as Hunter," Drain says. Such students might come from poorer families that didn't have the time or resources to emphasize primary education, and so they don't have the academic credentials top schools have come to expect from applicants.

According to Evelyn Hu-DeHart, director of the Center for the Study of Race & Ethnicity in America at Brown University, Drain's sentiments hit the nail right on the head.

"Certain major research universities rarely hire from institutions like CUNY," Hu-DeHart says. "[Such] institutions just want different skin tones, but otherwise the candidates all have the same [economic] background." She suggests that more institutions should expand their definition of diversity to include the economically disadvantaged. "Think of the drive and motivation it took to get these students where they are today," she says.

Drain agrees. Graduates from schools such as CUNY often do as well or better than those from top research schools when they are given the opportunity, he says.


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