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MIT Faculty Diversity

March 29, 2010 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 88, ISSUE 13

The diversity issues confronting Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s science programs are the same for most colleges and universities in the U.S. (C&EN, Jan. 25, page 11). I do not believe that the issue is one of conscious bias, but the biggest contributor to the disparity between numbers of minority faculty compared with the general population is one of a very narrow pipeline for supply.

About 20 years ago, C&EN ran a lengthy article on the pipeline of minorities for chemistry careers. The pipeline narrows very quickly. One of the minority scientists profiled, the director of research at IT&T, pointed out how his middle school adviser tried to keep him out of algebra. No algebra in middle school means no advanced mathematics in high school, means no major in chemistry or physics in college, means no talent in the Ph.D. applicant pool, means ... You get my message.

Although the problem was clear in that article, nothing has been done to increase the numbers of minorities taking the fast track for mathematics in middle school, and so 20 years later, MIT cannot find adequate minority applicants for its faculty position.

I have helped run a special curriculum for fourth- and fifth-grade Advanced & Gifted (A/G) classrooms in North Carolina’s Pitt County Schools. Entry into the program requires a score of at least 75th percentile on the third-grade end-of-grade test. The school system is 50% African American, but the A/G program is only 5% minority. This tells me that if you want to increase the number of minorities, mostly in lower socioeconomic standing, you have to go back all the way to the third grade to make your changes. In the meantime, No Child Left Behind is making this situation worse.

At the other end, Ph.D. programs in the sciences must compete with medical schools for the few minorities graduating college with science majors. The last two faculty positions filled here at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine, Greenville, N.C., did not have even one minority applicant.

The root of the problem is still way back there in third grade. That is a long time horizon to correct the problem.

Brian A. McMillen
Greenville, N.C.

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