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Global Lessons for Faculty Diversity

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Doctoral Education and the Faculty of the Future
Cornell Higher Education Research Institute (CHERI)

Sunday, October 8, 2006

I begin by applauding Dr. Ehrenberg and the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute (CHERI), for their commitment to interdisciplinary research in higher education. Credible, scholastic examination of the challenges faced by higher education — financial, governance, faculty, research — is deeply appreciated, and is needed, now more than ever. New knowledge creates new bases for realistic, rational transformation, assuring that higher education continues to meet the requirements of the future and the needs of students.

Certainly, empirically based knowledge is essential to inform the national discourse which U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings engaged on September 26th, when she released the "Action Plan for Higher Education." The plan, as I am sure all here well know, is intended to measure and to strengthen the performance of higher education, and to make it more accessible and more affordable. I expect all of us will want to share our views on this subject, as the national discussion gets underway. Where that discussion will lead is a matter for another time.

This seminar, on "Doctoral Education and the Faculty of the Future," will well serve all institutions of higher education, and certainly will be an intrinsic part of the lively discussion to come.

Of course, as a university president — particularly the president of a research university — I share your concern for the continued relevance and quality of higher education, and for the transformation of both doctoral education and faculty membership needed to assure that quality and relevance.

To begin, I pose a premise: to alter an existing construct, one must reexamine the assumptions which undergird that construct. Shifting those assumptions, of course, changes the construct. The status of doctoral education and faculty membership reflect what has gone before, being, as they are, at the high end of the higher education spectrum. To know where these key higher education elements may be headed, it is necessary to examine where American higher education is in relation to the larger context.

The context of our world today might reflect what chaos theorists have called the "butterfly effect" — a way of thinking about a world so inter-connected that a butterfly in our back yard can alter the initial conditions of a chain of events and eventually moderate a monsoon in the South China Sea.

Our world is so changed from when the foundational elements of our institutions were laid, that their originators would not recognize them were they to return. Our oceans are laid with fiber optic cables, business process outsourcing is managed in cyberspace, the pace of change is measured in nanoseconds, and the butterfly effect seems no longer so theoretical. Our planet is smaller and more completely interdependent than we yet have been willing to admit, or to employ. Globalization has facilitated trade and cultural exchange, but, in addition, cyberspace now hides networks of terrorists, and accelerated, expanded travel has brought with it new pathways for spreading disease.

The new realities of this globally interdependent world also have brought a new kind of global accountability to our shores.

Let us examine one aspect, as an example, and as an entry point to understanding.

Six years ago, the importance of educating women was underlined by the UNESCO World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, which highlighted the urgency of ensuring the education of girls and women across the globe as a key element of poverty eradication and economic development. This precept was reiterated in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), also set in 2000, which put time-bound, measurable targets at the heart of the global agenda to combat poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation, and discrimination against women.

The impact of women teachers is demonstrated to have a positive impact on the education of girls by the correlation between the number of women teachers and girls' enrollment, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. In countries where there are relatively equal numbers of male and female primary teachers, there is close to gender parity in student intake.

By contrast, in nations where only 20 percent or less of teachers are women, there are far more boys than girls in school. However, large scale trends tend to mask more complex local factors. In Nepal, as one example, local factors might include assuring that a school day's timing coincides positively with girls' domestic obligations, and with ensuring safe, secure school environments which encourage parents to allow their girls to attend.

It is not much of a stretch to translate these examples into our own milieu. The global focus on the education of women raises important questions for us. It is a kind of call to accountability, which I believe we are wise to address.

How, within this context, do we justify and explain the breakdown, at the highest end of the education spectrum in the United States, which results in women and ethnic minority groups being under-represented across the board in Ph.D. programs, and in faculty appointments?

How do we justify and explain this, especially when women and ethnic minorities, together, comprise the new American demographic majority? How do we justify and explain that this under-representation is especially true in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM fields), when our economy relies so much upon scientific discovery and innovation as essential elements of wealth creation, and which derive, primarily, from advanced research and development?

My colleagues, here this evening, surely, will examine these factors with greater precision and specificity than I can tonight. But, I believe it is worthwhile reviewing the issue in the "macro," in order to grasp some of its guiding truths.

Since the mid-1980s, more women than men have earned associate's, bachelor's, and master's degrees. The number of women receiving all types of degrees rose at a rate faster than for men — with bachelor's degrees awarded to men increasing by 12 percent while those awarded to women rose by 26 percent, during the decade between the 1993-94 academic year and 2003-04. In 2003-04, women earned 47 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded, while men earned 53 percent. Thirty years ago, in the 1976-77 academic year, women earned 24 percent of the doctoral degrees.

The figures for ethnic minority scholars, however, are less encouraging. In the 2003-04 academic year, Black, non-Hispanics earned 6 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded, while Hispanic scholars earned 3.4 percent. Native American scholars earned 0.4 percent of doctoral degrees earned. Thirty years ago, the comparable numbers were 3.8 percent for Blacks, 1.6 percent for Hispanics, and 0.3 percent for Native Americans.

The progress in degrees earned by women — and the considerably less significant increases in degrees earned by ethnic minorities — has led to the following: in 2003, white women comprised 36 percent of all college faculty, while white males made up 47 percent. About 15 percent of U.S. faculty in colleges and universities were minorities — with 6 percent Black, 5 percent were Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 4 percent Hispanic.

The situation is particularly acute in the STEM professions. Women make up an increasing proportion of science and engineering majors at all universities. At the doctoral level, for instance, women made up 17.6 percent of all engineering and engineering technology degrees.

In 2004, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) published "Standing Our Ground: A Guidebook for STEM Educators in the Post Michigan Era." In 2005, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation released its study, "Diversity and the PhD: A Review of Efforts to Broaden Race and Ethnicity in U.S. Doctoral Education." Both reviewed the educational attainment of African Americans and Hispanic Americans in higher education. Their findings suggest that there has been progress in diversifying American higher education. However, despite the progress, African Americans and Hispanic Americans remain critically underrepresented. In fact, although about 32 percent of the doctoral age U.S. population in 2003 was African American or Hispanic American, these groups represented less than 10 percent of all doctoral recipients for that year.

For women, and for ethnic minorities, to participate to their full potential, across all science and engineering fields, they must see career paths which allow them to reach their full intellectual potential. They must see, and relate to, women who have successfully reached their own professional goals and who will be leaders, role models, and mentors. There is much to improve in this area. And until it does, it is likely that women, and underrepresented ethnic minorities, will continue to be discouraged from top-flight research careers and faculty appointments in STEM fields.

The National Academy of Sciences recent report, "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering," released last month, examined the status of women in science and engineering. The report identified eight major findings, concluding that:

  • Women have the innate ability, and they have the drive to do science and engineering;
  • Women interested in STEM fields regularly are lost at every pipeline transition point
  • In several fields, there is gender parity in the pipeline. But, while the proportion of women PhDs reaches 30 percent in the social and behavioral sciences and 20 percent in life sciences, these numbers are not reflected in the make up of the faculties of the top research universities, where women represent only 15.4 percent of the full professors in the social and behavioral sciences and 14.8 percent of the life sciences.
  • Women are likely to face discrimination — both deliberate and inadvertent — especially in faculty appointment, retention, and advancement, in environments which favor men.
  • Both men and women hold implicit biases;
  • Evaluation criteria contain usually unintentional, but nevertheless arbitrary and subjective, components which disadvantage women — including lower pay, slower promotion, and fewer honors and leadership positions. In addition, flexibility, diplomacy, curiosity, motivation, and dedication — which may be more vital to success — often are disregarded in favor of assertiveness and single-mindedness — traits stereotypically viewed as unacceptable for women.
  • Academic organizational structures and rules, which appear neutral, actually can contribute significantly to the under employment of women in science and engineering academic positions. Professional constraints and expectations often are based on the assumption of substantial spousal support, despite the fact that the majority of faculty — men and women — no longer have this kind of traditional support.
  • The last finding reiterates a theme of mine, and many others, especially in the corporate sector — namely that the consequences of NOT acting will negatively impact our nation's competitiveness.

The National Academies' report and its recommendations complement, and expand upon, a flurry of reports which have been released in the last couple of years, and with which I have been directly involved.

These reports address our need to remain globally competitive and to bolster our national capacity for innovation by ensuring that we prepare, access, and use our total pool of human intellectual capital.

There are a variety of converging trends at work:

  • We have failed to excite and inspire our young people to achieve to the highest levels, as their middling scores on international science and mathematics examinations consistently demonstrate.
  • There is an insufficient number of young scholars in our nation's science and engineering "pipeline" to replace the highly skilled science and engineering professionals who will retire in the next five to ten years.
  • U.S. immigration policies and new opportunities abroad have slowed the flow of international students, scientists, and engineers — who long have been an important source of skilled talent for the U.S. science and engineering research enterprise.
  • Finally, our national demographics have shifted. Young women and ethnic minority youth now account for more than half of our population. These youth traditionally have been under-represented in science, mathematics, engineering and technology. It is from this nontraditional group — this "new majority" — that the next generations of scientists and engineers must also come.

These converging trends comprise what I term the "Quiet Crisis."

It is "quiet" because these are creeping trends — the true impact unfolds only gradually, over time, and is easy to ignore or overlook. But, because it takes decades to educate and fully prepare a professional scientist or engineer, we must continually prepare the next generations of STEM professionals, and invest in programs which nurture and develop them along the complete educational and career pipeline.

It is a "crisis" because discoveries, inventions, and innovations create whole new industries to keep our economy thriving, and mitigate the global scourges which make for human suffering and global instability. Without these innovations we fail — as a nation and as a world.

The impact of the "Quiet Crisis" is vividly observable in the growing need for energy security.

Energy security reaches beyond our own nation, as this planet's 6.5 billion people are pressuring the world's energy supplies. By the year 2050, there will be 8 to 10 billion people, and their energy needs will grow with their developing economies; but today, 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity. Energy security, indeed, may be the 21st century's greatest global challenge. The stability which true global energy security would offer the world would be priceless.

I could speak at length on the issue of energy security, but that, too, is for another time. However, I make two points:

1. Major innovative advances and innovation, and the development and exploitation of new technologies require human talent, of necessity, drawn from the complete talent pool — including from our "new majority."

2. Energy security is a global issue. As such, it is a cross-cultural and geopolitical issue. We need diverse faculty to educate scholars for a diverse world.

I have been calling for a national conversation on the Quiet Crisis to address our nation's capacity for innovation. In an open letter to President Bush in advance of his January 2006 State of the Union address, I made the point that, just as President Kennedy galvanized the nation in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, so too should we galvanize as a nation around energy security. Indeed, energy security is the space race of the 21st Century.

It is a race against time, just as it was then. We are in the midst of global competition and global geopolitics, just as we were then.

The conversation on a U.S. national innovation agenda is engaged. The reports, by corporate, academic, and government entities — joined, now, by the National Academies report on women and science — all warn of the consequences, if we fail to act.

The President unveiled his "American Competitiveness Initiative," during his State of the Union address in January. The 10-year, $136 billion plan combines increased federal science and education spending with tax breaks for research and easier visa access for highly skilled international workers. The President's Plan would extend and expand tax credits for research and development costs. The initiative was received positively. However, some of its elements have become tangled in more controversial issues such as the estate tax and conflicting immigration proposals, not to mention electoral politics.

The House, now, has passed two 2007 spending bills which include an additional $439 million for the National Science Foundation, and an additional $505 million for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. Two days before the October recess, the Senate introduced the National Competitiveness Investment Act. This bill is a combination of several previous legislative efforts based on the National Academies "Gathering Storm" report and the Council on Competitiveness National Innovation Initiative report. The bill may have the opportunity to pass the Senate before the end of the year. Let us hope so, and work for its passage.

The work of CHERI and this conference is a key part of the higher education infrastructure which we must examine and improve, so that when these, and other efforts, are successful and draw additional young women and ethnic minority scholars from our "new majority" into the STEM and other disciplines, higher education will be ready and positioned to encourage and to smooth their paths to the highest levels.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute faces this challenge, as well.

Rensselaer is committed to, and is aggressively recruiting, diverse faculty, and we have made some improvements.

During the past 10 years, the number of women faculty at Rensselaer has increased by 47 percent, and underrepresented minority faculty by 150 percent. Rensselaer ranks 13th in the number of African Americans and 18th in Hispanics awarded Masters Degrees in Engineering. Rensselaer produced 3 percent of all Doctorate Degrees in Engineering awarded to Hispanics in 2003. Overall Rensselaer ranks 6th in the number of Doctorate Degrees in Computer and Information Sciences awarded to minorities and 33rd in Engineering.

However, when Rensselaer began to really push this effort, with the beginning of my tenure in 1999, the Institute was well back in the pack. Now, we are approaching the national averages. As we know, percentages are one thing, and numbers are another.

Of the total tenured/tenure track faculty at Rensselaer, women represent 20 percent. African Americans represent 3 percent, and Hispanic Americans 5 percent.

The numbers are one outcome measure. What is, perhaps, more important are the policies and programs which are put into place to encourage and support women and underrepresented groups — programs and policies which apply to doctoral students as well as faculty. As one example, Rensselaer is putting into place a graduate student maternity leave policy which would enable a graduate student to keep her scholarship until she returns.

At Rensselaer, we have, as well, a network for mentoring women and minority faculty. Mentoring is monitored at key junctures to assure that individuals are making career progress. This is intended to improve the supportiveness of the environment and to lead to better tenure outcomes.

The Rensselaer Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate holds weekly seminars for graduate students and those interested in going to graduate school, covering subjects such as applying for fellowships, supports for surviving in graduate school, and career preparation.

I do not doubt that there are many unique programs and best practices which are helpful, and which will make a difference in the long run. Most of all, however, I believe that real change requires leadership and commitment at the top levels of a university — indeed of any institution. Real change does not occur without it.


As I said at the outset, I believe that we are well challenged by the United Nations focus on the education of women, globally, and that this raises important questions for us, despite the fact that we are speaking of the highest levels of achievement amid the very best universities the world has to offer.

Yet, if we use the sub-Saharan African, or Nepalese, experience as guidance, we understand that commitment makes all the difference in outcome.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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