By Lina Sorg
Diverse representation within the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is a highly-charged issue that inspires much debate. Academics regularly advocate in favor of equal opportunities for underrepresented minorities, but total parity remains a work-in-progress. During a panel discussion at the 2019 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering, which took place earlier this year in Spokane, Wash., Carlos Castillo-Chavez (Arizona State University), Rachel Kuske (Georgia Institute of Technology), Eve Riskin (University of Washington), and Jamol Pender (Cornell University) addressed the topic of diversity from both the student and faculty perspective. The panelists shared firsthand experiences, offered practical suggestions, and proposed various strategies that promote equality and inclusion for minority mathematicians.
While higher institutions continuously work to acknowledge and prevent discrimination, disheartening biases persist. “This problem of making one feel inadequate and incompetent is still very pervasive in many math departments,” Castillo-Chavez said. “There’s usually a few faculty members that make life very complicated and discourage women or minorities.” As a faculty member, educating oneself about such biases—whether involuntary or deliberate—is a valuable first step towards their ultimate eradication.
When hiring new employees or recruiting graduate students, Riskin encouraged existing staff to keep the applicant search broad and open. “Recognize that underrepresented candidates are subject to different expectations,” she said. “The bar automatically goes up and people scrutinize more carefully in ways they wouldn’t otherwise.” Collecting data on the candidate pool is also helpful. For example, acknowledging that females comprise 20 percent of applicants for an open position prevents employers from claiming that no qualified women exist. “We’re not saying you should hire someone because they are a woman,” Riskin continued, “we’re saying you shouldn’t not hire someone because they are a woman.”
Pender encouraged faculty members to reflect on things they already do, such as delivering invited talks and attending conferences, and consider how they can augment these activities to practice inclusiveness and reach a larger audience. For example, he asks to meet with minority-serving student groups—like the National Society of Black Engineers or the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers—whenever he speaks at a university. “This is a recruiting tool,” Pender said. “You can meet a wide variety of students who you’re trying to target for your graduate programs.” Additionally, he visits historically black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions whenever possible to interact with and encourage underrepresented populations. If Pender is invited to give a talk at Georgia Tech, he also goes to Morehouse College. When traveling to Texas A&M University, he stops at Prairie View A&M University. Students see themselves in the speakers, he said, so it is helpful for them to interact with people who look like they do.
Pender also divulged a more casual strategy for connecting with pupils from his classes — he invites them to dinner at the dining hall. “They’re already paying to go to the dining hall, so I just show up and eat with some of the students there,” he said. “You have to eat, so this is a good way to engage with students around you and understand their perspective on how things are going.”
Conversation then shifted from the viewpoint of faculty to that of the underrepresented students themselves. When applying to graduate programs, it is sometimes difficult for minority students to identify universities and educators that will actively help them succeed. “Talk to faculty, visit, talk to grad students,” Castillo-Chavez said. “Look at the records, as records are very telling. At the end of the day you have to feel comfortable.”
Kuske suggested that prospective students look for programs that include coursework flexibility, easy access to mentors, and opportunities for regular engagement with classmates via groups or organizations that build one’s support system. “Those are simple things you can find on the websites or ask when you’re visiting,” she said. “It will come out fairly clearly whether there’s a sense of community, or a sense of trying to find a flexible way that’s not just one-size-fits-all so people can make it through.”
Riskin touted the Washington State Academic RedShirt program as an example of a beneficial flexibility. The two-year program helps engineering and computer science students from low-income, first-generation, and underserved backgrounds transition to college-level engineering courses. It involves a specialized curriculum that prepares participants for core math and science prerequisites, and ultimately guarantees them placement in an engineering or computer science major. Riskin added that students should pitch their unique situations as strengths rather than liabilities. She recalled one scholar who used her first-generation status as a testament to her work ethic; that same woman is now applying to graduate programs. “What might seem like a bug can actually be an asset because we faculty want students who are going to work very hard,” she said.
When an audience member wondered how students can work with faculty to increase diversity within their departments, Pender suggested having a specific goal in mind and assessing the different courses of action to best achieve it. When he was a graduate student, his department sought to increase the number of underrepresented minorities. Pender proposed a conference that invited undergraduate students to present their research at Princeton. The administration was extremely supportive and even brought in mathematicians from around the country to speak to the students in attendance. The conference became a recurring event, familiarized attendees with Princeton, and ultimately increased diversity among graduate-level applications.
In situations where the faculty is less open to direct input from students, Riskin suggested that graduate students sign a collective letter communicating their concerns and requests. However, she cautioned that they should do their research beforehand, because sometimes a department might be addressing relevant issues behind the scenes but not communicating its efforts. “Certainly those letters do get attention,” she said. “They can cause a lot of heartbreak for the department chair, but sometimes the heartbreak is needed.”
Kuske noted that students who ask for something that already exists—but to which they lack access—are likely indicative of a need for departmental restructuring. She recalled having witnessed a few departments whose hiring processes were stuck in a rut. As a result, students voiced their collective opinion that the departments were not offering courses that appealed to their professional interests and goals. These candid discussions gradually helped shape diversity in the hiring process and encouraged department staff to be more forward-looking. Pender shared that Cornell’s School of Operations Research and Information Engineering allows graduate students to meet with and offer feedback on prospective hires.
Castillo-Chavez acknowledged that while interactions between students and staff can be instrumental, the hiring process is ultimately up to the faculty. He thus recommended that hiring committees incorporate colleagues from different departments to minimize bias and work towards making open-minded thinking the standard rather than the exception. “Often faculty members want to hire students from schools they know or colleagues they respect,” he said. “That’s where the problem lies. I think that’s the biggest roadblock to increasing diversity.”