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California Universities Form Alliance to Diversify the Top of the Ivory Tower

February 14, 2014
by Ben Christopher

Throughout academia, key fields remain decidedly male and monochromatic—particularly math, engineering, and the physical and computer sciences. And despite the pride it takes in being progressive, UC Berkeley is no exception.

That’s why this week the university announced it is forming an alliance with Caltech, UCLA, and Stanford to encourage more underrepresented minority Ph.D. candidates to pursue postdoc and faculty positions within these fields.

Funded by a $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the partnership will serve as an accelerator for minority student advancement. While all four universities already have their own diversity initiatives, this new effort—dubbed the California Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate—aims to strengthen communication and collaboration between the schools.

For example, the program will pick up the tab for exploratory trips to any of the partner schools if underrepresented Ph.D. students want to explore postdoctoral opportunities there. A select group will be invited to attend an annual networking and professional development retreat.

And when anyone with a Ph.D. applies for a postdoctoral fellowship at any of the four universities, the other Alliance schools will automatically review that application as well.

“There’s a critical career step you make from finishing your Ph.D., to perhaps becoming a postdoc, to becoming a professor or a researcher. And we lose a lot of underrepresented minority students as that pipeline shrinks, at each of those phases,”  says Mark A. Richards, the executive dean at Berkeley’s College of Letters and Science and the dean for Mathematical and Physical Sciences.

Statistics across the four schools bear this trend out.  While in 2011, 10 percent of all new Ph.D. candidates in the targeted fields were either African American, Hispanic American, Native American or Pacific Islander, the share of these underrepresented groups diminishes as you move through that “pipeline” to conferred Ph.Ds (8 percent) and postdocs (6 percent).

At the very top of the ivory tower, the demographic makeup is very lopsided indeed. Of the 1,189 faculty members who work across the four schools in these fields, only 51—a mere 4 percent—come from the underrepresented groups. Within individual departments, diversity can be even slighter. Of the 161 Ph.D. students within UC Berkeley’s math department, a grand total of three are African American. Six are Latino. Accounting for gender casts the homogeneity in an even starker light: more than four out of every five candidates is male.

Addressing this imbalance is about more than political correctness for its own sake, says Richards. A faculty that lacks diversity can actually turn away talented Ph.D. students who might otherwise be interested in pursuing a career of academic research.

“Students comes to the university and see that there aren’t many professors who look like them and they figure, ‘well, I must not belong in that business,’ ” he says.

According to Rudy Mendoza-Denton, a professor of psychology at Berkeley, there’s plenty of research to back up that claim. “When students are trying to decide whether a particular field is for them or not, they don’t just focus on the academic side of things. It’s not just about what’s in the book or what’s on the test. It’s also about whether they feel that they can become part of that human enterprise,” says Mendoza-Denton. “Students look for cues as to whether or not they belong and some of those cues relate to race, they relate to ethnicity, and they relate to gender.”

By broadening the pool of potential peers and expanding general support for underrepresented students, the alliance is broadcasting the message “you are not alone,” he says.

And according to some research, that message may not only attract a broader array of student talent, but also actually enhance student performance. Mendoza-Denton describes the effect of “stereotype threat,” in which the fear of confirming a negative stereotype can itself impair performance.

This concept was popularized by the social psychologist Claude Steele, who also happens to be incoming provost at Berkeley. In 1995, he administered a series of GRE-based “cognitive ability” exams to two groups made up of black and white test-takers. The first group was told that the test was being used to measure the individual intelligence of each participant, while the second group was told that the questions were simply a series of problem-solving exercises. After adjusting for SAT scores, Steele and co-investigator Joshua Aronson found that in the first group, the African American test-takers did significantly worse, while in the second group, free from the possibility of assessment, there was no significant difference between the white and black problem-solvers.

In his book, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, Steele describes how stereotype threat has been observed in similar tests on working-class French students (insecure about their ability to speak “properly”), elderly Americans (concerned about their own forgetfulness), and white golfers (when told that their “natural athletic ability” is being compared to African American golfers).

“It’s a problem that has everything to do with the workforce and equity in scientific careers. And we’re going to try to solve this problem.”

“No special susceptibility is required to experience this pressure. Research has found but one prerequisite: The person must care about the performance in question,” Steele notes. “That’s what makes the prospect of confirming the negative stereotype upsetting enough to interfere with that performance.”

One way to alleviate the problem, says Mendoza-Denton, is “to help students feel that they belong. The Alliance is an opportunity to pool resources, but it’s also an opportunity to pool the strength of all those voices that are speaking in support of diversity.”

It’s also, incidentally, an opportunity to pool a whole bunch of data. Mendoza-Denton will coordinate the collecting and sharing of information about the different diversity initiatives at each of the four universities to determine what works best.

No doubt it will be a long slog. After all, UC Berkeley has been promising a more heterogeneous academy for decades—although you wouldn’t know it from the most recent statistics on diversity. But for what it’s worth, Mark Richards is confident that this collaboration will finally begin bending the curve.

“These are four preeminent scientific institutions that are accustomed to solving great problems,” he says. Often those problems relate to genetics, to particle physics, to seismology. “Well, this is another problem and it’s a problem that has everything to do with the workforce and equity in scientific careers. And we’re going to try to solve this problem.”

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