A University Beats the Odds to Produce Black Ph.D.'s in Math

 

The Chronicle of Higher Education

From the issue dated February 16, 2001

 

A University Beats the Odds to Produce Black Ph.D.'s in Math

 

Maryland's welcoming environment attracts a critical mass

 

By ALEX P. KELLOGG

 

Sherry Scott-Joseph, a visiting assistant professor of statistics at George Washington University, remembers when she first stepped in front of a class. "My students see me and are like, Who's this, who's this?" she laughs.

 

Ms. Scott-Joseph has learned to deal with such reactions. "It's just a saddening situation really, the fact that there are not many

African-American females" in mathematics, she says while gathering a pile of examinations she is to administer to her students.

"But because of the system and the society, we're discouraged."'

 

Black Americans -- and black women in particular -- are not well represented in graduate education; in mathematics, their numbers are particularly dismal. Out of 1,085 math Ph.D.'s conferred nationally in 1999, only 10 went to black Americans. Of those 10, 6 were women. In 1998, 7 of 12 were women. All told, African-Americans typically receive just 0.5 percent of all math Ph.D.'s awarded every year, and for a decade now, the number of black Ph.D.'s has stagnated.

 

It's those numbers that make Ms. Scott-Joseph's graduation last December particularly remarkable. In a quiet ceremony like countless others conducted around the country every year, the University of Maryland at College Park's mathematics department awarded Ph.D.'s to three black women, transforming an otherwise insular ritual into a historic event.

 

The graduating trio -- Tasha Inniss, Kimberly Weems, and Ms. Scott-Joseph -- made history twice that day. They are the first black women to graduate from the program, and their achievement marks the first time that a university that is not historically black has granted mathematics Ph.D.'s to three black women in one class. For Maryland, the occasion could soon be commonplace.

 

Today, fully a third of the program's 213 graduate students are female and just under 15 percent are members of underrepresented minority groups -- including 21 black students, more than some math departments have ever had. According to Patrick Fitzpatrick, the department head, Maryland's math department is second only to Howard University in its number of black doctoral candidates.

 

Like many others, Maryland's department set out to create a more diverse program. Unlike many others, it has succeeded.

 

"I think we've actually paid more than lip service," says Mr. Fitzpatrick. "There is no institution that would not say, We are interested in women and minorities," says Mr. Fitpatrick. "Of course they'll say that. But how many are willing to do something about it?"

 

How did Maryland do it? Students and professors there say that state grants and specific recruitment strategies helped. But the main difference between their department and almost any other, they agree, is the faculty's success in fostering an atmosphere of acceptance, support, and inclusion in an otherwise competitive discipline.

 

"We take this as part of our absolute definite mission," says Mr. Fitzpatrick, "to expand the boundaries of what it means to be a mathematician."

 

"History has shown," says a former department head, Raymond Johnson, that "if you go out and recruit the students, treat them well, and create a supportive community, they succeed." The department head from 1991 to 1996, Mr. Johnson is credited with spearheading the push to diversify the graduate program. His prescription sounds simplistic but, says Mr. Johnson, "there just haven't been enough departments that have made this a high priority. And, of course, there were obvious reasons that I made it a high priority."

 

Mr. Johnson grew up attending segregated schools in Alice, Tex., 50 miles west of Corpus Christi. He graduated from the

University of Texas at Austin in 1963 and entered Rice University that fall, but he couldn't formally enroll in the mathematics department's graduate program for a year because the university was facing legal challenges from alumni over its decision to admit black students. Instead, he attended as a "research assistant" while Rice battled in court. In the meantime, he found out that he was receiving fewer financial perks than the program's other students. He finally received his Ph.D., and in 1968, he became the Maryland math department's first black faculty member (there are now two). Later, he was its first black head.

 

Mr. Johnson says the tenor of mathematics culture has not changed nearly enough since he received his Ph.D.

 

He says women and members of minority groups still face subtle discrimination in academe. "I don't think it's an overt bias," he says, but "in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, people will imply that you don't belong."

 

Ms. Scott-Joseph says that from the first time she visited, in 1993, she found Maryland much more welcoming than other programs she'd seen. "I was looking for a more supportive environment, an environment in which I felt more at ease, and when

I came to Maryland, I instantly felt that." What's more, she adds, Mr. Johnson took her under his wing. "He was instrumental in bringing all of us in. "

 

Although Ms. Scott-Joseph, Ms. Inniss, and Ms. Weems say they hadn't anticipated all the benefits of a more diverse graduate program, they were intimately familiar with the prejudices inherent in a discipline with so few black practitioners.

 

"I have had difficulties as an African-American woman pursuing math," says Ms. Inniss. "I think at some places it can be systematic. I know that my personal experiences were [that] I can be in a classroom and I can raise my hand and never be called on." She recalls professors crediting white students with correct answers she'd already provided. The message, she says, was that "I'm not supposed to be there or I'm not supposed to be doing math." Ultimately, those slights added up. "A lot of times, it can be a very isolating experience," she says. "There were times that I was ignored, where my intellectual ability was not respected."

 

One feature that makes Maryland's program so remarkable is that it has so greatly increased its minority population at a time when the minority pipeline to such programs runs at hardly a trickle.

 

A recent report by the College Board said that as of 1998, only 10 percent of the high-school seniors demonstrating the highest proficiency in reading, science, and math were black, Hispanic, or Native American students. That same year, those minority groups accounted for about one in 20 of the top scores on the SAT.

 

In 1996, Beatriz Chu Clewell and Shirley Vining Brown, two researchers at the Urban Institute, started a project to better understand why minority students weren't faring better in those fields. The pair looked at 135 minority undergraduates at three top universities, all of whom had taken advanced courses in math and science in high school and had scored at least a 550 on the math portion of the SAT.

 

The researchers found that big, impersonal lectures, grueling course work, and a fear of falling behind discouraged minority students from entering the fields. Those were factors for white students, too, but minority students cited them disproportionately.

 

"These people were the tops in their classes, and they are now in a situation where there is intense competition and the topics were very difficult," says Ms. Clewell. "They wanted to be the best, and it was more difficult for them to be the best." The students also reported feeling that math and science instructors seemed more interested in weeding out students than encouraging them to succeed. According to Ms. Clewell, the students often cited the familiar story of a professor asking students to look around the class and remember that "in a few weeks, only 20 percent of you will be left." In their humanities courses, by contrast, the students felt more welcome and more encouraged by faculty members to pursue a degree.

 

Maryland did not design its math program in response to the Urban Institute study, but it is geared to deal with exactly those issues of competitiveness and exclusion that the study highlighted.

 

"They do everything in their power to make sure African-American and other minority students matriculate through their programs," says Ms. Inniss, now an assistant math professor at Trinity College in Washington D.C. "Just in terms of doing simple things," she continues, citing such gestures as monthly meetings where students can voice concerns from curricular issues to administrative changes.

 

Ms. Scott-Joseph, Ms. Inniss, and Ms. Weems were among the first recruits to Mr. Johnson's campaign. Part of the draw for those early entrants were generous, state-financed minority fellowships, later found unconstitutional and discontinued, that freed students from having to teach during their first two years.

 

In addition, Mr. Johnson and other faculty members began creating a safety net for graduate students, intended to shift the focus of the curriculum from punishing failure to fostering success. The department now puts all graduate students through an intensive, one-week orientation when they arrive at Maryland. It's designed to smooth the transition to graduate school.

 

Students are also matched with faculty mentors they can turn to for advice or guidance. And the department offers special seminars to train students to teach, and even provides extra tutoring if they are having difficulty passing their qualifying exams.

 

The program enables students to take an integrated approach to learning math. The department has a combined program in statistics, applied math, and pure math, allowing undecided students to take courses in all three areas until they choose a focus.

Mr. Johnson says the approach allows Maryland to attract minority students who are not necessarily interested in pure math.

 

"I really liked the flexibility of the math program at Maryland," says Ms. Weems, now a researcher at the U.S. Department of

Defense. "I definitely wanted to make sure that I attended a program where I would get a lot of support and just have someone there to talk to and to share my experiences with." At Maryland, Ms. Weems says, she found both. According to Mr. Fitzpatrick, all of those practices add up to a program that enables faculty members to monitor their students' progress toward degrees, and to detect any signs that a student is faltering.

 

"They just realize that this is an environment in which they can prosper," says Mr. Fitzpatrick. "There are black faces, there are males, there are females -- they can see that different kinds of people are here."

 

One of Maryland's goals from the beginning has been to build a critical mass of female and minority students so that the they themselves would become the draw.

 

"We in the African-American-mathematician community make sure that we take care of our own, and we make sure that we guide others into programs that have supportive environments," says Ms. Inniss, who says black students gather regularly to help one another with difficult concepts or test-taking skills.

 

"Once the momentum gets going, it continues of its own accord," says Mr. Johnson, noting that the current students play an active role in recruiting, often speaking to prospects during campus visits.

 

Today, Ph.D. candidates can expect to benefit from the group Maryland has gathered. William Howell, now in his second year, says he never thought it mattered whether he enrolled in a program with other black doctoral candidates -- until he started visiting graduate schools and talking to people. "It's a different feeling being in a class where you're the only black person," they told him. "It's easier to relate to people sometimes who've gone through the same thing you've gone through." In the end, Mr. Howell chose Maryland over Stanford and Princeton Universities, in part because of its diversity and flexibility.

 

For all the success that Mr. Johnson and Mr. Fitzpatrick have fostered on their campus, they concede that little can be done about diversity in graduate schools if there isn't an effort to improve minority representation at the undergraduate level.

 

Just such an effort is being made 30 miles away, at the University of Maryland's Baltimore County campus. There, President

Freeman A. Hrabowski III has had remarkable success with a scholarship program that has placed dozens of black students in graduate math and science programs across the country.

 

Mr. Hrabowski has persuaded students to choose U.M.B.C. over top institutions like Princeton and Johns Hopkins with a fellowship program that is now helping more black students gain undergraduate degrees in biochemistry than at any other university in the country. A whopping 95 percent of the students in the program earn degrees in math or science, and 90 percent go on to pursue advanced degrees.

 

In recent years, Mr. Hrabowski has tracked the success of students offered Meyerhoff fellowships who enrolled elsewhere, to see how the program was faring. He found that only 35 percent of those students had continued in math or science.

 

With an eye on math departments like College Park's, other programs have now begun similar diversity initiatives. Five years ago, the University of Iowa program had no minority students and only a few women; today, more than a quarter of the students are from underrepresented minority groups.

 

The Iowa faculty members became proactive. The professors now recruit at minority-focused math festivals across the country, and go as far as the University of Puerto Rico to attract students.

 

"The whole atmosphere seems to have changed in the last two to three years," says Eugene Madison, a professor. "Some jokingly refer to our program as having transformed from ruralism to pluralism."

 

The math department at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln has made especially notable strides increasing the presence of women, who now are almost half the graduate students. The department chairman, Jim Lewis, agrees with his colleagues at other institutions that an inclusive atmosphere is the key. "Women and minorities tend to succeed best in a supportive environment. An awful lot of people who populate mathematics departments are people like myself -- white males who got their degrees in the 60's and 70's, people who succeeded in a highly competitive environment," says Mr. Lewis.

 

Although the programs at Iowa, Maryland, and Nebraska share an emphasis on supporting students, Maryland's Mr. Fitzpatrick and Mr. Johnson admit that there is no set path to follow, and encourage other programs to think creatively about their options.

 

"The whole thing is a continuing process. I think in no sense do we have the perfect, static model," says Mr. Fitzpatrick. "I think you have to adjust things in order to keep improving the situation."

 

Copyright 2001 by The Chronicle of Higher Education