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Supporting The Minority Faculty Of Tomorrow

December 21, 2002

Nick Marinello

mr4@tulane.edu

No one understands the subtle consequences of ethnic and racial homogeneity better than those who must function outside its parameters. In academia, minority faculty members have long known that the time they spend as teachers and scholars is regularly taxed by a workload not officially listed in the job description being "available."

"It's not something everyone else is doing, but everyone is thankful you're doing it," says Calvin Mackie, associate professor of mechanical engineering. With so few African Americans on faculty, Mackie must make himself available to African-American and other minority students who need counseling or just to talk. When a diversity-related program or committee is being planned, Mackie is invariably recruited.

"As minority faculty members this is what we do," he says. "Because it must be done." And it will always be so until a "critical mass" of members from underrepresented minority groups are on university faculties. Which is why Mackie is optimistic about Tulane's participation in a new program to increase diversity in graduate education and, ultimately, the professoriat in Louisiana.

Mackie, along with Hank Bart, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and Lester Lefton, provost and chief academic officer, are recipients of a $2.5 million National Science Foundation grant that will be used to coordinate a team of Louisiana universities to further the education of minority science students.

The Graduate Alliance for Education in Louisiana comprises three historically black Louisiana universities and two Carnegie Research I universities. Mackie and Bart refer to the first group, which includes Dillard, Xavier and Southern universities, as "feeder" schools and the latter group, composed of Tulane and Louisiana State University, as "finishing" schools.

"We want to tap into those feeder schools and recruit the best students into our graduate programs," says Bart, who notes that, with the exception of Xavier's pharmacology program and Southern's environmental science program, graduate programs are in short supply at Louisiana's historically black universities.

In many respects, the funding will help extend efforts already being made on campus through the Louisiana Alliance for Minority Participation, a program created in 1995 with funding from the NSF and the Louisiana Board of Regents to increase the number of minority students receiving undergraduate degrees in science, technology, engineering and math. Bart and Mackie are the co-coordinators of that program on campus (see the September 1996 issue of Inside Tulane for a story on LAMP).

Mackie sees the two programs coexisting to "pipeline" qualified students from high school graduation to their first faculty positions. In keeping with that, the NSF grant will be used to set up and staff an office on campus to coordinate a panoply of initiatives.

Beginning in January, the work will begin to recruit minority students into Tulane's science, engineering and math graduate programs. The next step will be to offer academic mentoring and social support to those students who are already here. Stipends and other financial incentives also will be made available. By next semester, Mackie and Bart expect to see "peer survival sessions" fostering dialogue among minority graduate students who often feel isolated.

At the same time, they hope to create a dialogue with non-minority faculty members on the needs of minority students coming to a predominantly white university.

"We realize that for this to be a success we need to have the involvement of all the faculty," says Mackie. The goal is to produce 45 doctoral degrees annually by 2006.

Because of its size, LSU will produce the lion's share of that number, says Bart, but he expects Tulane to significantly increase its ranks of minority graduate students. There are 25 graduate students currently enrolled in Bart's department, ecology and evolutionary biology. Of that number, minority groups are represented by only one African-American student.

"She does feel isolated," says Bart. "I think if we had three or four minority students she would feel more comfortable." And finding a comfort zone is important, says Mackie, who suggests that because graduate school has not historically been an option for minorities, "these students may not like the culture of graduate schools and shy away from them."

Or, says Mackie, many qualified students with an interest in science will opt out of a career in academics, choosing lucrative professions in engineering and medicine instead.

"Part of the rationale for this funding is that minority populations are not being served because we are not recruiting them into our faculties," says Bart. "The needs of minority populations would be better served if we were. We need to have the perspective of minority scholars and researchers in terms of developing science policy and agenda."

Nick Marinello may be reached at mr4@tulane.edu.

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