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MIT Unchanged In Minority PhDs

By Daniel C. Stevenson
Associate News Editor

Despite an increase in overall graduate student enrollment, the percentage of underrepresented minority graduate students at MIT has not significantly changed over the last two decades, according to Associate Dean of the Graduate School Isaac M. Colbert.

On a national level, the number of doctorates earned by minorities increased by 27 percent over the past decade, according to a study released last month by the American Council on Education. However, the study, which was reported in an article in The New York Times, also showed that degrees awarded to blacks dropped by 9 percent and degrees awarded to black males fell by 20 percent.

The number of doctorates awarded to American Indians doubled to 0.6 percent in the 10-year period, while Latinos posted a 41 percent gain. Asian-Americans accounted for 3.2 percent of doctorates issued in 1992, up 1.9 percent from 1982, according to the study.

Underrepresented minorities are those minorities whose representation is less than the national demographics. They comprise 3.8 percent, or approximately 200, of the 5024 graduate students at MIT, Colbert said.

No change for 20 years

At MIT, "trends are flat" for students from underrepresented groups who are in graduate degree programs, Colbert said. Increases in minority enrollment have been offset by increases in the entire graduate student population.

MIT has "not yet reached the level of representation that we had 20 years ago," Colbert said. The graduate program is "struggling to get back" to the levels of the early 1970s.

"We really have to do better in terms of providing opportunities" for African Americans and other underrepresented minorities at MIT, Colbert said. "If there are any excellent students of color out there, we ought to be able to attract them," he said, referring to both underrepresented black and Latino students.

Compared to other colleges, however, "MIT is viewed generally as doing very well in this regard," Colbert said, with "quite a number of effective outreach programs."

Colbert observed that in the trend of constant representation in graduate enrollment, there has been a moderate increase in African American students in the past year. The study is due to be released in upcoming weeks, he added.

This change is mainly the result of a concerted effort by Colbert and Margaret D. Tyler, assistant dean of the graduate school for recruitment, an effort which "certainly has paid off," according to Colbert.

"It seems to me that MIT is making an effort to recruit more black students to get higher degrees," said Andrew C. Humphrey G, president of the Black Graduate Student Association.

Department participation needed

Colbert attributed part of this low representation to the academic departments. "If the faculty wanted these students here in greater numbers, they would be here," he said.

When Tyler was on leave for a year, the number of minority applicants dropped dramatically, according to Colbert. This trend demonstrated that departments were not doing enough recruiting on their own, and were relying on the graduate office, he said.

"The problem lies in departments that make the decisions" about admitting graduate students, said Clarence G. Williams, special assistant to the president and assistant equal opportunity officer. When choosing students, the departments should recognize "all of the constituent elements" of the applicant pool, Williams said.

"We do have representation in departments where it is very difficult to get minority applicants," Colbert said. The division of toxicology division and the departments of physics, aeronautical and astronautical engineering, and mechanical engineering have led in improving minority representation recently, he added.

Emphasis at pre-college level

Both Williams and Colbert point to placing a greater emphasis on the pre-college level as a way to encourage minority participation in undergraduate and graduate science programs.

Along with encouraging capable minority applicants, MIT should "continue to see where we can help on the pre-college level," Williams said.

Primary and secondary schools need to "do a great deal more" to emphasize curriculums that will "point these students to math, science, and engineering," Colbert added.

"In terms of black males, it is not surprising that the numbers have gone extremely downward when you look at the number of black males who do not finish high school," Williams said. The pre-college level "is probably one of the most important places" where science education needs to be emphasized.

Twenty-six percent of black and Latino males are "enmeshed in our legal system," according to Colbert, either imprisoned, under indictment, or with previous criminal records. "Society has sort of written off the black male and the Latino male."

New program has some success

In 1991, Provost Mark S. Wrighton introduced a program to encourage the hiring of minority faculty. The program has not produced "stunning results," Colbert said, but it has "made very clear what the Institutional priority is."

Wrighton's initiative is "a very physical step to be taken," Colbert said, and it is one that few other institutions follow. By establishing the program, "the administration is willing to make sure that the avenues are open and available for targets of opportunity," Colbert said.

This is "probably the most important program that I think we have seen here," Williams said. "We may not see exactly a great deal of progress so far, but I think there are some promising aspects about the program to attract women faculty and minority faculty members."