Black Computer Scientists in Academe: An Endangered Species?

M. Brian Blake and Juan E. Gilbert, Chronicle of Higher Education, September 19, 2010

Black people are so underrepresented in computer science that the term “black computer scientist” might be considered an oxymoron.

African-Americans represent about 13 percent of the U.S. population but less than 6 percent of all faculty members at American colleges and universities. In the field of computer science, however, they make up only 1.3 percent of the faculty, according to the Computing Research Association’s widely used “Taulbee Survey Report.”

Furthermore, while statistics vary, the percentage of doctorates awarded to black computer scientists is small: The report says 1.6 percent of such degrees went to blacks in 2008-9, while federal data show that 3.7 percent, or 26 of 695 doctorate recipients in computer and information sciences in 2008, were black U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

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Given the evolving role that information technology plays in our day-to-day lives, one would think that more blacks would be pursuing computer science. So why are we not producing American-born black computer-science professors? Since the two of us fall into that category (and are, we hope, professionally successful), we hear this question all too often: Why aren’t there more like us?

The presumed answers are many. Are black students not interested in or adequately exposed to computing fields? Are they not prepared? Or, as some may wonder (but will never say), do black students lack the aptitude to succeed in computer science? {snip} Is it unreasonable to assume that students would not gravitate to a field that has so few people who look like them?

Several scholarly studies have suggested that African-Americans tend to select occupations in which they have had contact with successful black role models. {snip}

We wonder if black students receive different instruction. Among science and math graduate students, 17 percent of black students reported publishing journal articles, while the figures for other groups were 49 percent for Asians, 42 percent for Hispanics, and 47 percent for whites, according to Three Magic Letters: Getting to Ph.D. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).

At the same time, in our experience, we generally believe that administrators sincerely want success for underrepresented minorities (which in our field means female, black, Hispanic, and American Indian students). Often this adds pressure on faculty members to be successful when they mentor such students. Wouldn’t such implicit, and sometimes explicit, pressure alter a natural mentoring relationship?

We offer several recommendations for increasing the number of black computer scientists: Provide access and exposure. Black students need more access to information about computing careers and more exposure to role models who make them feel welcome in the field. {snip} Obviously, there is a need for black role models in computing.

Treat the entire pipeline. Interventions that increase the overall number of black computer scientists must range from elementary- and secondary-school students to undergraduates, graduate students, and new Ph.D.’s. We believe that students develop their personal preferences of professions at an early age, even before high school. The way computing is presented to them can have a profound impact on their perception of the field. If the material is not presented in an accessible manner, or if the student cannot relate to the presenter, we lose that student.

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All activities are designed to address barriers, concerns, and misunderstandings about jobs and research in computer science. The activities have included a series of presentations at historically black colleges and universities by black computer-science professors and graduate students from various institutions. Together we run a group that provides mentors for graduate students who want to become academics, and an annual miniconference designed to help undergraduates and graduate students build research and other skills.

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The mentoring process can be summed up in two words–tough love. Considering the dearth of black students and the pressure for success, do faculty mentors feel comfortable setting high expectations and giving their black mentees the constructive criticism necessary for success in the academic job market? We believe this might be a significant challenge when the communication must cross ethnic and gender lines. Obviously, same-race mentorship is not absolutely necessary, as we both had non-black Ph.D. advisers (Hassan Gomaa, at George Mason University, for Mr. Blake, and C.Y. Han, at the University of Cincinnati, for Mr. Gilbert).

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