Summer 2003


A Small First Step

Jesús Pando, Phillip Cervantes, Ruth Howes

Even with the slight upturn in enrollment of the last two years, undergraduate physics enrollments have dropped 20% during the past decade.  Physics departments have offset a similar decline in US students entering graduate school by recruiting foreign students who now make up more than half of all entering grad students in physics. In many physics departments, the low number of graduate students has forced them to rely more on undergraduate teaching assistants while at the same time faculty lines are not being replaced as faculty retire.  In light of these developments, it is perhaps time for physicists to consider changing the way we conduct business in order to attract new people and new ideas to the field.

Ironically, just at the time the physics departments most need students, historically under-represented groups that form a large and increasing pool of students are not being drawn to the field.  Only 5% and 3% of Bachelor’s degrees earned in the year 2000 went to US citizens who are African-Americans and Hispanics, respectively.  At the graduate level, the numbers are even more disappointing.  In 2000, only 17 Ph.D.s (3%) in physics were granted to African-Americans and 14 (2%), to Hispanic-Americans.   These proportions are well below those that characterize the general population of U.S. college students.  Clearly, it is enlightened self-interest for physics departments to discover how to increase the numbers of Hispanic-American and African-American students who major in physics.

Recently, the National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics completed SPIN-UP (Strategic Programs for Innovation in Undergraduate Physics).  SPIN-UP surveyed all bachelor degree granting physics departments in the country and did twenty-one site visits to “thriving” (primarily in terms of majors) physics departments. These departments proved excellent models for building supportive environments for majors.  However, even among these thriving departments, none was successful in attracting majors from under-represented groups.  Perhaps the nurturing environments that attract majors to these physics departments are nurturing primarily to those students that have historically populated physics.  It may be that these environments are necessary to retain these students, but it is clear from the SPIN-UP results that they are not sufficient to attract minorities to the discipline.

Under these circumstances, it is in the interest of physics departments to create a culture to which talented minority students will be attracted.  A critical component of such a culture is physics faculty who work at attracting and retaining physics majors from underrepresented groups. These faculty members need not themselves be from under-represented groups, but they should have an understanding of the unique issues minority students face. For example, the very great importance of the family in Hispanic-American culture may cause students from that culture to appear less than dedicated to physics than their majority colleagues.  Similarly, African-American students may feel pressure from their peers to pursue academic areas such as law or medicine with a direct relationship to their home communities.  All physics departments need at least one faculty member who is familiar with these cultures and can educate other faculty members as well as act as an advisor and mentor to minority students.  Departments with no faculty of color probably face a harder time trying to achieve this than those departments that do have faculty from under-represented groups. These efforts take substantial time and effort and should be recognized as a meritorious part of faculty work.  Departments must take responsibility for recruiting and hiring faculty able and willing to fill this role.

Typically, physics departments seek new faculty by forming a search committee charged with finding the best candidate for the position based on a set of perceived objective criteria.  The reality is that setting these criteria is frequently highly political so that 1) the criteria are not actually objective, and 2) the criteria strongly reflect the makeup of the existing department.  The SPIN-UP site visits found that departments tend to recruit individuals like those already in the department.  If new faculty members continue to be hired in this way, the historically under-represented groups in physics will remain so because the culture of physics will not have changed.

To facilitate the hiring of faculty that can affect cultural change, we propose two simple and definite actions: 

First, the criteria for any new hire in a physics department should include a phrase like:

The candidate should have a demonstrated ability and commitment to the success of students of diverse backgrounds.

Second, when a new faculty member has been hired, the criteria on which the new department member is evaluated must include similar language.  Efforts to increase diversity require time that can only be taken from research and teaching.  These efforts must be recognized as attributes toward tenure and promotion.

Physics has historically thrived in times when new ideas clash with established ones.  It is our belief that physics can also thrive on the kinds of creative ideas that are generated at the interface of diverse cultures. (S.J. Gates, Physics and Society, 25, (July 1996))

Furthermore, we live in an age of global competition, and the United States must cultivate the scientific talent of all its citizens if it is to remain competitive. When all of this is combined with the decreasing enrollments in physics departments, it becomes essential for physics departments to diversify by hiring faculty who can attract and retain students from underrepresented groups.  We cannot emphasize enough that this imperative is no longer based solely on ethical reasons, as was affirmative action, but also on the pragmatic realities that physics departments must face in order to thrive.

Jesus Pando is Assistant Professor of Physics in the Department of Physics, DePaul University, Chicago, IL 60614

Philip Cervantes is Assistant Professor of Physics in the Department of Physics, Colorado College, Colorado Springs, CO 80903.

Ruth Howes is George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor Emerita Of Physics and Astronomy in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Ball State University, Muncie, IN 47306.