Stanford and UC Berkeley might be staunch rivals on the football field, but the universities are banding together for another, common mission: to get under-represented minority students through math and science Ph.D. programs and into faculty positions.
The two schools have partnered with UC Los Angeles and the California Institute of Technology to form what they're calling the California Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate. The aim of the new group is to encourage under-represented minorities - Hispanics, African-Americans, American Indians, Pacific Islanders - to pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) Ph.D.s and then to take up professor positions or jobs in top laboratories.
Right now, those minority groups make up just 10 percent of new Ph.D. students and just four percent of faculty, according to the alliance. Those numbers are low and they're not rising nearly as fast as the number of minorities in the state.
"We're constantly on the look-out for new funding opportunities, new ideas, new initiatives that can help increase the diversity at Berkeley within the STEM field," Berkeley psychology professor Rudy Mendoza-Denton, a research director for the group, said during a phone interview with Fusion. "We were particularly intrigued by the possibility of teaming up efforts."
The group will use a $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to kick-start the effort. Students and faculty will hold conferences to get to know each other and set up mentorships and networking opportunities. There will be faculty training to help minorities succeed and surveys of the students themselves to see what factors impact their decisions to pursue or not pursue advanced degrees or jobs in labs or as professors. With a larger sample size than one individual university would have alone, the alliance hopes to be able to identify the specific approaches - funding incentives, mentor programs, summer bridge programs - that help students. The group will also oversee a database to help schools and labs identify and recruit postdoctoral students and faculty.
While the group is just getting started and plans to initially focus on helping already enrolled students complete their Ph.D.s and find employment, long-term, the schools hope their efforts will impact much younger students.
"We recognize that the process begins much, much earlier," Mendoza-Denton said.
To set under-represented minorities up with mentors who are at the next stage of their education or career, those mentors have to exist. Students tend to look up to people they feel can relate to their life experiences. Right now, there simply aren't enough under-represented minorities on university faculties or in STEM Ph.D. programs to make that feasible.
"If you find a role model you can identify with, it’s easier to become the person you want to be," Rebecca Hernandez, a fourth-year environmental earth system science Ph.D. student at Stanford University said, according to a news release.
But the first-generation college student has had trouble finding a mentor herself. Just one of the 18 faculty members in her department is an underrepresented minority. Only three of the 51 Ph.D. students are from underrepresented minority groups.
“The applicant pool is so competitive for academic tenure track positions, and it can be a greater challenge for women and minorities in STEM fields,” she said, according to the release. “We need more women, more people of color, and a diverse body of intellectuals and academics in our faculty demographics to bring up the next generation.”
"There's a huge benefit to having minority students within these STEM fields see that their struggles are not just their own," Mendoza-Denton said.
The lack of diversity in the sciences isn't just a college problem. The pre-kindergarten to twelfth grade student body in the United States is more than 45 percent students of color, but just 17.5 percent of teachers are educators of color. Of the 30,000 or so high school students who took the computer science Advanced Placement test in 2013, three percent were African-American and eight percent were Hispanic, well below the percentage of people in the country who are black and Latino.
College Board, which oversees the AP tests, has made a concerted attempt in recent months to diversify the students taking the exam but it's still a fledgling effort.
"Too often educators aren't well-prepared or equipped with how to deal with the challenges and nuances of the people who come into their classrooms that are not as well-prepared academically, socially, intellectually and emotionally as they should be," Dr. Roy Jones is the director of the Call Me MISTER program, which offers tuition assistance through scholarships and loan forgiveness to students who pursue specific education courses told Fusion last year. "So having teachers that are culturally sensitive and that have similar backgrounds has always been viewed as value added to any school situation."
Clearly, there's a lot of work to be done and the younger under-represented minorities have access to mentors and opportunities in STEM, the better. The universities behind the California Alliance say the group is a step in the right direction.
"There's a lot of good will and mutual recognition," Mendoza-Denton said, "that there's a common goal here."
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.