Paul Penfield, Jr., "NEEDHA President's Message," The Interface, IEEE Education Society and ASEE Electrical and Computer Engineering Division; Number 3, November, 1996; pp. 5 - 6.
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NEEDHA President's Message

Paul Penfield, Jr.

This is my first chance as President of NEEDHA (National Electrical Engineering Department Heads Association) to address the readers of The Interface . I appreciate this opportunity, and hope that what I have to say in these few columns will prove to be of interest.

In case you wondered, my term of office lasts one year, starting July 1, 1996. The former President was Sherra Kerns of Vanderbilt University, and the next President will be Bill Brown, of the University of Arkansas.

In these columns I will not dwell too much on NEEDHA itself, but instead focus on larger issues that face electrical-engineering education, and higher education more generally. Today let me bring up a topic that concerns all department chairs, and which is also of importance to the entire readership of The Interface .

The issue is faculty diversity. In a nutshell, this is the question of whether the faculty of our departments should reflect the racial and gender (and perhaps other types of) diversity of society at large. Several types of differences exist among people which lead to most stereotypes. They are the ones most often addressed by diversity programs.

Now is an appropriate time for this discussion, because of the controversy surrounding many current programs, such as affirmative action, for making faculty positions (and student admissions and financial aid) accessible to under-represented minorities or women. These programs seem to be under attack by politicians, alumni, and other groups. Many positions on this question come from those feeling sympathy for individuals who are affected (on both sides); much is rooted in passionate ideology, moral principles, or political philosophy; and some is part of pressures from "above," either the central administration of the university, or state legislatures, or federal mandates. As an illustration of the chaotic state of affairs in universities, consider the article by Chang-Lin Tien, the Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, in the March 31, 1996 New York Times. His position differed from that of the Regents of his university system, who the previous July had voted to end affirmative action admission policies.

In the midst of controversy it is easy to forget why such programs exist at all. The best reasons for increasing faculty diversity of an academic department have nothing to do with these controversial arguments.

In my view, the argument in favor of programs to insure a diverse faculty is very simple: we as educators can do a better job educating our students if our faculty reflect the diversity found in society and/or the student body.

I take it for granted that the fundamental mission of an academic department is to educate its students. Historically, most college and university students, at least in electrical engineering, were white American males. And our graduates went to work in a white-dominated American society and a male-dominated workplace. In such circumstances it is understandable that most of the electrical-engineering faculty of the nation would be white American males.

Today, things are different in two ways. First, the student population is changed. Electrical engineering undergraduates in some universities are now 30% to 40% women. In 1980, 20% of the high-school-age population were students of color, and the figure will be twice that in 2020. In time, our students will reflect the same diversity as society at large. In my own university, the percentage of white male freshmen went from 60% in 1980 to 36% in 1990.

Second, the places in which our students will pursue their careers are changing. Demographic studies have concluded that there simply will not be enough white males to populate the job openings. Our graduates will increasingly find themselves working with women or minority members. Globalization of our industries will require that our students be comfortable working with people from other countries and cultures.

A diverse faculty, one with a substantial number of women and minority professors, can do a better job educating students in this new environment, in at least three ways.

  1. College-age students need role models, and faculty serve this function whether they like it or not. Professors are seen by students as successful people with an exciting career, in many cases the most successful people they have ever met. What kind of a message is sent to our students if all successful people they see are white men? This message can limit the aspirations of women and under-represented minority students, who would not be led to believe they are capable of the same sort of success. But that is not all. It can reinforce stereotypes among white male students, who should instead learn that excellence and success can be found in both genders and all races. And our faculty themselves are not free of stereotypical thinking -- they need to rub shoulders on a day-to-day basis with people different from themselves in order to gain true respect for the groups those people represent. This argument supports a goal of having a faculty whose diversity reflects that of the engineering profession as it will be some years hence.
  2. College-age students, perhaps more than people later in their careers, relate more easily to people who are similar. If we have as a goal that all students should get to know individual faculty members, it is much easier for women and minority students if there are women and minority faculty available for advice, counseling, and general friendship. This argument supports a goal of having a faculty whose diversity reflects that of the student body.
  3. Diversity provides a more exciting, interesting, and insightful environment for engineering education than homogeneity. The different viewpoints brought to engineering problems by women and men are important for all students (and faculty, for that matter) to see. Faculty who come from different social backgrounds can express different perspectives on social priorities for engineering projects. This argument supports a goal of having a faculty whose diversity reflects that of society at large.

Note that this reasoning is grounded firmly in our fundamental mission. Tracing the justification back to fundamentals is very important. It enables department heads to expect the participation of all members of the department in such programs -- since such participation is a job requirement, no one can refuse to co-operate with enthusiasm because of personal ideological or moral positions. Also, when such programs (inevitably) conflict with other principles or programs that are also designed to help us fulfill our basic mission, compromises and priorities can be established by appealing to the same basic objectives. Finally, the design of any program depends on the purpose it serves; if we do the right thing for the wrong reason, we may do it in the wrong way.

The arguments above are only a bare sketch of what they might be. You will have to fill in the details yourself. You might examine whether the particular arguments apply to your own university and your own department, and if so for which types of diversity. Many departments already enjoy the benefits of a significant number of faculty of Asian descent. Many also have a faculty with diverse national origins and cultural backgrounds. At least one university has announced a program to increase the number of gay faculty members. In general the needs that are most frequently perceived are for women faculty, Black faculty, and Hispanic faculty. The arguments above would seem to apply to these groups, at least at most universities. An essay applying these ideas to my own department was published in The MIT Faculty Newsletter in 1994 and is available for those who may be interested: http://www-mtl.mit.edu/users/penfield/pppubs.html.

It is true that the details of the argument presented above, and the priority of applying them to specific groups, may differ from one department to another. However, the important thing to remember is that since the benefits of faculty diversity show up at the department level, programs to improve the diversity should be designed and implemented by departments.

As educators we should take the discussion of diversity out of the hands of politicians, special-interest groups, and narrow-thinking alumni with preconceived ideologies. We can do this by phrasing the debate as a matter of effective education, rather than one of ideology.

Paul Penfield, Jr.
Head, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
penfield@mit.edu

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Created: Sep 25, 1996  |  Modified: Dec 31, 1998
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