- Institutional Influences that Promote Studying Down in Engineering Diversity Research
Despite a thirty-year history of initiatives and interventions to recruit and retain women and other minority engineering students, women remain a minority in engineering, and enrollments of female engineering students have declined from gains made in the 1980s and 1990s.1 In the United States, enrollments of female students seem to peak and plateau at around 20 percent, with many institutions having a much lower percentage than that. Enrollments of people of color are on average even lower. Significant time, energy, and money has been spent trying to increase diversity (read: numbers of minority students) but has not led to the desired gains in enrollments of female and other minority students.
In the spring of 2013 the following text appeared in a job announcement for a newly created position called director of diversity research, located within a college of engineering at a large public research university in the midwestern region of the United States:
Principal duties: The College of Engineering recognizes that in order to ensure successful outcomes, diversity programs require leadership that has the experience, training and expertise to apply the appropriate theory and research framework to program development, implementation, administration, and evaluation. This approach allows the College of Engineering to identify theoretically sound, evidence-based strategies to support student success. A programming approach that is grounded in a research framework can provide the evidence and rationale that allows for institutional transformation that supports and sustains diversity. The Diversity Director … will conduct research and contribute to the research-based knowledge about the interventions and practices that lead to diversifying the engineering profession and will be responsible for managing, designing, leading and implementing researchbased [End Page 88] practices that support and maintain diversity in the College of Engineering.
Degree and area of specialization: Doctorate required; preferably in a discipline that provides quantitative, qualitative and organizational systems training, such as sociology, industrial engineering or other social science degree.
This was a newly created position with the stated aim of developing evidence-based programs and conducting research to increase diversity within their college of engineering. It should be emphasized that this engineering college already has a Diversity Affairs Office that runs outreach and minority student programs. This was a new position that was ostensibly dedicated to original diversity research.
As part of the interview, the search committee asked candidates to develop a ten-minute presentation outlining their research goals for the position. I was a candidate, and my proposed research agenda centered on studying faculty and all students, as opposed to problematizing women and other minority students. I proposed that it was important to understand faculty beliefs and practices surrounding diversity and to target interventions to the entire student body rather than solely to fixing perceived deficiencies in minority students. I explained that these were important and severely neglected research topics because despite key studies revealing the significance of faculty and classroom interactions to minority students, the vast majority of research continues to focus narrowly on those students themselves. I also explained that I had a successful publication record built around conducting research of exactly the sort I was proposing to continue in the new position.
It quickly became clear, however, that the position was in actuality for traditional program development and evaluation targeting minority students only. The search committee's questions centered solely around my experience with program development and implementation, k–12 outreach, and undergraduate students. It is possible they asked about these topics because they felt they already understood my research goals and agenda, but the questions indicated to me that they were not interested in advancing the research landscape or addressing the limitations of the status quo in engineering diversity research. There was no vision for how and why the research landscape needs to change. This conclusion was reinforced when they explained that the first task the person in the position would be doing would be to analyze data they had collected over many years from the summer programs they run for k–12 students. The data consisted of questionnaires covering items such as interest in engineering and intent to pursue engineering in college...