Gabriel Gutierrez has wanted a career in science since his days at a parochial high school in Chicago, when an advanced-placement biology course introduced him to the excitement of laboratory work.
He did well as an undergrad at Loyola University in Chicago, and his grades might have lifted him into a graduate biology program in any case. But an effort to increase the number of minority PhDs in the United States - and thus the number of black and hispanic college professors - is giving him and others an extra boost.
Mr. Gutierrez is one of three graduate students in the molecular and cell biology department of the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Conn., who are taking advantage of the Compact for Faculty Diversity, a program sponsored by regional higher-education associations in New England, the South, and the West. In the three regions, a total of 60 doctorate students are attending public and private colleges, concentrating in the natural sciences, math, and engineering - fields where minority PhDs are especially scarce.
The aid comes in the form of a one-year fellowship that pays for the first year in graduate school, freeing them from teaching responsibilities for that year, then in the form of teaching assistantships for the final four years of doctorate work.
Special emphasis is put on helping students through the year that it ideally takes to write a dissertation, a particularly high hurdle for many would-be PhDs, says JoAnn Moody, vice president of the New England Board of Higher Education, one of the three groups spearheading the project. ``So there's guaranteed financial aid all the way through,'' she says.
Role models for students
The long-term goal is to develop 400 new minority faculty members by the turn of the century. ``Minority faculty are role models for minority students; they communicate the possibility of success.... Equally important, minority faculty communicate the diversity of our society ... they verify that talent flourishes without regard to color or culture.'' An estimated one-third of college students will be from minority backgrounds by the year 2000, while the proportion of minority faculty is stuck at around 12 percent.
Those numbers alarm some Americans more than others. Many are concerned that efforts to give special help to minorities can boomerang into ``reverse discrimination,'' pushing out qualified white PhD candidates. But Ms. Moody says the Compact has so far received no such criticism.
James Henkel, dean of graduate studies at the University of Connecticut, stresses that ``we try very hard to make sure these people are not tokens. We fully integrate them and support them.'' It's critical, Mr. Henkel says, that minority graduate students merge with the academic life of a department, shouldering the same duties and meeting the same standards as other doctoral candidates. That approach avoids the ``stigma'' of affirmative action, he says. ``We expect these students to be able to compete anywhere in the world,'' in landing a professorship or winning a research grant, he adds.
Finding qualified students to enter the program has presented a problem, but intensive networking can surmount it, Moody and Henkel say.
Gutierrez, for one, already had the University of Connecticut on his list of desirable grad schools before he heard of the Compact for Faculty Diversity. ``I just sort of stumbled on it,'' he says of the program.
Promoting mutual support
The strategy of the New England schools that participate has been to ``cluster'' minority doctoral candidates in one academic department - such as molecular and cell biology at the University of Connecticut - to promote mutual support and reduce feelings of isolation. It also focuses ``education enhancement'' funds, which accompany compact participants, on a particular department. These funds support seminars on teaching and other activities that benefit everyone in the department.
Program funding ($42.5 million through mid-1999) comes from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Ford Foundation, participating universities and colleges, and state governments.
The Compact for Faculty Diversity follows dozens of partially successful attempts over the past three decades to increase the number of minority college faculty. Many schools are pursuing their own programs. The University of California, for instance, is making a special effort to hire younger, entry-level faculty from minority backgrounds, says Trevor Chandler, executive director of academic affirmative action for the nine-campus system.
Science faculty scarce
Everett Winters, affirmative- action officer at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, recalls past efforts at SMU to recruit graduate-school candidates from historically black colleges. It is particularly hard to find students in the natural sciences and engineering, he says, and even if minority students make it through to a college teaching job, they may be overwhelmed by demands on their time to serve as counselors to minority undergraduates - which can work against their own development as scholars.
Too often, some observers say, institutions have fiercely competed for a tiny pool of minority PhDs, sometimes distorting salaries for starting professors and causing resentment. The aim of the Compact for Faculty Diversity, Henkel says, is ``to grow more professors, rather than to fight over the few we have.''