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Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Today and Tomorrow

Deans at four prestigious HBCUs talk to GECC about diversity in the tech industry

By Linda Formichelli

With the tech industry looking to increase diversity, more frequently companies are turning to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to recruit students. Are HBCUs making a substancial contribution to diversity in the tech industry? What's the future of tech education and how will HBCUs figure in? We spoke with deans at four prestigious HBCUs known for their strong engineering and computer science programs to get the answers.

James Johnson, Ph.D.

Howard University

School of Engineering at the College of Engineering, Architecture and Computer Science, Washington, D.C.,
James Johnson, Ph.D., Dean

Can you tell me about the history of the engineering and computer science programs at your university?

The university started offering engineering courses in 1908 and established our first engineering program in 1911. The computer science program grew out of a graduate program that began in the late '60s, and then we moved to a systems computer science undergraduate program in the '70s.

Two years ago, we introduced a bachelor of science in computer engineering.

The computer science program was one of our largest programs in terms of incoming classes, and electrical engineering had begun to see a decline in enrollment. We wanted to introduce computer engineering, and its greatest ally was the electrical engineering department. In order to create the department of electrical and computer engineering, the university had to add very few resources, and [we knew] it would probably produce a better distribution of our enrollment, which meant we could better utilize the resources we had. [The university was] very open to this idea because we could point to a growing need across the country.

The program started in the fall of '03. The results that we anticipated happened; we had a decrease in the enrollment in the department of systems computer science because students had additional choices with the addition of computer engineering.

Have tech programs in HBCUs done anything to affect diversity in the industry?

If you go back maybe 15 years, you'll see that the HBCUs represented greater than 30% of the underrepresented groups going into an industry. Today we're still making an impact, but we probably represent 28% of the minority students going into computer science areas. You have to realize that there are over 300 engineering schools in the country, and [HBCUs] represent a subset of about ten. So we have ten out of 300 universities producing maybe 25% to 30% of the output in that area. It's a major impact when you look at the total picture.

Are non-HBCU schools affecting diversity in the tech fields?

What I've observed is that overall there's a flattening of the output of students overall. You're seeing a lot of growth in the Hispanic community, but because of the recent University of Michigan court rulings [when the Supreme Court ruled that colleges could favor minority students in admissions], there's been a decline of minority students coming in overall. So there are increases in one place and decreases in another, but that's very dynamic and may change.

We all need to do more on the majority side. What you have is an increase in white females, but you also have the possibility for an increase in African Americans and Hispanics that needs to be cultivated. But that pool will soon not be as great because of K-12 pipeline issues. We're finding that population-wise there are more [students coming in], but the preparedness of that population is less.

Do HBCUs have a higher success rate in graduating tech students than majority schools?

We do. At Howard, we're getting two out of three of our engineering students all the way through. Last year, we had 87% of our students who came in as freshmen in 2003 come back to us as second year students in 2004.

What's your program's relationship with the local tech community?

There was an article about this in the Washington Post; they said our relationship with the local community was perhaps not as strong as some other universities. We may not have cultivated local relationships because being a private school our focus is national. We do have relationships that are local, like Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Accenture. We also have relationships with the government, whether it be with the Department of Transportation or the EPA. We have strong relationships with the Public Works Department because we house the Transportation Research Center for the District of Columbia.

We also have relationships with local consulting firms; but not in the sense that a public institution that's in Washington, D.C. would. But our focus is national; we have relationships with companies across the country like Moog, which makes components for the automotive industry, Hewlett-Packard and United Technologies. We also have strong relationships with Chrysler, Ford and GM.

Are these companies actively recruiting minorities?

These companies are actively recruiting minorities, and we have some creative ways for them to do it. We'll talk about Ford as a model for what we do. We're able to work with Ford and help them recruit students from the greater Detroit area; we provide a package for the students. When they're recruited, we provide scholarship funds for them and Ford provides them with an internship; we call it our Hometown Scholars Program. The companies help us recruit students where they have offices.

We also give the companies a chance to interact with our students in the Corporate Team Adoption program. One of the complaints that companies had years ago was that engineering programs across the country were not graduating students with the kind of skill sets that made them very usable once they got to the job site. Companies have decided they'd like to work with our students from the day they walk in. So they adopt groups of about 15 students that come from various departments in the college; they begin to work with them on projects to help them develop skill sets they'll need. The company sends representatives to the campus several times each semester to work with that team.

Florida A&M University

College of Engineering
Tallahassee, FL
Reginald Perry, Ph.D.
Associate Dean of Student Affairs and Curriculum

Can you tell me about the history of your program?

Our computer engineering program is actually relatively new; we started it in 1999. In fact, we actually went through the first ABET (Accredidation Board for Engineering and Technology) accreditation for the program and it was accredited. I think we have the only accredited computer engineering program at an HBCU.

The college is a unique joint college between two universities-Florida A&M University, which is an HBCU, and Florida State University, which started out as a college for women but is now a majority institution. Together they have a joint college of engineering. We have one facility that's shared by both universities; students from both campuses come to the joint college for all their engineering courses. That started in 1982. At the time, both universities wanted colleges of engineering. Since we're both public institutions, the state legislature basically said, "We're not going to fund two of these, so either have a joint program or have no program." And 23 years later, we're still here.

What networking opportunities does your program offer with the tech industry?

Our students tend to be fairly well sought after. When we first got started, we weren't graduating a whole lot of students; it's only in the last decade that our numbers have gotten really significant. Companies would find us and we were like this diamond in the rough-they'd say, "Oh, I know about this place that no one else knows about." So we were able to establish a lot of very good relationships early on. But now we're better known; we have a fairly extensive network of companies that want to be involved with us in terms of being able to recruit our students.

We have an Industry Day that we hold every year during Engineering Week where companies can come and showcase themselves to our students, and we can showcase some of the things that we do at the university. We also have traditional career fairs every semester. Because of the uniqueness of our college, we have a joint career fair for both institutions. It's always a really exciting day because we have the whole building filled with recruiters.

Do HBCUs have a high success rate in graduating tech students?

In terms of students that complete through the Ph.D., a large percentage of them receive their undergraduate degrees from HBCUs. One of the reasons for that is because HBCUs provide an environment that allows students, especially at the undergraduate level, to build those intangible skills that you need to be successful-leadership skills, self confidence, and how you perform in certain environments. [Those skills] provide students with a really good momentum in terms of going into a graduate program, even if it's at a traditionally white institution, which will allow them to succeed at any institution.

Are you seeing enrollment go up?

The enrollments have dipped a bit. We saw large enrollments during the boom when everyone wanted to be an engineer, and then we saw it go down with the bust. We're still pleased with the enrollments, but we'd like them to go higher.

What do you see for the future of tech education, and how will HBCUs figure in?

I think the United States needs to produce engineers, and we need to have them being produced at every institution that has the ability to do it. HBCUs have a niche in the sense that they're a place where some of our citizens want to go to get their education. I don't see an HBCU being any different than a small liberal arts college or an institution that caters to female students or a military academy. You need different types of institutions because you have different types of people. For our country to remain a global leader, we're going to have to produce people who are technically literate. Scientists and engineers are going to be the folks who are going to lead.

Kenneth Williams, Ph.D.

North Carolina A&T State University

Computer Science Department, Greensboro, NC., Kenneth Williams, Ph.D., Chair

Can you tell us about the history of your computer
science program?

We've been giving computer science degrees for about 20 years at the least. We formed the computer science department about 12 years ago; originally degrees were from the math department. In 1992 computer sciences separated and became their own department in the College of Engineering. In 1993 we became accredited and shortly after that we started our master's program, and that's what we've been doing since then.

Have you had to overcome any obstacles?

Nothing spectacular. We have been moving forward pretty steadily. Lately the enrollment has dropped a bit. Our enrollment two to three years ago was up to about 350 undergraduates and about 65 grads. The graduate enrollment stayed pretty constant, but the undergraduate enrollment dropped when they introduced a computer engineering degree. The computer engineering department created a computer engineering degree, and I knew that many of our students in computer science would want to be in computer engineering if they had such a program. Now they do, and some of them went there. And of course, there's a national decline in the number of people enrolling in computer science. We've managed to weather that pretty well; after the initial drop, we've been increasing our enrollment each year, but only by a little bit.

Is there active recruitment of minority graduates in the field of computer science?

Companies recruit our graduates quite a bit. We have a job fair in the fall and hundreds of companies come here. Who recruits them? Practically everybody. Every company in the Fortune 500. And if you take a handful of letters and mix them up, there's probably a federal agency with that acronym and we have some students there. It's not as strong as it used to be-in the past anybody with a degree could get a job. Now not everybody has a job when they graduate. But when they do get a job, the offers are still quite good. The average starting salary for a computer science major here is $51,800.

What nurturing opportunities do you offer?

One of the things we try very hard to do is make sure students have an opportunity to get help if they need it. If someone has a difficulty, there are all sorts of people for him or her to see. The entire faculty has office hours for 10 hours a week. We hire tutors to help the students. We have supplemental instructors-upperclassmen who sit in on classes and then hold separate recitation sections where they answer questions. It's optional, but if students have any questions or problems, we try to provide them an opportunity to understand the material.

What types of companies usually scout talent at your university?

Everybody comes here. The top employer right now for our undergraduates is IBM, but most of the companies that hire our students are not computer companies. Our students go to work for General Mills, General Motors, General Electric and General Foods-they're not computer companies, but everyone needs people with computer skills. Our students go all over. In the graduate program right now the National Security Agency is hiring our students.

We have a scholarship program from the National Science Foundation that provides the students with a good scholarship in the graduate program if they want to work in the area of computer security. They have to work for the federal government for two years upon graduation. The National Security Agency is the head agency in that area, so they've been hiring a lot of our students as well.

Tuskegee University

College of Engineering, Architecture and Physical Science
Legand L. Burge, Ph.D.
Dean, College of Engineering, Architecture and Physical Science

What's the history of your university?

After the Civil War, an enormous number of churches and religious people thought it was needed to teach folks how to read and write. Schools started such as Hampton, which produced people like Booker T. Washington. In the late 1870s, there was a political deal struck in the Macon county area that said, "If we elect you, then you will provide a school for us." Tuskegee was birthed from that in 1881.

How about the engineering and computer science department?

Engineering came about in the late '40s or early '50s after the war. We've been accredited here for at least 55 years if not more.

Computer science was a spin-off of mathematics back in the '70s. So when computational mathematics came around, it was necessary that we include an applied mathematics degree. That was begun, and computer science, engineering, architecture and physics all came to be part of our college in the '90s.

What challenges have you faced as a dean?

I'm trying to bring more multidisciplinary facets to what we're doing here now and that's been a challenge. The way of doing business in independent disciplines was the way I was taught. I graduated in 1970. You became an electrical engineer, you did electrical things, you worried about circuits and power and motors and all that. Now you have a systems approach to everything, and that bridging together-not only of the engineering disciplines but also across the sciences and the health fields-has become the way we do business. We've talked about some classes for engineers taught by the medical folks,
and we've talked about some technology literacy classes to be taught by engineers to the liberal arts people.

What do HBCUs offer students that more integrated colleges do not?

This question is frequently asked of me, and I take this opportunity to share some insights and ameliorate misconceptions. While there is a continuous struggle for operating funds at my school, we are a very integrated institution, and perhaps overwhelmingly assist the student toward the goal of graduation and employment. HBCUs account for some six percent of all four-year U.S. colleges and universities and 21% of all African-American collegians, but award 28% of all baccalaureate degrees to African Americans. When considering degrees in science and engineering, this percentage jumps to 31%. You will find data that shows that of the graduate degrees received over the last 30 years, nearly 25% of the doctorates have begun with the bachelors from the HBCUs. Our college sends about 23% of its graduates on to graduate school.

Is diversity increasing in the tech industry? If so, how are HBCUs contributing to that?

It depends on how you are counting diversity. African Americans and Hispanics are counted about six percent, and women are counted about 20% in the tech fields today. The U.S. population is majority women yet they hold few high-tech and are limited in the leadership positions at the CEO level-only five CEOs of high-tech companies today are women. People of color are becoming a majority with census projections (not including internationals), yet they do not dominate the technology industry.

HBCU engineering programs are about three percent of the ABET accredited schools in the country, yet we produce some 31% of the African Americans in engineering-a significant contribution.

Of my graduates, over 60% are female now. In some majors, such as chemical engineering, females count as high as 75%. I am sure this is very common amongst the other HBCU engineering programs. I will graduate approximately 150 students this year.

If 30 go on to grad school and two or three get Ph.D.s, we have contributed a significant amount. The others will be gainfully employed or start their own companies.

Linda Formichelli has written for Women's Day, Wired, Family Circle and Business Start-Ups. She writes from her home in Southeast Massachusetts and can be reached at


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