Building Engineering and Science Talent

Blue Ribbon Panels
Congressional Testimony of Richard Tapia

September 26, 2002


Thank you. My topic is university program leadership, producing women and underrepresented minorities in science and engineering programs at research universities. I’ve been very successful at Rice in the mathematical sciences. I thank you for the opportunity to share my life, to share my love, and to share some things that I have learned.

I’ll start with my first point, everything i.e. success or failure depends on leadership, strong, forceful, respected, effective leadership. My second point, is that administration from top to bottom must support the activity. This is absolutely necessary to promote buy-in at the faculty level. If the administration doesn’t support, then the faculty has a way out, it is extremely important to have the administration support, but they don't do the activity, they support it.

Success in promoting underrepresented minorities and women in science, engineering and mathematics, requires a champion. The champion must be a respected member of the faculty. The champion will serve as an advocate. I serve as much as an advocate as I do mentor. The faculty champion should serve as advocate and mentor for students.

This is what I do on a daily basis. When a student gets into a bad situation, needs an advocate, needs to be represented either to another faculty member of two departments, I am there for them. It’s difficult for this leadership to be given by a staff member or a non-faculty member of the administration. Faculty will say to this individual, you don’t really know what it’s like. You haven’t been there.

The person who is the advocate and essentially the leader can say I have been there, in fact I’ve been there at all aspects of the game. The lead individual should be a woman or minority but doesn’t have to be so. Many people have succeeded who were not underrepresented minorities or women.

Positions of national leadership are produced in major research universities. If we want to produce minority leaders, then we must have minorities represented in these universities. This is essentially the message of Bowen and Bok in their book, “The Shape of the River.”

We can’t continue to have a two-tier or fragmented system. Minority-serving institutions do good jobs. They can be very, very good feeder schools and they do a very good job of mentoring and instilling love and passion, but they can't do the entire job. They do a good job.

Ph.D.’s produced at minority-serving institutions will not become the scientific leaders of the community or the professional organizations. Outreach activity is not rewarded at research universities. Often this activity will jeopardize the university career of a young faculty member.

We need a reform of the reward system. The reward system right now is very traditional and has not changed in years. As such we can not use it to change a system with deficiencies that have been there. It is very important to reward individuals at the national level.

The Presidential Mentoring Awards, and NSF Awards, are important. They’re important not because we do these for recognition and reward but they add credibility to the activity. Every time I win an award, the president comes back and says, wow this must be something that is really of great value. It adds credibility. The first awarding of the Presidential Mentoring Award, it facilitated my life. It made my things much, much easier.

A couple other issues, so definitely reform of the reward system at universities has to be seriously looked at, and I ask government, national organizations to continue to add to the reward system.

On a personal note, I’m very concerned with the fact that diversity not mask underrepresentation. They are different issues. We can have an extremely diverse group and deal with extreme diversity as we are today in the hiring of university faculty, but it doesn’t address those members of underrepresented groups. It addresses more people who come from offshore. That’s very diverse and I believe in it, but it doesn’t address under-representation as I know it.

We must be careful of saying we solved the problems when we have foreign Hispanics versus domestic-raised Hispanics, an individual who comes from another country, gets a Ph.D. here and stays on the faculty. This individual does not understand the problems of the barrios, of the cities, does not understand the extra baggage that we as United States raised minorities must carry and must deal with.

An acid test that I ask foreign-born Hispanics is to view the movie “Stand and Deliver” and tell me what it’s about, and if they say I don’t know what it’s about, then I say you can’t help. If you say I understand it completely, you can help. In Houston, Texas every K-12 teacher is required to view “Stand and Deliver” and articulate its message.

You do not have to be a woman or minority to help. We need help from all. Retention is a critical issue. A non-supportive environment drives away women and minorities from science, engineering, mathematics at good universities. They migrate towards other majors.

We are losing the precious few that went through the system, the precious few who got through high school and went into these careers and then we drive them away. What a sin it is to lose a precious few and we also have to, of course, consider the ones that never got there, but to lose the ones that got to that point is perhaps a harsher sin than to not get the ones that could have been there.

The ones who are true to their career and probably would have a chance, why do we lose them? We lose them because an environment that is not friendly, environments that are not nurturing and supportive. The problem is biggest at the undergraduate level, second largest at the graduate level, faculty third. That’s because of numbers, the sheer numbers game, not because of difficulty, the sheer numbers game.

Above all, we must give encouragement and guidance and practice tough love at all levels. We have to be proactive. We must nurture and mentor. Students must hear positive things from respected faculty, not just from the mothers. The faculty has to come in and say here is a success. You have been successful. Without that type of encouragement, we can’t make it.

I deal with professional and personal issues on a daily basis and I deal with whatever else is left over. Thank you for this opportunity.


Minority & Outreach VitaeMain 2004 Richard Tapia - updated 01/29/2004 • maintained by Hilena Vargas (