First Efforts to Diversify the Undergraduate Student Body in the SOE
By 1976 CCNY as a whole had a student population that was not far from what it is today, 55% Black and Hispanic, 25% Asian and 20% white. This diversity was unique among colleges in the United States and reflected the demographics of New York City. This was not true of the SOE because of the math and science admission requirements and the gender balance was overwhelming male. In 1976 I took on the role of faculty advisor to the newly formed student chapter of the Society of Women Engineers because in a tenured faculty of 125 there was not a single female. I was mentored in this role by Eleanor Baum, a former alumnus, and first female dean of an engineering school in the U.S., who at the time was at Cooper Union. The main function of our student chapter was to visit and recruit women and URM students from the public high schools in NYC. Over the next 10 years I, and my student group, made over 90 such visits. In 1985 the SOE hired Carol Steiner, its first tenure track female faculty member since Cecilia Froehlich, a German Jewish émigré and friend of Eleanor Roosevelt who taught at the college after WW II. The leadership of SWE passed to Carol.
To enhance the above effort I went in the spring of 1977 to see CCNY President Robert Marshak, the noted physicist, and asked if he would give me $5000 to start the first summer outreach program for students from inner city high schools, who were interested in science and engineering. The money paid for transportation, lunches and a small stipend since many of the students would normally try to get jobs during the summer. The students helped graduate students in the college laboratories and heard lectures on various careers in the sciences and engineering. This effort turned out to be highly successful and in short order was greatly expanded by other faculty at CCNY and the other CUNY colleges.
First Efforts to Diversify the Faculty in the SOE
1986 and 1987 were a major transition at the SOE. While the above efforts significantly helped diversify the student body in the SOE, the faculty did not reflect this diversity nor did my own graduate students. Up until 1987 I had mentored 19 PhD students, all male, though one was African-American. This former student, Ghebre Tzghai, is now Associate Director of Global Health Care Research for Procter and Gamble and inventor of the first tarter control toothpaste and several deodorants. By chance the SOE was searching for a new dean in the spring of 1986. I realized that this was a golden opportunity to recruit a URM dean with a commitment to diversifying our faculty. The department chairs initially had appointed themselves as the search committee, but there was a faculty revolt and by vote a decision was made to choose faculty who had the greatest external recognition for their research. Having been just appointed CUNY Distinguished Professor, I was selected and the committee chose me as their chair. Few thought there would be a significant pool of qualified URM candidates. With the help of Heywood Burns, founder of CCNY’s Urban Legal Studies Program and later first Dean of the new CUNY Law School, and other Black colleagues outside CUNY, 13 qualified URM candidates were identified. Charles Watkins was selected as the first African-American Dean of an engineering school in the U.S. outside the HBCUs. Dean Watkins had been chair of ME at Howard University and was the driving force behind the first engineering PhD program established at a HBCU.
My Search for Female Graduate Students
My failure to have any female PhD students in my first 20 years at CCNY was an embarrassment having both a spouse and daughter who are ardent feminists. It was something I knew I had to correct, but in my 20 years in ME at the time the department had not had a single female PhD student. I had been to China in 1983 as part of the first U.S.–China–Japan (now includes Singapore) Conference in Biomechanics and realized that there were a fair number of female graduate students in ME, many near the top of their class. On my next sabbatical in 1987 I spent a month visiting the top Chinese institutions and letting their faculty know that I was especially interested in women wishing to pursue the PhD. The first of these recruits is known to many of you, Professor Bingmei Fu. In the 22 years since then I have had 26 PhD students and 16 have been women. Initially, all my female PhD students were from China, but in the past decade with the establishment of many BME programs nationally this has greatly changed.
A Nice Surprise
In 1988 something entirely unexpected happened. There are 300,000 public service employees in NYC and every year The Fund for the City of New York chooses six to receive from the Mayor the Public Service Award for NYC. A friend asked if she could nominate me and to my amazement I became the first CUNY faculty recipient of this award. The tribute that appeared in the NY Times 12/13/88 under my picture said “for his role in helping making the college the largest source of minority engineering graduates in the country.” In truth there were many faculty who contributed to this honor. CCNY no longer holds this distinction because many schools have recruited URM students and a number of these institutions have far larger total engineering enrollments. Nevertheless, the newly named Grove School of Engineering (after Andrew Grove co-founder of Intel) is still one of only a few schools of engineering identified as a minority serving institution with roughly 50% of its undergraduates URMs. In 2009 the Fund for the City of New York with the support of the Sloan Foundation instituted a new award to honor outstanding science, and math faculty in the NYC public high schools. I have had the honor of being asked to serve as the first chair of the selection committee.
Weinbaum-Cuomo Civil Rights Lawsuit 1992–1996
The recession of 1990–1992 had a major impact on New York State. Governor Cuomo had nearly doubled the tuition at CUNY and SUNY over a 2-year time span and many of the CUNY students were particularly hard hit. CCNY was again the lead CUNY institution in a series of campus takeovers. My son Daniel’s participation in the CCNY takeover sensitized me to the dissatisfaction of many of our students. Also the State Legislature had never honored the promise made by Governor Carey that CUNY and SUNY would be funded equally. In spring 1992 I attended the FASEB meeting in Atlanta with the idea in mind that I would also visit Habitat for Humanity to see if I could get former President Carter to be a commencement speaker. In the waiting room there was a copy of USA Today in which there was a special feature on the U.S. Supreme Court case pending that summer against the University of Mississippi. Thirty years after James Meredith had integrated “Ole Miss” the undergraduate student body was still only 9% Black, whereas Jackson State, a HBCU, was 93% Black and received funding per student that fell 12% short of that of “Ole Miss” though both were PhD granting institutions. Intuitively, I knew that the same was true in supposedly liberal New York State where at the time the senior colleges of CUNY were 54% students of color, whereas the SUNY senior colleges were 90% white. With the community colleges included CUNY was two-thirds Black and Hispanic whereas SUNY was 85% white. The alleged difference in funding per student was nearly the same as in Mississippi. In addition, my research indicated that state financial support for graduate students at SUNY was six times that at CUNY. The alleged difference in state funding between CCNY and SUNY Stony Brook, the major science campuses of both systems, was close to 25% per student.
I went armed with these statistics to present Governor David Paterson, who at the time was leader of the Black and Hispanic Caucus in the State Legislature. I asked him if he was aware of these inequities to which he replied that of course he was and then added that his supporters were far too few to do anything about it. Governor Paterson wrote an article for New York Newsday that weekend using my data on ethnicity, student support and enrollment and encouraged me to seek legal action. I studied the details of the Mississippi case in the Brooklyn Law School library and drafted the outline of a brief with five principal charges. This draft was brought to the Center for Constitutional Rights, a well known progressive civil rights law firm in New York and the case was taken on pro bono. The lead lawyer assigned to the case initially was Franklin Siegel, and was later transferred to Frank Deale when Siegel left for private practice. The preparation of the lawsuit required major organizational details including the solicitation of student and faculty plaintiffs from all the senior colleges, the CUNY Graduate School and several of the larger community colleges. A CUNY Legal action Committee was formed headed by me and a dear friend, Camille Rodriquez, who I had recently met at 3 AM in the morning when we both responded to a call for faculty to witness the NYC police arrest of CUNY students at New York City Technical College in a student takeover to protest the huge tuition increase.
The lawsuit was announced on 2/26/92 and the next morning the four column lead story in the Metro Section of the NY Times read “250 at CUNY Sue New York Citing Racial Bias in Budget.” The case was carried by news media all over the nation since tactics that had previously been used only in the South were now applied for the first time in a liberal northern state. At the time most of the federal judges were Reagan appointees and lawyers brought the case to state court. In the end this proved to be a mistake since in federal court one has to only demonstrate impact whereas in state court one has to show intent to discriminate. The legal battle lasted for 4 years, with the lower courts ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, but the ruling was eventually overturned in 1996 in the State Court of Appeals on the grounds that the State did not have to fund its two university systems equally provided students were provided with equal access to both institutions. The decision was a travesty in that most of the Black and Hispanic students in NYC could not afford to live away from home in dormitories, and CUNY was their only choice. It was a lesson for me in civil rights jurisprudence. The one positive effect was that initially, at least, the subsequent state cuts to higher education were equitably administered to CUNY and SUNY.
Sloan Grants for PhD Education for URMs
The disappointment over the lawsuit made me channel my efforts in a new direction. By far the largest inequity mentioned in the Introduction is the percentage of URMs who pursue the PhD in engineering compared to their available pool. While URMs comprise 12% of the BS degree holders in engineering they are only 3% of PhD degree recipients. Changing this has been my major focus over the past dozen years. CUNY’s PhD program in BME was first established in 1999 as part of the second of our three Whitaker Special Opportunity awards. With the assistance and encouragement of Dean Watkins, I approached the Sloan Foundation with a new idea that I thought might significantly enhance the likelihood that high achieving URMs might choose to go on for a PhD. Since many of these students come from economically deprived families, the lure of a well paying job after receiving a BS is an attraction for many hard to turn down.
Normally there is little personal contact between a student’s undergraduate and graduate teachers since students are usually encouraged to go to graduate school other than at their Bachelor institution. Furthermore, students from low income families at CCNY often do not feel comfortable leaving their family and applying to the rich, top ranked BME programs. I wondered if this trend could be significantly changed if the process was facilitated by direct contact between myself and Professor Stephen Cowin and our personal faculty colleagues at these top tier institutions. Four institutions were chosen from the top ten NRC ranked programs nationally: Duke, Hopkins, University of Pennsylvania, and UCSD. Five students would be sent for a summer research experience at the end of their junior year to one of these four programs. All living expenses were paid and the students received a significant stipend that was comparable to summer employment. The Sloan Scholars program, which was first funded in 1997 and renewed in 2001, worked well in that 50% of these Scholars did go on for PhD’s, but most of these students chose to stay on at CUNY rather than one of our four partner institution, especially after our own BME PhD program was started in 1999, so they could be in closer touch with their families.
Creation of the BME Department and Its Vision
The BME program at CCNY had initially started in 1994 with the support of a first Whitaker “Special Opportunity” award as a 12 credit an inter-departmental concentration at the undergraduate level with a research arm called the New York Center for Biomedical Engineering, an unofficial consortium of major medical research centers in NYC. The two original medical partners, the Hospital for Special Surgery and the Hospital for Joint Diseases at NYU, have since greatly expanded to include eight of the premier health care centers in the City. Well over two hundred students, undergraduate and graduate, have since worked in the laboratories of our hospital partners. The birth of a full fledged BME Department in 2002 with the support of a third Whitaker “Special Opportunity” award provided an opportunity to create a department with a unique vision that placed equal emphasis on excellence and diversity. The four founding members were myself and CUNY Distinguished Professor, Steve Cowin, and two junior faculty, Susannah Fritton and Maribel Vazquez. These four were supplemented by over 30 faculty from the NYCBE and CCNY faculty with BME interests in ChE, EE and ME.
It was my dream from the start that the following would happen: (1) the faculty would reflect the racial and gender diversity of the undergraduate program. Currently, six of the twelve tenure track faculty are female or URM. To the best of my knowledge it is the only ranked program in the sciences and engineering nationally where 50% of the tenure track faculty are female or URM, (2) the program would also place a special emphasis on encouraging high achieving URM students to pursue the PhD/MD degree and create a sense of family between faculty, graduate students and undergraduates by building communal research and mentoring experiences, and (3) that the expectations for performance of faculty judged by the merit based metrics of publications, citations and funding be on a par with the top programs nationally. Currently, the faculty average five journal publications, over 200 citations and funding of $400,000 per year per faculty member. The NIH minority scholars program, which I describe next, has played a vital role in these achievements since it involves virtually every PhD student and faculty member in the department.