Throughout the United States, there are only 32 African-American computer science (CS) professors. Of the 32, three have positions at the Computer Science and Software Engineering (CSSE) department at Auburn University in Alabama. Those three professors, Gerry Dozier, Juan Gilbert, and Cheryl Seals, talked about their educational backgrounds, how they came to Auburn, and how they have increased the number of minority and women graduate students in their department.

Different Strokes

Despite the obvious similarities, the three professors couldn't be more different. Dozier's career path was never in doubt. Although he received offers from industry, he desired a career as an academic researcher. After completing his graduate work at North Carolina State University in Raleigh in 1995, he took a position at teaching-oriented North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro. Then in 1997, he got the position he had been seeking: a professorship at research-oriented Auburn University.

Gilbert's road to Auburn wasn't as straight. As an undergraduate, he had changed his major from chemistry to systems analysis so that he could have a career without having to attend graduate school. "I didn't want to go to graduate school because I didn't know anyone who had gone to graduate school who was African American," Gilbert says. "I knew nothing about it." But a bad experience at a corporate internship prompted him to pursue graduate education.

After Gilbert received his doctorate from the University of Cincinnati, Sherri Frizell, a former Auburn graduate student, encouraged him to apply to her alma mater. Initially worried about its location in the historically racist Deep South, Gilbert was won over by the faculty, especially Dozier. "If Gerry hadn't been here I probably would have taken an offer from the University of Maryland, College Park," Gilbert says. Instead, he accepted a position at Auburn in 2000.

Seals's decision to come to Auburn was also tough. She is the newest member of the group, having arrived at Auburn in 2003. Originally, Seals was torn between industry and academe. But Dozier and Gilbert solidified her decision to come to Auburn after finishing her Ph.D. at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. "They're both a big credit to this department--black, white, whatever the color," Seals says.

Gerry Dozier


Education:

1995, Ph.D., Computer Science, North Carolina State University

1991, M.S., Computer Science, North Carolina State University

1988, B.S., Computer Science, Northeastern Illinois University

Experience:

2002-Present: Associate Professor, Computer Science and Software Engineering, Auburn University

1997-2002: Assistant Professor, Computer Science and Software Engineering, Auburn University

1996-1997: Assistant Professor, Computer Science, North Carolina A&T State University

1995-1996: Adjunct Assistant Professor, Computer Science, North Carolina A&T State University

Juan Gilbert


Education:

2000, Ph.D., Computer Science, University of Cincinnati

1995, M.S., Computer Science, University of Cincinnati

1991, B.S., Systems Analysis, Miami University (Ohio)

Experience:

2000-Present: Assistant Professor, Computer Science and Software Engineering, Auburn University

1998-2000: Visiting Instructor, Systems Analysis, Miami University (Ohio)

1995-1998: Database Programmer, NCR Corp.

Cheryl Seals


Education:

2004, Ph.D., Computer Science, Virginia Tech

1997, M.S., Computer Science, Virginia Tech

1995, M.S., Software Engineering, North Carolina A&T State University

1993, B.S., Mathematics Education, Grambling State University

1990, B.S., Computer Science, Grambling State University

Experience:

2004-Present: Assistant Professor, Computer Science and Software Engineering, Auburn University

2001-2003: Senior Graduate Research Assistant, Computer Science, Virginia Tech

1997-2001: Graduate Research/Teaching Assistant, Computer Science, Virginia Tech

1995-1997: Computer Literacy and Programming Instructor, Computer Science and Upward Bound, Virginia Tech

1995-1996: Application Integrator, Integrated Services and Solutions, IBM

1989-1992: Member of Technical Staff/Database Administrator, Loop Facilities, Bell Communications Research

The professors aren't content with just having made it up into the ivory tower; they want to bring others along, as well. Now that they're there, they are committed to strengthening their department with creative and capable students. Like engineering and computer science programs across the nation, Auburn has been hurt by the loss of foreign graduate students--especially Chinese and Indian nationals. Auburn's CSSE department has found a solution to the dwindling number of foreign students: Many of the holes being left by foreign students are being plugged by minorities and women.

Strategy for Success

The paucity of professors of the same sex or ethnicity often hinders the progress of graduate students in need of encouragement and assistance, says Gilbert. The professors believe that their presence, as African-American academicians, helps them recruit, retain, and graduate underrepresented minority graduate students. "I don't think anyone has more [African-American] Ph.D.s in their [CS] department than Auburn does," Dozier says.

The number of African-American CSSE professors may soon increase. "This time next year, there may be four or five of us," Gilbert says. The department is currently recruiting two African-American female robotics experts. Both have expertise in combining high-level robotic functionality (processing and behavior) and low-level functionality (movement). The professors are confident that the new additions, if they occur, will improve the CSSE department's scholarship and help attract still more minority students.

Even with just the three of them, the attempt to achieve a critical mass seems to be working. "Our graduate program has the largest populous of black Ph.D. students in the country," Gilbert claims, with 12 to 15 African-American graduate students. Many of their Ph.D. students are funded by the Southern Region Education Board. "And we're going to be the number one producer of African-American Ph.D.s in computer science," he continues. If we're not now, we will be within 2 years." In 2003, only 10 African Americans got their Ph.D. in computer science. At Auburn, five of the 15 Ph.D. students who have earned Ph.D.s in the last 5 years have been African American.

It's not just ethnic and racial minorities who are underrepresented among computer scientists and engineers. Women are also in short supply, in CS as in other engineering fields. Seals knows all too well the plight that women engineers--especially academics--face. "A woman in a science department is often mistaken for a secretary," Seals says. Nationwide, approximately 17% of graduate engineering students are women, according to a National Science Foundation (NSF) survey of 2001 graduates. According to Gilbert, the number of female graduate students in Auburn's CSSE department is about 40%.

Expanding Opportunities

Auburn's CSSE department has just received an NSF grant to analyze the success they've had in recruiting and retaining women and minority graduate students. Although Gilbert awaits the answer, he hypothesizes that it is the relative diversity of both faculty and existing students that attracts new students. And once they're there, they know they will have a support system, as it's already in place. "There is every indication that you will do well at Auburn," says Gilbert.

The professors soon hope to expand the success they've had recruiting African-American graduate students to include more Hispanics and Native Americans. Virginia Tech's Bevlee Watford and Manuel Pérez-Quiñones have been successful in recruiting Hispanic students into the CS department and will partner with Auburn's CSSE department in a joint research grant.

All three Auburn professors have contributed to the CSSE department's success in recruiting minority students, but Dozier gives special credit to Gilbert. "I think when Juan came in, you saw a big increase across the board with respect to minorities. He is just an energy source, and he's going a hundred miles an hour, 24/7."

The CSSE program at Auburn is filling a critical national need. CS is the breeding ground for many technological innovations, so the U.S. must level the playing field for all Americans if the U.S. wants to maintain its edge as an innovator. Auburn's CSSE department is doing its part to increase the involvement of women and minorities in CS.

Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at cparks@aaas.org.

Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at cparks@aaas.org.