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Expert says US must address diversity in higher ed to maintain leadership

​Richard Tapia, esteemed mathematician and director of the Center for Excellence and Equity in Education at Rice University, presents on the diversity crisis in higher education as part of UD's Thought Leader Speaker Series.

11:45 a.m., Oct. 14, 2014--Sí se puede. (Believe that you can.) 

Inspired by such teachings of his mom, Richard Tapia never gave up on the goals he set for himself. 

On Monday, Oct. 13, Tapia, director of the Center for Excellence and Equity in Education at Rice University, took a crowd of 200 in the University of Delaware’s Roselle Center for the Arts on his “unlikely journey” from the barrios of Los Angeles to the White House as the recipient of the prestigious National Medal of Science.

Along the way, the esteemed mathematician not only shared his own identity crisis growing up as an American-born child of Mexican immigrant parents, but he also underscored the diversity crisis facing U.S. higher education and how universities must do a better job of welcoming and preparing underrepresented minority students, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

In the United States, Tapia said, he was always called Mexican. But when he visited Mexico, he was called a gringo. 

“Neither country wanted to claim me, but I’m here,” Tapia said. “My mother said, ‘Be proud of who you are.’”

His mother also stressed “good work habits” and “global excellence.” Tapia and his siblings took her words to heart. Tapia earned his doctorate in mathematics from UCLA; another brother also went to UCLA, while another matriculated at Yale, and a sister went to Stanford.

In other examples of “global excellence,” Tapia’s twin brother, Bobby, has set world drag racing records. And Tapia and his wife, Jean, own a 1970 Chevelle, named “Heavy Metal,” which has been a three-time national champ at classic car shows.

Concerns about underrepresentation

“Why worry about underrepresentation?” Tapia asked. “For years, the U.S. has been the envy of the scientific world. Will historians write about the rise and the fall of the U.S.?” 

Today in the United States, the Hispanic population is increasing by 4 percent per decade, while the white population is decreasing by 4 percent each decade. The extreme growth in the Hispanic population is coupled with another issue: “We drop out of school,” Tapia said. 

He quoted a study that revealed that 41 percent of 16- to 19-year-old Hispanics in New York City drop out of high school. In Houston, Tapia said, 60 percent of Hispanic males drop out of school.

Additionally, students of color strongly avoid STEM, Tapia said, which is not good news for the future U.S. as a high-tech powerhouse. Less than 2 percent of faculty in STEM fields are underrepresented minorities. Those who do earn doctorates typically pursue fields such as sociology, political science and psychology.

“We tend not to train in the areas where there are jobs,” Tapia said.

Tapia said faculty should be blamed for not doing enough toward the problem and for lowering their expectations for underrepresented minority students. He spoke of the need to prevent the “loss of the precious few” by putting strong mentoring and support programs in place to assist minority STEM students in Tier 1 schools versus placing them in a “sink or swim” culture. 

Tapia said that public flagship universities such as UCLA and the University of California, Berkeley, which have few minority professors, should have their funding cut because they do not reflect the state’s population — and students need to see themselves in their professors.

Ultimately, “you have to really want it,” Tapia said, of succeeding in STEM. 

Tapia says his ultimate achievement was when President Barack Obama presented him with the National Medal of Science in 2011. Tapia said, “I closed my eyes and said ‘thank you, Mom, for teaching me global excellence.’”

Questions and answers

​After the talk, Tapia answers questions in a session moderated by James Jones, director of the Center for the Study of Diversity at UD.

Following the talk, a question-and-answer session was moderated by James Jones, UD professor of psychological and brain sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Diversity.

One student commented poignantly on the difficulty of being one of only a few underrepresented minority students nationally pursuing a doctorate in computer sciences and thanked Tapia for his leadership. 

One question focused on a 2010 Chronicle of Higher Education article on how math serves as a gatekeeper versus a gateway at community colleges, with remedial math courses serving as a hurdle that many students find unable to leap. 

“They don’t understand the issue of not being prepared,” Tapia said simply. 

When asked how he creates community, Tapia said that it is a matter of “supporting each other, listening to each other.” He hosts a guest lecture series at Rice and involves his center’s student scholars in the process.

“Try to do things that they feel good about — to excel, succeed … and have the university president come by to meet them,” Tapia said. His students also welcome new underrepresented minority students to the campus. 

“Any university that wants to do something [about diversity] can do it,’ Tapia said. “It can be done — it’s leadership.” 

Tapia’s talk was the second in the Thought Leader Speaker Series sponsored by UD’s “Delaware Will Shine” strategic planning initiative. His visit was co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Diversity, the Department of Mathematical Sciences and UD ADVANCE. 

Tapia is internationally known for his research in the computational and mathematical sciences and is a national leader in education and outreach programs.

He was born in Los Angeles to parents who separately emigrated from Mexico as young teenagers in search of educational opportunities for themselves and future generations. The first in his family to attend college, he received bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in mathematics from the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1967, he joined the Department of Mathematics at UCLA and then spent two years on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin before moving to Rice University in 1970. 

Tapia was the first Hispanic elected to the National Academy of Engineering. He served on the National Science Board, chaired the National Research Council’s Board on Higher Education and Workforce and won the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. He is a member of the Texas Science Hall of Fame, and on the board of directors for TAMEST, composed of Texas National Academies of Science members and Nobel Prize honorees. 

Tapia also will present at UD on Tuesday, Oct. 14, from 3:30-4:30 p.m., in 100 Wolf Hall, as the featured speaker for the Carl J. Rees Lecture “Math at Top Speed: Exploring and Breaking Myths in the Drag Racing Folklore.” On Wednesday, Oct. 15, from 3:30-4:30 p.m., also in 100 Wolf Hall, Tapia will present the Carl J. Rees Colloquium “Inverse, Shifted Inverse and Rayleigh Quotient Iteration as Newton’s Method.” 

For more information about UD’s strategic planning initiative and to share thoughts about the UD of the future, visit the Delaware Will Shine website.

Article by Tracey Bryant

Photos by Lane McLaughlin

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  • Center for the Study of Diversity
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  • University of Delaware
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