Computing Profession

­niversities FLIP For Diversity

Women and minority graduate students consider their options for computer science.
The FLIP Alliance initiative is aimed at facilitating best diversity recruiting practices among the 11 universities that supply about half the computer science faculty to the top 50 universities in the U.S.

David Bindel, associate professor of computer science at Cornell University, served as the chairman of the department's graduate admissions committee for the 2018-19 academic year, and became somewhat of a minor media star after the Ithaca, NY-based university released  statistics about its incoming computer science Ph.D. students: it nearly doubled the number of female applicants and admissions and tripled the number of African-American applicants, while quadrupling the number of those students accepted into the program compared to the previous year.

Bindel posted a Twitter string about Cornell's success in attracting more women and minority students to apply, and the string soon attracted more than 750 retweets and 2,000 "likes," indicating it had struck a chord among academic recruiters. Yet Bindel said the effort was not the result of any unique insight or effort among his departmental colleagues at Cornell; it was more a result of leveraging knowledge from other departments within the university, and making concerted efforts to contact possible candidates through existing programs created to improve the diversity pipeline in computer science.

"Our approach was not innovative; we borrowed ideas from other Cornell departments that also undertook successful efforts to diversify their Ph.D. programs," Bindel wrote in a report on the department's efforts. "We hope others will adopt these ideas, and we believe similar efforts will improve the diversity of the programs at peer institutions."

Cornell's efforts, and Bindel's sentiments, have dovetailed with a new grant-driven initiative intended to "top seed" diversity in the computer science professoriate. The initiative, the FLIP Alliance, is aimed at facilitating best diversity recruiting practices among the 11 universities that supply about half the computer science faculty of the top 50 universities in the U.S. FLIP (Diversifying Future Leadership in the Professoriate) is funded by a $300,000 National Science Foundation INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science) grant that runs through August 2019, and is meant to begin addressing the extremely low rate of minorities among tenure-track computer science faculty.

"According to the 2016 CRA Taulbee Survey, only 4.3% of the tenure-track faculty at Ph.D.-granting universities are from underrepresented minorities," the grant announcement stated. "This challenge is important to address because diverse faculty contributes to academia in the following critical ways: serve as excellent role models for a diverse study body, bring diverse backgrounds to the student programs and policies developed by the department, and bring diverse perspectives to the research projects and programs."

The principal investigators on the FLIP grant study are Valerie Taylor, currently director of the Mathematics and Computer Science Division at Argonne National Laboratory; Charles Isbell, professor and executive associate dean for the College of Computing at the Georgia University of Technology; and Jeffrey Forbes, associate professor of computer science at Duke University, NC.

Taylor said the FLIP process grew out of conversations she, Isbell, and Forbes had had about finding the best way to improve faculty diversity. "I want to give credit to Charles and Jeff saying if we are going to diversify the faculty, and you have limited resources to do that—which you do—then where can you have the biggest impact?" she said. "The biggest impact is, if we can diversify the Ph.D. students who graduate from the top institutions, then we can impact the faculty at a large number of institutions. That's the basis."

Building a "peer hub"

Though FLIP is less than a year old (its supporting grant was announced in September 2017), its faculty advocates at affiliated universities say the alliance is already fulfilling a critical role in facilitating communications. For example, monthly conference calls help each university's FLIP faculty advocates share their own innovative efforts and avoid "re-inventing the wheel."

"Everyone on those calls cared deeply about this problem before FLIP existed, but we were all trying to come at the problem in our own institutionally different ways," said Armando Fox, FLIP advocate at the University of California, Berkeley. "There's nothing wrong with that, but if somebody comes up with a good idea that works, why wouldn't we want to spread that idea to the other institutions?"

Fox's sentiments were echoed by Raven Avery, assistant director for diversity and outreach, and Elise Dorough, graduate program advisor, at the University of Washington's Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering. "FLIP is a place where we are going to talk about the very specific issue of recruiting more students from underrepresented minorities and students with disabilities into our program, and we are held accountable to be doing that," Avery said.

Since 2011, Cornell's FLIP coordinator, Hakim Weatherspoon, has run a pioneering summer research program called SoNIC, that might serve as an example for other institutions to emulate. The Sonic workshop explores networking architecture from the physical layer to application performance in the cloud. The program's participants are mostly undergraduates from underrepresented minorities enrolled at universities with well-known computer science programs, as well as from historically black colleges and universities.

"SoNIC makes people aware of the opportunities in graduate school and shows them what they need to do to apply to get in," Weatherspoon said. "A number of people who have come to SoNIC are in Ph.D. programs now, and one is a professor now. I do a survey afterward, and most people hadn't thought about it ahead of time; after that week, about 80% say they are more than likely to go on and pursue a Ph.D."

SoNIC also represents the types of activities both Fox and Bindel said help recruiters discover students who do not come from gold-plated undergraduate programs. Bindel said the Cornell application process added two questions for its evaluation committee (originally included in the university's information science graduate application) in the last recruiting cycle: How well has the applicant taken advantage of opportunities? And, does the applicant provide a unique perspective? Those questions, he said, helped the committee discover several students who otherwise might not have been admitted. Fox detailed a similar process at Berkeley.

"The initial reaction may be, 'How is this person going to compete against someone who went to a great school, had great advisors, wrote great papers, wrote a solid research statement, and knows just what they want to do in grad school'?" Fox said. "Then you look at someone who maxed out everything it is possible to do at 'State U;' they have taught classes, developed curricula, run coding boot camps for underprivileged kids. Have they been primary author of a paper at a great research conference? Maybe not, but maybe they don't get that chance."

Taking aim at isolation

Another goal of the FLIP universities is to help foster a sense of community among current and potential graduate students, through formal networking channels such as the ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing. Cornell sent 29 students to the conference in 2017, and the Allen School's Dorough said, "We are all leaning into the Tapia conference as one of our opportunities to meet in person. For us, being involved in FLIP justifies sending a lot more students than we have in the past."

FLIP has also created a private Facebook group for students recruited through the program. With raw numbers of underrepresented minorities so low at even the top graduate programs (in the 2017 edition of the CRA Taulbee Survey on the enrollment, production, and employment of Ph.D.s in information and computer science and computer engineering, 168 responding computer science departments in the U.S. and Canada reported just 241 African Americans enrolled, making up just 1.6 percent of 14,729 Ph.D. students in those programs whose ethnicity was known; there also were 288 Hispanic students enrolled in those programs), Taylor said the social media platform is intended to help those students create virtual communities of like interests that may help alleviate feelings of isolation.

The creation of strong support networks, whether it be faculty mentors or student peer groups (such as Berkeley's EECS Peers), may be particularly vital as doctoral students enter the final phase of their education, the dissertation. Hironao Okahana, associate vice president for research and public policy at the Council of Graduate Schools, said efforts in this area could use some shoring up, as evidenced by the results of the council's 2015 Doctoral Initiative on Minority Attrition and Completion (DIMAC) report.

"We know that doctoral students, as they go into their dissertation phases, will be working on their own thing," Okahana said. "That creates a challenge without having the good social or structural support to encourage the student to stay connected and engaged with others in the program, and for faculty and advisors to check in and guide people through their work.

"And, when we asked institutions to provide what kind of support services doctoral programs might have for students, a lot of them are front-loaded and not so much on the latter third. Students told us that when they had student organizations or some organized writing groups, even that sort of informal socialization seemed to help them keep moving forward."

FLIP Alliance members
  • Cornell University
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • Georgia University of Technology
  • Harvard University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Princeton University
  • Stanford University
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
  • University of Texas
  • University of Washington

Gregory Goth is an Oakville, CT-based writer who specializes in science and technology.

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