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2000 Questions: What’s Next After Affirmative Action Dies?

An Ongoing Discussion with National Science Foundation Board Member Richard Tapia
From: Hispanic Engineer and Information Technology, June/July 1998

Dr. Richard Tapia is a professor in the Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics at Rice University, Houston, Texas. The first U.S.-born Mexican American elected to the National Academy of Engineering, Dr. Tapia was appointed to the National Science Board by President Clinton in 1996, the year he was named Hispanic Engineer of the year.

The following interview with Dr. Tapia is the first in a series conducted by Hispanic Engineer and Information Technology Editor-in-Chief Carmela Mellado throughout Dr. Tapiaís tenure to keep readers up-to-date on science policy concerns as we move into the 21st century.

HE: What are some of the concerns at the National Science Board today?

TAPIA: One of the sub-committees I sit on is Education, Human Resources. Weíre concerned about many things, but certainly one of those things is how do we reach the public, how do we get the public to become more aware, (to) appreciate what science can do for that nation, and how important it is. The public means both adults and children. When we had Sputnik going up and walks on the moon, everyone was aware of how important that was.

The reason we need to educate the public is because [its members] vote. They tell our senators and representatives how they feel about science education, how they feel about science support and dollars for research. So, we need a science-literate nation to understand and push these things. Support for science does not come because scientists are good. Support for science comes because comes because the public values it.

Our representatives and legislators represent the values of the people who get them elected. Weíd like to somehow impress upon the public the value of science and scientific research. A theme I would use for our youth is that science is for all, not just for a select group of people, but science is for you, too!

HE: Hasnít the popularity of computers and the Internet helped to make us more aware?

TAPIA: The Internet is a big thing. Itís really funny that while everybody understands the value of the Internet, itís not clear that they go one step further and understand the value of the people who are creating the ĎNet, or the value of the people who do the science that helps with the ĎNet. They understand the ĎNet, but they donít understand that it didnít happen by accident.

HE: What are some of the other issues beings discussed at the National Science Board?

TAPIA: I think people are very happy with the balanced budget that President Clinton has proposed. They're happy with the support he has put into education, especially the programs for Hispanics, for his support of science. There are a reasonable amount of positive things happening, but what we are unhappy with is the general status of under-representation in the nation, and the fact that it is getting worse. That's a big issue.

HE: What about the anti-affirmative action movement sweeping the nation?

TAPIA: There is extreme concern. The needs of science are multi-dimensional. People are multi-dimensional. We should have science for all. I've never seen stronger sensitivity to the idea that we need to bring everybody into the picture, to inclusiveness. Neil Lane talks about the civic scientist, the scientist who is concerned about the bigger picture. But while a very, very large segment of the scientific population has bought into inclusiveness, we're now having to deal with the anti-affirmative (action) backlash, documented so well in states like California, Texas, and now also in Michigan, where the University of Michigan is being sued.

Right now, the National Science Foundation is being sued for programs that essentially target according to gender, ethnicity, or race. While we recognize, as a group, that we must include all people, we're seeing our various programs, which have in substance been effective, being taken away from us through all these lawsuits.

In fact, in many ways, from my own personal concern, that may be the most important problem right now.

HE: Is it a problem because it drains resources, time and energy?

TAPIA: Because they're stopping us. I can't implement effective programs the way I used to. I can't say, 'We're going to bring in women and under-represented minorities to work with them in a Bridge program, where they get the education they need to level the playing field.'

You can't implement programs that target under-represented minorities and women for admissions, for financial aid, or for various other forms of support. You can't do things where any criteria for evaluation involves race, gender or ethnicity. So the challenge is that a part of the country is becoming very sensitive to the need, and yet the courts are telling us that we can't do that. We have to learn how to do it in a manner that doesn't violate what the courts say. And that's very, very hard.

HE: Can it be done?

TAPIA: I don't think we have a choice any more. We have to accept that challenge, the courts are telling us that. Affirmative action, the way we knew it for the last ten to twenty years, is dead. It's clearly dead, and it's not going to come back. So we have to be very creative in coming up with new ways of handling the problem of under-representation. I have always felt it's extremely important to the health of the nation, not just to the health of the profession, that we include everybody.

Look. Mathematics, engineering, and science are going to live with or is without (more) minority representation because we're importing solutions. We're bringing in people from the Eastern Bloc countries, we're bringing in a lot of people from China, as you well know. So as far as the health of the professions, we're importing solutions, and we've always done that. Weíre very good at it. We did it in World War II when we needed scientists; we did it in the Sixties, when we needed mathematicians, we brought them in from England, in the '70s and the '80s when we needed graduate students, and now in the '90s we're importing solutions.

And I'm not saying that that in itself is necessarily bad. But what I am saying is that if we don't think of our under-represented groups, and think of inclusiveness, the problem is not going to be the health of the sciences, it's going to be the health of the nation. We're going to have a permanent underclass.... Then we'll be facing greater problems of poverty, crime.... So I'm concerned, all of us are concerned that we not build a permanent underclass. And today, we're not taking the steps as a nation to essentially guarantee that we're not building a permanent underclass.

HE: What about those who say that the problem of under-representation is really about economics. not race, gender, or ethnicity?

TAPIA: The problem is not that simple. As under-represented people, we have to deal with much more than just being poop We have to deal with a system that doesn't expect us to succeed. . . [One example is the] low expectations of teachers. Often times in inner cities, we have to deal the problem of parents who don't become involved early on in the child's education, the way that other parents do. So any model that says 'Let's just target the poor,' is going to be wrong.

HE: It seems as though our best hope to face this challenge is through leaders like you who understand the issues and can influence, or at least get other leaders to listen.

TAPIA: I think it's critical that we get more Latinos into positions of leadership. I attended a conference downtown sponsored by the National Institute of Science Education, an institute of the University of Wisconsin funded by the National Science Foundation. I was one of the speakers and I (talked about) how the misuse of standardized tests really hurts under-represented people. The bulk of the people in the audience did not appreciate my points. They disagreed, saying, 'No, it's a fair test.' I tried to argue that indeed, fairness in itself is not going to accomplish what we want. We could flip a coin to decide who should go to school and who should not and that would be fair. It's fair in the sense that everyone would have the same chance, but it's not going to correct the situation.

But by the end of the day, there were approximately 300 people who walked away thinking, 'What Richard Tapia had to say is something important we need to consider.'

I was coming from a position that understands both points of view. So if we can get more people, more Hispanics, more African Americans who really understand both sides in positions of leadership and power, then weíre going to be able to articulate these points.

As the only Latino on the National Science Board, I continually remind my colleagues here and at the National Science Foundation, that the Hispanic community, the Mexican American Community, cannot be ignored. Iím very fond of my colleagues. They are very intelligent people. I donít believe weíre dealing with a bunch of racists. They just havenít been exposed to these issues the way you and I have. Theyíre willing to listen, but they also arenít going to find out, unless somebody sits down and tells them. I have to be very pro-active.

HE: So where does that leave affirmative action?

TAPIA: I always viewed affirmative action as a window of opportunity, a jump-start for society. But that window is closed and we canít go back and lament that it wasnít long enough. It probably wonít last long enough. But thatís not a viable choice anymore.

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