Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Tenure, Science, and Race Matters

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Tenure, Science, and Race Matters

Article excerpt

Tenure, Science, and Race Matters: Dr. Stephen L. Mayo is the first African American to win tenure at the California Institute of Technology.

For the first time in the 100-year history of what many consider the most elite technical university in the world, the California Institute of Technology has granted tenure to an African American.

With apparently little fanfare, Dr. Stephen Leon Mayo was granted tenure this past spring. First appointed assistant professor of biology at the institute in 1992, his work is in the relatively new field of structural biology. Mayo is attempting to understand biological phenomena by looking at proteins (DNA, RNA) in three dimensions. His special contribution to the field is the use of computer modeling to build and test molecules.

Mayo not only worked hard to achieve his goal, but his timing was perfect, with proof of his novel approach coming just in time for his tenure review. Asked what makes his work stand out, he says: "It's interdisciplinary, `out there', and quantitative, so it fits into Caltech's view of science."

Chantal Morgan, one of the graduate students under Mayo's supervision, describes what makes working with Mayo an exceptional experience: "He's young, easy to relate to, and smart. The big deal about this lab is that the students come from different disciplines, and we use both computation and experiments in our `design cycle.'"

While Mayo's achievement is to be lauded, there are doubts that his appointment signals a change of heart at an institution noted for its faculty's profound lack of interest in cultural diversity.

Dr. Jim Bower, professor of biology at Caltech, is unsparing in his assessment of Mayo's appointment.

"The baseline interest at Caltech in [multicultural diversity] is zero. I'm very happy that Steve Mayo is on the faculty, but the thing you need to know about Steve is that he's the kind of Black male [people who are uncomfortable with diversity] don't mind having around here. He's not outside the [anglo, male] cultural envelope."

Bower is co-director of the Caltech Pre-College Science Initiative, and one of a handful of faculty involved in diversity issues. The initiative seeks to improve science education in the underfunded, heavily minority school district in the city of Pasadena, where Caltech is located.

"At Caltech, diversity means the collections of its programs," Bower says. "At a faculty meeting a few years back, someone said, `I don't understand this diversity thing. We already have diversity -- we have physicists, chemists, and biologists.' The only thing that has changed with Steve's appointment is that the photographs we take are different."

While biology postgraduate student Tracy Johnson isn't as blunt, she generally concurs that the appointment doesn't mean attitudes have changed.

"When his appointment came through, there was no mention of him being Black in the weekly Caltech paper. People are excited about him, period. He is exceptional -- people worship him, he is so hardcore. Steve has tried very hard to not make [being Black] an issue, but I don't think you can be Black and have that not be an issue."

Throughout his academic career, Mayo has deliberately distanced himself from diversity and minority-inclusion issues.

"I would like for [his appointment] to be a bigger deal, so that people can see that you can overcome," Johnson adds. "Steve is very, very savvy. I think he could do a lot of good. …

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