Educating black engineers in Baltimore

Op-ed: In praise of Morgan's Gene DeLoatch, who's educated more black engineers than anyone else.

What does it take to educate a critical mass of black engineers today? Just ask Eugene M. DeLoatch; he knows because he's done it. He has been dean of Morgan State University's Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. School of Engineering in Baltimore since the school's founding more than 30 years ago. He is credited with producing more black engineers than any other individual in the history of American higher education.

Gene, or "Dean De" as he is known on campus, came to Morgan in the immediate aftermath of Maryland's belated desegregation of its predominantly white campuses. Threatened with loss of federal funds, Maryland began to substantively desegregate its historically white public campuses in the mid-1970s. The hastily planned integration of these campuses had a devastating impact on the state's poorly funded historically black institutions, all of which suffered significant enrollment declines.

In 1947, a study of Maryland higher education carried out by the American Council on Education had recommended the development of engineering programs at Morgan in order to provide opportunities for blacks to pursue engineering in a segregated system. The state never acted on this recommendation.

Blacks were 30 percent of Maryland's population in 1982, but accounted for a mere three percent of total undergraduate engineering degrees awarded statewide that year. And while Morgan was the natural choice for development of new programs following a 1983 study, which recommended more engineering degree programs for African Americans, there was significant opposition.

In a highly controversial decision, the responsibility for engineering education in the Baltimore area was divided between two campuses, UMBC and Morgan, with Morgan approved for three undergraduate programs in 1984. That was the year that Gene DeLoatch arrived at Morgan to lead its new engineering school, with inadequate funding and challenges galore. For example, when the state agreed to build a facility to house the new engineering programs, it built one without classrooms because the Morgan campus, according to state formulas, had an excess of classroom space, albeit in poor and dilapidated condition.

Gene also had to deal with the widely held perception that there were simply not many black students who were prepared to successfully pursue a rigorous engineering program. He set about recruiting faculty members and put in place initiatives such as an effective pre-college summer transition program to ensure that students began their college careers on strong footing. He worked to develop special courses for teaching introductory subjects such as mathematics and physics in innovative ways. As a result, Morgan engineering students historically have had the highest average graduation rates on campus.

What does success look like? Consider that by 1991, only seven years after approval of its three undergraduate programs, Morgan alone awarded 76 percent more degrees to blacks than the entire state of Maryland had 10 years earlier, and it led all campuses in the state in engineering degrees awarded. Morgan accounted for over 40 percent of the black bachelor's degrees in all engineering programs in the state. In the three areas in which it offered degrees, it accounted for between 60 percent and 100 percent of all the awards. What is even more impressive is that Morgan maintains approximately these same shares of statewide awards today. And in 1991, 40 percent of Morgan's awards in engineering were to women — more than twice the statewide average.

Morgan also became a significant contributor on the national level. Despite having only a small number of undergraduate engineering programs, Morgan currently ranks fourth nationally in the number of undergraduate engineering degrees awarded to African Americans. Morgan engineering graduates are innovators, designers, entrepreneurs, and researchers who are highly successful in the private and public sectors after graduation.

Eugene DeLoatch retired as dean of Morgan's Clarence Mitchell Jr. School of Engineering in June, after more than three productive decades as the school's leader. Throughout his long career at Morgan, and elsewhere, he has been a highly visible and influential national leader in improving science and engineering education in the U.S. During 2002 and 2003, he served as the first African-American president of the American Society for Engineering Education.

While Gene is well known as a visionary in engineering education, his contribution to increasing the size of the pool of black men and women holding engineering degrees is probably his greatest legacy. He has overseen the award of more engineering degrees to black students than anyone else — a laudable achievement.

But, most importantly, he demonstrated in Maryland, which produced a minuscule number of black engineers before he arrived, that there was much unrealized potential in the young black population, and that with the right strategies, it was feasible to graduate significant numbers of black engineers at all degree levels. Despite the great obstacles he's had to overcome, Gene has produced a large cadre of graduates who will undoubtedly continue to serve the state of Maryland and the nation uncommonly well. Kudos to a national hero.

David Wilson is president of Morgan State University in Baltimore. His email address is: david.wilson@morgan.edu.

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