While the nation's colleges and universities have made strides in recruiting minority students, these students are unlikely to encounter mentors who look like them, as the proportion of faculty of color lags behind.
The academy has taken notice, and universities are offering financial incentives to diversify their faculty. The Johns Hopkins University is the latest to do so, with a pledge of $5 million over the next five years to recruit female, African-American, Latino and Native American professors for its nine schools.
Called the Mosaic Initiative, the program will make available three-year grants of $250,000 to departments to recruit faculty. The goal is to keep Hopkins competitive with peer institutions by covering salaries for highly sought-after scholars and to fund research they want to perform.
The effort is the brainchild of the highest-ranking woman at Hopkins, Provost Kristina M. Johnson, who joined the university in September.
As an undergraduate studying electrical engineering at Stanford University, Johnson remembers, she had just one female professor. Later, throughout her master's and doctoral studies, she encountered the same: just one.
"So when I graduated, I did not think of becoming a professor because I did not see women as professors," she said.
In 1984, she became the first tenure-track female professor out of 45 professors in the electrical engineering department at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Later, she went on to become dean of Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering, where she encouraged diversity in recruiting.
"It is important to reflect the demographics in society," she said. "Attracting everyone to a university and understanding is crucial to us being strong economically and institutionally."
The proportion of minorities at Hopkins has not grown much over the years. In 2007, women made up 38 percent of the full-time faculty, up slightly from 36 percent in 2003. The figure for underrepresented minority faculty - African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans - was 5.9 percent in 2007 compared with 5.2 percent four years earlier.
In contrast, in 2007 underrepresented minorities made up 12.8 percent of the student body university-wide. That was up from 10 percent in 2002.
For years, academics nationwide have discussed the need for faculty diversity, but few universities had meaningful strategies for doing so, said Jose F. Moreno, associate professor of Chicano and Latino studies at the California State University, Long Beach.
Often, university recruiters would say the talent pool of minorities was too small or the competition for them too fierce.
Moreno challenged that assertion in 2006, when, along with a team of researchers from Claremont Graduate University, he studied the impact of a six-year, $29 million diversity initiative aimed at increasing diversity of both students and faculty at 28 private California institutions.
While the colleges increased minority enrollment, they made little progress attracting minority faculty, the report found.
"The students, that's more of a question of changing demographics than intentionality," he said. "But faculty is what sustains the long-term diversity at a school. They determine admissions policies, hiring policies, the research. They are in many ways the core of the institution."
For efforts such as the Hopkins initiative to be a success, they must include an evaluation process to determine whether the strategies are working, he said. Too often, universities have dedicated money to recruitment without following up and determining whether they have met their goals, he said.