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Mentorship and the New American University


Mentorship is an essential force in our national efforts to open the doors to all of our fellow citizens. Although mentoring has helped increase diversity over the past 20 years, these efforts have been carried out on an ad-hoc basis with limited human and economic resources. Debates about the best mentoring models generate a myriad of possibilities, but very few institutions develop programs that are successful over the long-term. Failure to implement beneficial plans that stress diversity threatens the American educational system.

Arizona State University (ASU) President Michael Crow recently expressed his views on the state of diversity in higher education at a diversity symposium at the University of Texas. An article by Nancy Neff, published in ASU News, detailed his perspective. He said, "We're moving too slowly. We're unable to see the cultural box in which the university is presently trapped. We need to embrace cultural diversification in America and change the culture of the university itself as a critical first step. ?" Crow proposed a model for a New American University based on the premise that we must find ways "to reconsider the very design of our institutions to truly educate for a diverse America, because to be diverse is not a function of the numbers only."

Due to the growing numbers of minority students in our country's educational system, we must find ways to help their matriculation through school; therefore, the purpose of this article is to examine mentoring models and their influence on diversity in the U.S. higher educational system.

Single Giant Mentor Model

Unfortunately, the premier model for diversification at the university level has, in general, not been based on an institutional model for change, but rather on the individual. The prototype is the "giant" mentorship model. In other words, an unusual individual takes the university's responsibility for educating a diverse America on his/her shoulders. For example, there are at least three individuals in the field of mathematics which fit this model. These highly trained instigators are all recipients of Presidential Awards, Joaquin Bustoz Jr. (who passed away last August), Richard Tapia, and William Y. Vèlez. Their biographies remind us of the powerful contributions that single individuals can make in our society. However, a glance at the minority numbers data in the mathematical sciences published in " The Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute Helps Fill a Void" on MiSciNet shows that proceeding this way is just not enough.

It should be extremely worrisome to see only this model because it implies that educating our young people is not a national priority. However, one American institution of higher learning may have found the answer we've all been looking for.

A Model for the New American University

I have often been asked what is the key to promoting diversity. The answer has always been obvious to me. Make us feel welcome and develop the mechanisms and support systems so that welcoming anybody becomes part of the university culture. The department of mathematics at the University of Iowa has always known this and over the past decade has acted on their beliefs. The philosophy and practices of this mathematics department provide a model for recruiting and developing U.S. minority doctoral students as part of a model (as I see it) for a New American University. This model is based on the principles of inclusiveness and community. By all accounts and from my personal visits, it has involved and energized the entire department (see box).

Mathematics at the University of Iowa

The department is successful because it has developed a program that focuses on recruitment and retention at all phases of the graduate school process. Because recruitment involves all mathematics faculty, their general effort has helped forge close institutional ties with minority and Hispanic-serving institutions. These ties continue to grow and are strengthened through their graduate students and alumni. The commitment to bringing gifted students from a diverse set of colleges and universities to Iowa means its departmental academic record is superb and its background is heterogeneous.

The success of students coming from schools with limited opportunities in the mathematical sciences is handled through a series of programs that include summer preparation courses (prior to enrollment) that mimic the level of graduate courses. The assignment of graduate students and faculty mentors plays an important role in helping students registered in preparation courses for qualifying examinations. In addition, the faculty's continuous evaluation of students' progress provides appropriate programmatic changes and support programs without delays. The establishment and support of a successful critical mass of peers has created an environment where being a minority is normal. Success generates success and its student graduation data make this point obvious.

Iowa's plan has worked, in part, because it assumed that minority programs tied to individual faculty members have no real chance of survival. Changes at Iowa (like everywhere else) demand serious modifications to the status quo, so the mathematics faculty set out to build new departmental structures that would remain in place regardless of retirements or changes in leadership.

The success of the program may be seen in the increased number of students of color in Iowa. Minority students (African American, Hispanic, and Native American U.S. citizens or permanent residents) have now accounted for 20% to 25% of the graduate student population over the past 5 years! This is happening in a state that has one of the smallest percentages of residents from underrepresented groups.

National Impact

If the nation's institutions of higher learning adopted this model, the national impact on diversity would be immediate and far-reaching. According to the department's chair, five of its minority students have been awarded doctoral degrees since 1998--three in 2002-2003 alone. In other words, roughly 10% of the total number of doctoral degrees awarded to U.S. minority students nationally in mathematics in 2002-2003 has come from this program.

Three new Iowa Ph.D.s are assistant professors on tenure-track appointments, with one being a tenured associate professor and one holding a prestigious National Science Foundation grant for Vertical Integration of Research and Education in the Mathematical Sciences postdoctoral fellowship. The current graduate student population and their progress, combined with the avalanche of new applications from underrepresented minorities predict, conservatively speaking, a continuation of this pattern.1

The model developed by the University of Iowa's department of mathematics certainly offers a recipe for success and should be studied and emulated. Understanding their solution will help us build a flexible and adaptable model of the New American University.


  • Thanks to the chair of the mathematics department, David C. Mandersheid, for taking the time to share these data with me and answering all of my questions.

  • Carlos Castillo-Chavez is a Joaquin Bustoz Jr. Professor of Mathematical Biology at Arizona State University and may be reached at