25 January, 2021


Dealing With Discrimination: Lessons For Sri Lanka From US Engineering

 By S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Prof S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

American Asians – Engineering Demographics

The US population is 72% White, 16% Hispanic, 13% African American, and 5.6% Asian (2010 figures).  Asians are 13.1% of American engineers. Asians garner 16% of the prestigious Ivy League university admissions. According to the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE)  24.1% of engineering professors are Asian.

But all is not well. It is strongly suspected that Ivy League admission is based on secret discriminatory quotas. Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade says, “to receive equal consideration by elite colleges, Asian Americans must outperform Whites by 140 points, Hispanics by 280 points, Blacks by 450 points in the Scholastic Aptitude Test scores totaling 1600 (NY Times, 19.12.2012).

Furthermore our students may not like us – in AC Carle’s study of 10,392 Florida classes taught by 1120 instructors, minority instructors received “significantly lower” teacher ratings in face-to-face teaching, but that difference vanished in online classes. (Computers and Education, 53(2) 429-435, 2009). Yet these evaluations determine hiring and promotion.

Preaching Diversity: ASEE, NSF and IEEE

The ASEE and National Science Foundation (NSF) preach diversity. The ASEE has 21 persons on its Board of Directors. Only 1 or 2 are from the top 50 engineering colleges. Save 3 Black Americans, all are White. There are no Asians although 24.1% of engineering educators are Asian. The NSF has 221 positions in the federal executive branch. Of these 183 are held by Whites (82.8%) numbering but 72% of the population.

Consider the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the world’s largest professional organization (425,000 members in 60 countries). The 2011 Board of 34 Directors has only 7 (20.59%) non-Whites. With 27.8% of the IEEE membership from South Asia, the Far East and Latin America and probably as much as this percentage of Asians and Hispanics among the 53.9% of members in the US and Canada, it seems unconscionable that there are only 2 each of Chinese, South Asians  and Hispanics and 1 Japanese as Directors. Although 8% of IEEE members are female, 4 (11.64%) Directors are women, consistent with threatened minorities in power using non-threatening minorities to present a liberal face.

IEEE Racism

The presumptuous nature of the IEEE is seen in the editor of the IEEE Transactions on Education in the year 2006 placing an extra condition on non-native English speakers to “make attention” to our English grammar and observe his prohibition on a sentence beginning with the word “it.” That is, according to this omniscient IEEE grammar god, “My cat is Siamese. It is beautiful,” is wrong and should be recast as “My cat is Siamese. My cat is beautiful.” I strongly protested that my native students and faculty colleagues write horrible English. I wrote of a Professor of English who was not a native speaker visiting Oxford. There on going with an English don to a tea cart, the seller whispered to the English don, “He speak funny, don’t he?” I concluded “Now that is true native English!” and asked instead for a simple statement from the IEEE that the author is responsible for good grammar in papers submitted rather than assuming that nonnative English is bad. I got thank you letters but today, 7 years later, the new editor still lectures to non-natives.  That is racism. Powerful. Inexorable.

IEEE Fellow

But the IEEE Education Society is fairly backward. Engineers whose technical innovativeness runs out switch to “doing Education.” Therefore consider the very prestigious IEEE Fellow Grade, the highest conferred on individuals with an extraordinary record of accomplishments. The total number selected in any year cannot exceed 0.1% of the voting membership. Nominations are evaluated by one of the many IEEE technical societies. This makes it difficult for non-Americans who are rarely friends with technical committee officials who usually meet in the US. Then, a Fellow nominee needs 7 references at the grade of Fellow. Since Fellows too are mainly in the US, this also helps tilt Fellow elevations towards Americans.

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To see if these considerations are borne out by facts, the works of the 297-member Fellow Class of 2013 were examined. The Web of Science which tracks learned articles in respected journals was used. Methodologically it is a valid exercise suiting most new Fellows’ accomplishments excepting a handful whose extraordinary contributions were IEEE Service or to industry.

The results are shown in the bar chart. Americans constituting 49.8% of members have bagged 52.87% of Fellow awards. But Whites have bagged 65.65% of the places, well above their share with far lower achievements than non-Whites. There is a startling obstacle to Chinese, surprisingly more for American Chinese. Women and African Americans have a lower threshold to meet. Despite the lower bar, the 8% IEEE women get only 3.03% of Fellow elevations. South-Asians, Arabs and Japanese who faced difficulties in the 1990s have overcome them, presumably by moving into key committees. A few Europeans (French, German) too have made it but Belgians, Poles and even the British face a high bar. Arabs and Israelis constitute White groups who need to meet the same challenging standards as non-Whites.

Remaining Upbeat: Self-Preservation

Despite these depressing numbers how does the system retain our loyalty? Self-preservation and devolution. To survive, organizations must do well. The IEEE needs technical leadership to run its profitable journals and conferences. Universities competing for the best students need to have the best professors and research money. We move up so long as we help the criteria by which universities are ranked – indexed publications, graduating PhDs and money to support them. Pursuing excellence, statistics are public even if negative, allowing studies like this to be possible.

There is personal satisfaction too as those who support the research enterprise become Deans to coax others to do as they did. Sri Lankans and other Asians with excellent research records became department heads long ago, and have begun taking over deanships, and even university presidencies.


A secret to the IEEE’s loyal Asian membership is its devolved power structure. If one technical society is unwelcoming we have others. If one conference accepts only papers from favorites, we start ours. Sri Lanka has its own chapter and officials running IEEE conferences. In my formative years a few colleagues and I (all minorities of sorts helped by a well-connected White liberal or two) began our own conference. Attracting good papers, we were allowed selected papers in IEEE journals. At age 40 I was allowed to edit the IEEE Transactions. I had to be proud of the IEEE.

The secret is space. If you have no space for me, I can start my own. Despite its racial prejudices, the IEEE is thus able to maintain loyalty through devolution and attention to progress. These internal mechanisms allow self-correction. Even when conflict or discrimination appears, therefore, these are naturally regulated over time through the workings of the institution, as with South Asians and Japanese easily becoming Fellows now. These self-correcting mechanisms are also important because internal dissatisfaction does not hinder the organization’s advancement.

Accountability and Devolution

The differences with Sri Lanka are clear. Lankan managers’ careers are not tied up to the well-being of the institutions they administer. So selecting the best to be Vice-Chancellor is not important. VCs in turn misuse their powers to advance favorites. When Editor of the Institution of Engineers Sri Lanka, its President asked me to accept a rejected paper. I refused and was removed. The journal’s quality did not matter. When I tried to do things for the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science, its President ordered me to include in my team a favorite who did nothing except take credit. When I edited a special volume, I was asked to include a Council member as Coeditor when the volume was ready for printing. There is no accountability. When everything is a mess, what does a little more mess matters? We have thrown out the best safeguard, political accountability, by voting for leaders who do not care about progress.

Devolving true power to the provinces is the way to diminish the abuse of power, and to move Sri Lanka forward.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Prof Hoole:

    Compare this with figures for Tamils in Sri Lanka. Can you write a comparative article how Tamils faired in jobs, education, etc., etc in Sri Lanka and how Sinhala People were discriminated.

    In 1960s Californian constitution had legislative discrimination. Yet, one MBBS Tamil doctor from Sri Lanka, while working as a Pharmaceutical SALESman talked about Sri Lankan discrimination.

  • 0

    So it appears that ‘the Land of the Free’ standards are not what we must aspire to.

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