More than half of the 186 U.S. engineering school deans in a new study of the field’s academic C-suite earned PhDs from just 21 schools. The review notes nagging leadership diversity challenges but also identifies career paths for aspiring deans, particularly women and people of color.

The American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) sponsored the sample study as part of a diversity push begun in 2015. There are 360 accredited U.S. engineering schools. The top engineering dean producer is MIT, which awarded PhDs to 13 deans in the sample. Other top trainers are University of California-Berkeley, Stanford, the University of Michigan, Caltech and Georgia Tech.

Despite “concerted efforts,”  deanships are “largely the province of white males,” says study author and consultant Richard Skinner, who also is a former university president. About 82% of deans in the sample are male and 74% white. He says while the proportion of females is nearly the same as for medical school deans, female med school faculty rose 34% compared to just 4% in engineering schools in about the same decade timeframe.  African Americans make up just 2.3% and Hispanics 3.7% of all engineering faculty, “percentages that remain stubbornly unchanged since 2007,” according to the ASEE study.

“Attending the ‘right school,’ especially the right doctoral-granting university, strengthens one’s candidacy” for a deanship, says Skinner. But with 83 schools awarding PhDs to the deans in the study, “the circle of elite institutions from which to begin one’s career is neither especially small nor fixed in membership,” he adds. The analysis says career moves could offer a boost—with results showing that “outsiders” recruited from other schools make up 63% of current deans. Also, 57% worked outside of academia at some point—in industry, government or at nonprofits.

The study says more research is needed to identify where along the engineering study pipeline—beginning with grades K-12—the numbers of now underrepresented populations can be increased “significantly and sustainably.” It also calls for analysis of what role deans should play in encouraging faculty to explore administrative posts “to position” themselves for higher appointments.  

Stephanie Adams, engineering dean of Old Dominion University, who in June will become the second female African-American ASEE president, noted in a 2018 statement that, “If we want to see a shift among women in engineering … we must start doing some things differently.”