In this political year, many are reminded of Iowa, a small state in the Midwest, which served as a launching pad for both President Obama as well as one of his Republican opponents, ultra-conservative Rick Santorum. Four decades earlier, Iowa also launched the remarkable career of James Mitchell, who came to the Buckeye State from the then-segregated South, armed with an undergraduate degree from North Carolina A&T State University. Dr. Mitchell departed Iowa’s State University in Ames with a Ph.D., later being hired as an engineer at AT&T Bell Laboratories where he spent the next 30 years pioneering technologies that would help his firm transform the communications field into a world that resembles a scene from the Jetsons.

At the company founded by telephone/record-player inventor Alexander Graham Bell in Washington, DC, ironically just a few miles from Howard University, Dr. Mitchell worked himself up the corporate ladder. In his 30 years of service, he was responsible for nearly a half dozen patents and helped pioneer an electrochemical generation process, invaluable to the semiconductor industry and used for manufacturing electronic devices. Ultimately, Dr. Mitchell rose to become his company’s vice president of its Communications Materials Research Laboratory.

Over his meteoric career, Dr. Mitchell also served on the boards of Rutgers and Drexel universities.

Recently, Dr. Mitchell, who today serves as dean of Howard University’s College of Engineering, Architecture, and Computer Sciences (CEACS), spoke with the Afro and here’s some of what he had to say:

Afro:
What are your plans for 2012 and beyond at Howard University?

Dr. Mitchell:
The College of Engineering, Architecture, and Computer Sciences (CEACS) has a unique opportunity to advance the reputation of Howard University as a leader in technology and engineering development and entrepreneurship. This requires a renewal of the faculty, facilities, and effectiveness, as well as an increased enrollment of talented undergraduate and grad students. We must also have a broad strategic action plan for research within my college and interdisciplinary research across the campus.

Afro:
Howard University’s CEACS is credited with producing the nation’s largest number of African American engineers, architects, and computer science professionals. With a little over a year in your post, what progress have you made thus far?

Dr. Mitchell: We’ve done a number of things to move Howard University in the direction described above, starting with developing a plan to achieve our goals. The plan includes forging partnerships with corporations, government agencies and foundations so we can internally increase funding for research and development. We’ve also advanced partnerships with other academic institutions such as Johns Hopkins, MIT, and University of Maryland.

We also plan to work across campus to forge a broad interdisciplinary collaboration to establish Howard University as a competitor in the “educational enterprise.” This is going to be anchored by a new interdisciplinary building to be constructed in the next two years.

Afro:
With unemployment in the African American community around 17 percent, and 50 percent among African-American men, is a degree in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) a sure ticket to employment in today’s economy?

Dr. Mitchell:
If you’re trained to think analyze, diagnosis, make decisions, and plan to solve problems, you have a higher probability of being employed. And an education in the STEM fields provides those advantages.

A STEM-field trained person has the ability to analyze, deduce, plan, and solve real life problems. Therefore, I strongly believe they have a significant advantage when seeking employment or, even better yet, when embarking upon self employment.

Afro:
Many people of color report difficulty in climbing the corporate ladder. Do African Americans in the STEM fields have a better shot at getting to the top?

Dr. Mitchell:
I believe that moving up a corporate ladder is not necessarily tied to whether you are STEM trained or trained otherwise. The ability to move through the ranks initially will depend upon an individual’s sheer productivity and performance. Beyond that level, you need someone above the glass ceiling who identifies and believes that you have the ability to perform and prosper in that arena. Therefore, the mentors that you have, connections you make, and networks with which you belong are extremely important in one’s upward mobility.

Your bosses’ boss must know you and your performance. If you know that you are not handling the most significant and important projects, and you know you are capable of performing at a higher level, let your supervisors know. If it indicates that people who are in the direct path of your mobility have no interest in your career, you need to extract yourself from that environment; find another where there are no barriers obstructing your progress.

For full interview visit www.afro.com (and run a search under “Dr. James Mitchell.”)
The writer can be reached at TKarim@teclawgroup.com.

Talib I. Karim

Special to the AFRO