Held Back at Michigan?

Black graduate students charge that they are recruited -- and then discouraged from going for doctorates.
February 6, 2006

A group of black graduate students at the University of Michigan filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights last week, alleging that the university aggressively recruits black students, but then discourages them from completing Ph.D.’s.

Simeon Anderson, a graduate engineering student, penned the letter, which centers on his own experience, on behalf of the 13-member Coalition for Action Against Racism and Discrimination.

In the letter, Anderson says that black students at Michigan, which successfully defended the use of race in admissions in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003, are “alienated and marginalized ... through neglect, fraud, and deception.” Anderson refers to his experience as “education lynching.”

Julie Peterson, a Michigan spokeswoman, said she could not comment on specific cases because of federal privacy laws, but said that Michigan “is committed to increasing the participation of women and minorities in our graduate programs.” The University of Michigan is consistently among the top 10 institutions in the number of doctorates awarded to black students. In 2004-5, of 725 doctoral degrees, Michigan awarded 33, or about 4 percent, to black students. Mary Sue Coleman, president of Michigan, has sent letters to the three students who have made explicit complaints in effort to gather more information.

One of Anderson’s main contentions is that black students are “made promises,” he said in an interview, as an attempt to lure them into a program, and that those promises are never fulfilled.

Anderson said he was invited to pursue a Ph.D. in construction engineering and management, and was promised the financial support that goes with being a doctoral student. Anderson is currently a master’s student in the program. All students who want to move to the Ph.D. track have to apply. According to university sources who asked not to be identified, Anderson never submitted an application for the Ph.D. program.

In early November, Anderson went to Ron Gibala, interim dean of the College of Engineering, to air his complaints, a meeting that is documented in e-mail exchanges.
According to e-mails provided by Anderson, Gibala responded to the meeting by sharing Anderson’s concerns with others in the college and asking for their accounts of the situation. Anderson had spoken with administrators before about his concerns, and was advised that he could file formal grievances in several ways, including with the university’s Office of Institutional Equity, and the student ombudsman.

Anderson said he did not pursue those courses of action because he was tired of getting referred from one person to another and not seeing any action. “The university has a pattern of ignoring what [black students] say,” Anderson said. “If you get mired in this game, they’ll keep you on the string for a year.”

After meeting with Gibala, Anderson said he started hearing stories similar to his own from other black students, two in particular who have made specific complaints. One of those students, Nefertiti Patrick-Boardley,  a former doctoral biomedical engineering student, said she has been repeatedly told to settle for a master’s degree. Patrick-Boardley came into the Ph.D. program with a master’s degree from Tuskegee University. Because she came in with a master’s, Patrick-Boardley said she did not have a course requirement, but took some classes anyway to prepare for her qualifying examinations for her doctorate.

She said her grade-point-average in those non-required courses was just below the standard required to take the exams -- around a B+/A- average -- and she was not allowed to take them, even though she had been under the impression these courses would not be considered in terms of her taking the exams. “I was misinformed by the chairman about what I would need to do,” said Patrick-Boardley, who began the Ph.D. track in 2000. She then said that her academic advisor suggested other institutions, or that she simply be content with a master’s degree.

“He said ‘it’s difficult here, making B’s is a great achievement,’” Patrick-Boardley recalled. “He said I don’t need a Ph.D.. He has an M.D. and a PhD, so they’re good enough for him, but not for me.”

Patrick-Boardley said she met with an administrator to discuss the situation, and that the administrator suggested she try the applied physics department, where she is now enrolled. However, she said she “still wants to get my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering.”

By the time Anderson spoke with Gibala, he had already begun consulting people outside of the university, some of whom were also sent copies of the letter. The letter went out to, among others, Rev. Al Sharpton, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, four U.S. senators, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Some administrators at Michigan said they were not given enough time to deal with Anderson’s concerns, and that they are not sure why he did not file formal internal grievances. In one e-mail to Gibala, Anderson said that he had already waited four months for a “non-sophomoric response.”

Said Gibala, “we did the best we could in my view,” about referring Anderson to the formal grievance routes. “We’re always disappointed when students to choose other means to try to settle their issues,” Gibala said. “I think a student would be hard-pressed to not find a way to lodge a complaint within the college or university.” 


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