A Haven for Minority Scholars

1,100 black, Hispanic and other minority Ph.D.'s and doctoral students gather for advice and kinship in a setting where they're more than a "speck in a room."
October 30, 2007

The number of black, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander and American Indian recipients of Ph.D.'s has been edging higher in recent years, but members of those groups are still significantly underrepresented in the proportion of all doctorates earned.

So it's hardly surprising that at most of the academic meetings that a black graduate student like La Tonya M. Green goes to, such as those in her discipline of urban studies and planning, she feels like "a speck in a room," as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology doctoral student put it at the Compact for Faculty Diversity's Institute on Teaching and Mentoring in Washington last weekend.

"When these students are in their classrooms and departments, their lives can be a very lonely one," said Ansley A. Abraham, director of the State Doctoral Scholars Program at the Southern Regional Education Board, which was one of the hosts of the institute. "By definition, the pursuit of the Ph.D. is a lonely excursion, and when you add the minority component, it is a real isolating experience."

No such isolation was likely for Green and the other 1,100 minority Ph.D. candidates and recent recipients at the Washington meeting, where they spent three days learning, networking and, perhaps most importantly, encouraging each other to keep at it. American universities award only about 5,000 Ph.D.’s each year to Americans of black, Hispanic and American Indian descent, out of a total of about 55,000, so the 1,000-plus minority scholars who assembled here represent a rather remarkable proportion of the minority Ph.D. pool.

“Take a moment and look around this room,” Abraham told the doctoral candidates and recipients at the meeting’s opening session Friday. “Realize and internalize what you’re seeing here -- more minority Ph.D. scholars in one place and one time than you’re likely to see the whole rest of your careers.”

The 14th iteration of the Institute on Teaching and Mentoring – whose sponsors include multiple groups and foundations that sponsor fellowship and other programs to support minority doctoral candidates, such as the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education – comes at an opportune, even crucial, moment in time, Abraham said. With a large segment of the professoriate retiring now or preparing to over the next decade, there is a “unique window” now for colleges and universities to shape the next generation of faculty members.

“If we don’t make significant progress in diversity given this hiring opportunity, we will miss a real window, because we will have replaced another generation of faculty on college and university campuses,” Abraham said. “There won’t be another big one like this for a long time. The responsibility is all of ours not to let this window of opportunity pass.”

While Abraham and other officials affiliated with the Compact for Faculty Diversity have that big-picture goal in mind, their main task at the weekend's institute was narrower: giving the hundreds of scientists, researchers and scholars a comfortable environment in which to do the sorts of things that current and would-be faculty members typically do at conferences: get career advice, improve themselves, and "network, network, network," as Abraham described it.

"This gives them a chance to affirm what they're doing and what they're pursuing, and a chance to affirm that they're not the only ones -- that they're not crazy," a sentiment minority Ph.D.'s often feel when they know few others doing what they're doing, Abraham said.

They do this in ways big and small, visible and subtle. The sponsors solicit colleges and universities to line the hallways with booths of faculty recruiters. They take pains, when deciding who should room with whom at the conference, to align participants with peers they are likely to encounter (and collaborate with) in other settings, either because they share disciplines or locales in common. And to inculcate the grad students among them into the art of networking, the sponsors print business cards for each institute attendee, and urge them to share them freely with colleagues.

Participants also took part in the standard fare of academic conferences. Sessions such as "Writing Proposals for Competitive Grants in Science," "Teaching Active Learning Strategies," "Writing the Dissertation," and "Balancing Academic Substance with Polished Presentation, or the Finer Points of Shameless Self-Promotion" are the same sorts of titles you might find at any academic meeting for grad students or young scholars. But while "the content may be roughly the same," said Green, the MIT urban studies doctoral student, the sessions themselves are informed by the knowledge that "there are some barriers that are different because we're of color."

Green focuses her own research on the relationship between schooling, incarceration and residential location, a topic that some scholars at traditional disciplinary meetings might deem unworthy, she said. But her black and Hispanic peers at the institute, Green said, are likelier to see the topic as important and to help frame the research to appeal to those with more traditional perspectives.

In those ways and others, Abraham said, sponsors of the institute hope to give the current and future generation of minority faculty members some tools that they may lack on their own campuses and in their own departments.

"A lot of times, in addition to whatever isolation you might feel because there aren't a lot of people who look like you, you can also experience an alienation and feel like you don't have access to the unwritten rules in your department," about what's really expected for tenure and which committees really matter, for example, Abraham said. "One of our goals here is to make sure our scholars understand what those unwritten rules are in case they're not getting it back home."

He added: "It's hard to win at a game when you don't know what the rules are."


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