'Like Flies in Buttermilk': Black Deans Talk Candidly About Diversity in Graduate Studies



Graduate Students


'Like Flies in Buttermilk': Black Deans Talk Candidly About Diversity in Graduate Studies




By Stacey Patton


The Chronicle of Higher Education

December 13, 2011


Diversity was a major theme on the agenda at the Council of Graduate Schools' annual meeting last week, with speakers presenting anecdotal stories and research to show the benefits of increasing the numbers of students who come from backgrounds underrepresented in higher education.

Most agreed that diversity is not just good policy; it is better for learning, doing business, and competing in a global economy. But outside the meeting's scheduled sessions, some deans questioned whether the sense of urgency will reach beyond Scottsdale, Ariz., where the meeting was held, and force hard looks at systemic problems. They worried about how their efforts to improve diversity might be harmed if the Supreme Court decides next year to revisit the issue of affirmative action in undergraduate admissions, and how gains in access might erode as federal and state budget cuts loom.

There was a palpable sense of anxiety over whether the Supreme Court will hear the case of Abigail Noel Fisher, a white student who has sued the University of Texas at Austin, accusing it of denying her admission in favor of less academically qualified black and Hispanic applicants. There is fear that a ruling in favor of Ms. Fisher would not only test university commitments to diversity, but also end the use of affirmative action in undergraduate admissions at public universities altogether. Graduate deans are worried about the impact that would have on graduate-student enrollment. In order for there to be a pool of qualified applicants for graduate schools, access to undergraduate programs is critical.

Day-to-Day Challenges

At the conference, a handful of black deans got together for an unplanned session over drinks and hors d'oeuvres to have a candid conversation about the conference agenda and to discuss day-to-day challenges facing black graduate students on their campuses.

In assessing the annual meeting itself, some deans commented on the small number of minority attendees that speckled the conference. "We're like flies in buttermilk," said Patricia Whyte, director of the diversity office of the Graduate School at the University of Minnesota. Ms. Whyte and others were not surprised by the paucity of minority deans and administrators there, given their low representation within higher education.

The lack of diversity at a meeting focusing heavily on diversity did not escape the attention of some white attendees either.

Peter Self, an assistant dean of graduate student life and research training at McMaster University, in Ontario, attended a session on inclusiveness and mentorship of minority graduate students. "I'm a middle-aged white guy, and my first instinct was to look around the room to see how many people looked like me," he said at a lunch-table conversation. He didn't notice many.

"It's concerning to me that there weren't more people of that demographic sitting in the room and listening to that conversation," he continued. "I understand they were competing with other sessions, but some of that is an inherent decision-making of what's the most important thing to you."

While Mr. Self took note of the low numbers of whites interested in the session on inclusiveness, and the black deans at the informal gathering criticized the dearth of minorities present at the conference over all, the deans said they found some of the presenters' talks on diversity to be useful.

"There were great talks here about diversity, but the conference falls short of dealing with the day-to-day issues of diversity," said Michael L. Jeffries, who is a special assistant for the McNair Scholars Program, a national effort designed to prepare minority undergraduates for doctoral studies through research and other scholarly activities.

Mr. Jeffries and the other deans praised the Council of Graduate Schools for consistently being at the forefront of challenging racial disparity issues and keeping diversity in focus. Their conversation was not punctuated by the usual gloom and doom about the current state and future of black progress in higher education despite a remarkable expansion in black access to higher education over the past decades.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of black students enrolled in graduate programs in the United States grew by 88 percent in recent years, from 181,400 in 2000 to 342,400 in 2009. In 2000, black students made up 8.4 percent of all graduate students, compared with 12 percent in 2009. And likewise there was an increase in the minority share of degrees conferred. In 2008, black students earned 10.4 percent of master's degrees awarded, and 6.5 percent of Ph.D.'s, up from 4.9 percent of master's degrees and 3.2 percent of Ph.D.'s in 1990.

The deans say that the expansion of access has been important, but ensuring successful completion of graduate programs among diverse groups of students is still a problem. They cited a number of factors that have hurt retention among minority students: inadequate undergraduate preparation, lack of minority faculty mentors, financial difficulties, and social isolation.

"Getting students in is one thing; making sure they finish is another thing," said Mr. Jeffries, sliding his finger across his iPad screen as he cited a correspondence from the Committee for Education Funding, a nonpartisan group, on proposed federal spending cuts to higher education.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that automatic spending cuts triggered this year when Congress failed to produce a required deficit-reduction plan will reduce most nondefense discretionary spending, like federal student aid and research grants, by 7.8 percent in the 2013 fiscal year alone.

"We don't know what the precise impact of the budget cuts will be, but we are frightened," Mr. Jeffries said. "It doesn't do you any good to go to school if you don't have financial support."

Beyond dealing with financial challenges, conference attendees said they also face obstacles to persuading the general public that a focus on diversity is important.

Carolyn Denard, assistant dean for undergraduate education at Emory University, said she was fascinated by a talk on cognitive diversity by Scott E. Page, a University of Michigan at Ann Arbor professor of political science and economics who has written three books on diversity. In his plenary session, Mr. Page presented empirical evidence to suggest that diverse groups of people outperform homogenous groups in the classroom and in work settings.

"So often when you're in diversity positions, people ask, What's the benefit of diversity?" Ms. Denard said. "Sure there are the slogans, 'Diversity is excellence,' and so on. But Mr. Page's talk actually provided evidence to show that diverse groups actually do better and that we need to change perceptions. It's not only the people who don't believe in diversity that need to hear this message, but also the people who do believe in it, because sometimes they are struggling with how to answer the question even when they intuitively know that it is better."

Importance of Mentors

Some people talked about the importance of fostering connections among diverse groups, including through cross-racial mentorship.

While the deans said that black graduate-student retention rates can rise in tandem with more recruitment of minority faculty, many agree that students should consider opening themselves up to cross-racial mentorship. Reflecting on her graduate-school years, W. Constinia Charbonnette, a program director at West Virginia University, said that students must get beyond assuming that "just because someone looks like you they will best serve your interests."

As a graduate student in mathematics, Ms. Charbonnette, who is black, said she was at first resistant to working with a white faculty member who offered to mentor her.

"What can this white man do for me? I didn't think that anyone who didn't look like me could mentor me," she said. "One of the greatest experiences of my life was opening up and saying, Wait a minute, you don't have to look like me to mentor me."

The deans acknowledged that poor mentoring relationships, between students and faculty of any race, could be a factor harming retention. Ms. Whyte and others say that students come in with the expectation that their mentors will be "warm and fuzzy and take you under their wing." That expectation, they say, is unrealistic. Mentoring is much more complex, and minority faculty have many demands on their time, while also facing patterns of racism and unfair treatment in the tenure process.

Betty Shadrick, assistant dean of graduate studies at the State University of New York at Albany, said that too often minority students do not ask for help and find themselves suffering. "If you're the first in your family to pursue a graduate degree, then you don't have a point of reference or somebody to tell you what to expect along the way," she said. "All of this is new uncharted territory. You have to have at least one person to help you."

The problem, too, Mr. Jeffries added, is that some students' families do not value a graduate degree and have a difficult time offering support.

Janet C. Rutledge, vice provost and dean of the graduate school at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, said that when minority students encounter repeated challenges and barriers, their foundation will determine whether they survive the graduate-school journey.

"Some students say to themselves, I'm coming in at a deficit, I don't think I'm smart enough, I don't know if I'm going to make it. Eventually you hit enough walls and you're going to say, Maybe I'm not cut out for this," Ms. Rutledge said. "So you have to have that support network behind you that says you are smart, you can do this, these other people are no smarter than you are."