What Are Think Tanks Thinking About?
And are they thinking enough about minorities and higher education?
By Eleanor Lee Yates
“C olleges would be great places to work if there were no students,” or so goes the age-old joke among college
research professors. Long considered coveted respites as well as invaluable institutions for lawmakers and other information hungry organizations, the role of the nation’s venerated think tanks has taken on much larger proportions — without a student in sight.
But what type of people do think tanks attract? How does a think tank operate and how are they funded? Are they prone to compromise their research integrity? And are they focusing enough attention on the critical issue of minorities and higher education?
Consider think tanks as being halfway houses between pure research and employment in government or business, adds Dr. Paul Portnoy, president of the Washington-based Resources for the Future, a think tank dedicated to studying energy, environmental and natural resources.
Think tanks often lure respected government officials — experts in their field — after they have had policy-making careers. And some major university professors are invited to work at think tanks, Portnoy says.
A think tank provides an atmosphere to reflect on work experiences. Later, scholars may return to public service, often applying theories from their stints at think tanks.
The Book on Brookings
The Brookings Institution began in 1916 as the first private government research institution in Washington. In the early 1920s, two sister institutions were organized, the Institute of Economics and the Robert Brookings Graduate School. In 1927 all three merged to become the Brookings Institution, named in honor of Robert Brookings, a St. Louis businessman who helped shape the organization until his death in 1932.
At Brookings there are 75 scholars, referred to as senior fellows. Some are visiting, which means the position is temporary. Some fellows are non-residents, those who don’t live in Washington.
“Scholars are among their peers. There’s an exchange of ideas, some lively discussions and a lot of serious research,” says Ron Nessen, vice president for communications at Brookings, who also served as press secretary for President Gerald Ford. At Brookings, researchers focus on government studies, economic studies, foreign policies, urban studies and education.
The purest think tanks are not advocates and always retain an academic approach, insists Nessen. “Some organizations call themselves think tanks but they have an ideological position. They reach a conclusion first, then do the research,” he says.
But all think tanks are interested in one or another dimension of public policy, says Portnoy, who believes the work produced at respected think tanks stands up to any peer review at major universities. He also says think tanks have a stronger mission to make a difference in public policy than universities do.
Most think tanks focus on applied science. It’s their mission to produce research that is used. Researchers may find themselves testifying on Capitol Hill, with their work affecting a wide range of legislation.
Getting to a Think Tank
Researchers arrive at think tanks by several avenues, depending on the position. Research assistants often are recruited by ads in publications, online and otherwise. High-level positions at the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, such as a vice president of research, may be handled through a search or recruitment firm, says Liselle Yorke, communications specialist for the Center.
The Urban Institute, also based in Washington, rarely uses search firms, says Irene Marchuk, a recruitment specialist at the Institute. Its Web site has been extremely popular for lower level positions. The Institute advertises for researchers with Ph.Ds. Marchuk says another source for filling think tank positions is word of mouth and networking.
“People will meet people at conferences. They’ll remember someone who gave a presentation at a meeting,” says Marchuk.
Unlike colleges and universities, most think tanks do not have a tenure-like system. As in the for-profit business world, some employees remain at institutions for many years, while others leave for other opportunities.
Most think tanks have certain high-level positions that span a one- or two-year period. This type of system gives a policy maker or professor the opportunity to play a new role while allowing institutions to rotate star talent.
As for the pressure to publish, few think tank executives would ever be so crass as to instill quotas to publish on researchers.
“But that’s sort of a no-brainer,” Yorke says. “That’s really their role for being here — to put out the research.” Whether they produce a book or noted articles, it is the researcher’s job to add to the body of knowledge on a topic.
Dollars and Cents
If you are wondering what kind of bucks top think tanks pay, salaries generally are compared to those of professors at large universities.
Working at a think tank is usually a full-time position. Except for the occasional conference, most scholars report to the office each day.
At Brookings and other think tanks without philosophical agendas, the road to research goes like this:
When researchers have an idea for a project, they make a proposal that includes a timeline and an estimated budget. Because of expertise in their fields, scholars are always familiar with many potential research projects. Projects can take one year or many. A board of trustees must approve research projects. Once approved, a director heads projects.
Money for most independent think tanks comes in part from endowments. This provides them core funding and more independence. About one-third of Brookings’ annual budget comes from a $35 million endowment from which 5 percent in interest is drawn annually. A large portion also comes from philanthropic foundations. Another chunk comes from outside organizations willing to donate money for research.
By comparison, the Joint Center’s endowment hovers around $14 million and resources for the future is around $45 million.
Nessen says when scholars have ideas for research that need financial support, Brookings’ external relations department helps match up a project to funding.
“But Brookings has tough rules,” he says. Funding companies cannot “put spin” on the research. Also, no more than half the funding for a project can be from a participating source.
Sometimes the work at think tanks can be guided by a grant for a specific topic, Yorke says. More often, researchers think of a project along the lines of their expertise. Though the Joint Center, like most think tanks, has a development arm, researchers, may have a role in funding development.
“From their experience, researchers have ideas who might be interested in funding what. Also, many have past relationships that can be helpful,” Yorke says.
At the Urban Institute, it is not uncommon for researchers to write their own grant proposals, but a development or external relations department is the real force behind securing research funds.
Of course, many think tank projects generate money themselves, such as books penned by the researchers.
Of Concern to African Americans
Dr. Lois Rice, a visiting scholar in economics studies at Brookings who is African American, says there are not many minorities in senior level positions at think tanks. Those who hold such positions are well respected, she says.
Research at Brookings’ Brown Center on Education Policy addresses many significant issues pertinent to minorities. Earlier this year at a Brookings Forum co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, Rice and a colleague presented research to help guide policymakers in implementing new legislation on higher education.
Two years ago Congress reauthorized the Higher Education Act, which focuses largely on federal student aid programs. Since then, Congress moved to enact new initiatives proposed by the Clinton administration. These initiatives stress that the quality of K-12 schooling must be improved, particularly for disadvantaged youth who need better teachers, greater access to new technology, better support services and guarantees of college financial aid delivered at a much earlier age. Rice and her colleague, Dr. Arthur Hauptman, stressed that adequate funding must be secured for the initiatives to maintain momentum and efforts should be made to build bridges and partnerships with colleges and the business community.
Dr. Margaret Simms, vice president for research at the Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies, believes the small number of senior researchers at think tanks does have an impact on work being done. Researchers, whatever their color, bring their own experiences and expectations to projects, she says. In theory anyone or any organization can examine issues that have an impact on minorities.
In some studies there may not be enough minorities in the sample, says Simms, who is also African American.
“If you don’t have time to look at that aspect, and it’s no one’s responsibility, sometimes it falls off the table,” Simms says.
She is encouraged that more minorities are getting their doctorates. But even though there are more minorities with credentials for think tanks, the pool remains small. Think tanks compete with universities, government service and lucrative jobs in the corporate world.
The Center of black policy thinking
With a history of addressing issues pertinent to minorities, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies was founded in 1970, first serving as a resource for newly elected minority office holders by providing policy-training sessions. A milestone came in 1993 when the center opened an international office in Johannesburg, South Africa, to give technical support for first-time Black candidates running for office.
Today the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies focuses on a broad range of issues and projects, including a national public opinion poll. But the center continues to research issues and sponsor events relevant to African Americans, such as the Minority Business Round Table, which is a national membership organization of African American, Hispanic American, Asian American and American Indian-owned businesses representing a variety of trades and industries. Membership is by invitation only and limited to 200 firms.
Dr. Roderick Harrison, director of DataBank at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, says a current concern is the college retention rate of minority students compared to White students. Though minority students are graduating from high school at higher rates, there remains a significant gap in the number of White and Black college graduates.
A study by the National Center for Education Statistics for the U.S. Department of Education indicated that 43.8 percent of Black students enrolled in college in 1989 had graduated five years later compared to 58.3 percent of White students.
“We need to spend more attention in policy areas trying to understand what the barriers are,” says Harrison, a sociologist and demographer. “I don’t think you can talk about the equality of economic opportunities until there is educational equality.”
Harrison says if Black and Hispanic students earn their high school
degrees, the school systems should commit to making sure these students leave with the skills they need for college.
“Unless we solve the skills gap, the problem is going to come back. Clearly some of the attrition rates reflect weaker academic skills. It just doesn’t make much sense to get more Black and Hispanics into college if they don’t have the competitive basic skills. Many obviously have the motivation and the right values. We just have to send them off to college with more comprehensive skills,” he says.
Reading test scores of high school seniors by the National Assessment of Educational Progress released in August show that the gap that had once narrowed between Blacks and Whites has now grown wider. In 1971, reading scores of 17-year-olds indicated a 53-point difference of Whites over Blacks. By 1988, that figure had narrowed to a 20-point
difference. However, the latest 1999 figures show a gap of 31.
National Assessment of Educational Progress math scores in 1973 indicates a 40-point gap between 17-year-old Black and White students. That gap narrowed to 21 in 1990. But in 1999 the gap had also grown to 31.
The latest figures from the College Entrance Examination Board show that the average SAT score for White high school seniors graduating last spring was 1058, and for Blacks, 860, out of a maximum score of 1600.
In 1990, Whites averaged 1034 and Blacks 847. In the nine-year period White students had a gain of 24 points, with Blacks a gain of 13 points.
Harrison said it was important that high schools make sure minorities have access to college-track courses. In some cases, lack of guidance and counseling results in minority students not taking the college preparatory courses they need to succeed.
Dr. Edwin Dorn, dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, says think tanks have not done a good enough job on issues that can help minorities prepare for college success. He says preparation must begin in grades much earlier than those studied.
“We need to improve the pipeline,” says Dorn, who was formerly at the Brookings Institution. “You can’t start preparing students for college when they’re in high school. You start preparing in the third grade. This leads to proficiency in the eighth grade, which translates to good grades and good test scores. Think tanks should question the life cycle of education.”
Dorn supports effective early childhood programs, noting the success of some such as the federal Head Start and North Carolina’s Smart Start.
Once in college, both financial and academic counseling could help retention rates of minority students, Harrison says. He says he thinks minority students at community colleges would have a higher success rate of transferring to four-year schools if more emphasis was put on academic counseling to ensure that credits transfer.
Dr. Beatriz Clewell, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute also says think tank studies should focus more on the role of the community college in helping bridge the retention gap.
“So many minorities begin college at a community college. There needs to be more of an effort there for counseling and for transferring,” she says. Community colleges are an excellent place to recruit minority students for four-year schools, she adds, because those there are already focused on educational goals.
Financial barriers in graduate school are among the issues being studied at the Urban Institute’s Education Policy Center. Clewell and her colleague, Dr. Vincent Tinto, recently completed a study on financial aid that could affect the minority persistence rate. In a two-year study of almost 700 doctoral students, Clewell and Tinto found financial aid was the most crucial issue affecting students’ ability to complete their studies. Their research showed that in general, minority students were more in need of financial aid than White students were. In a significant finding, the researchers learned that the way all students received financial aid had an indirect effect on whether they completed their work.
“Financial aid can affect how students interact with faculty. A research assistance grant forces a student to interact with those in the department. They get to know faculty. This type of aid not only helps the student in his work but also provides more support,” she says, adding that the most effective financial aid for graduate students appeared to be a combination of fellowships and research assistantships.
“We feel financial aid can be structured so that it maximizes the potential for increasing students’ satisfaction with their program. Students need interaction with faculty, as well as time toward the end to work on their dissertation,” Clewell says.
Clewell says think tank research often focuses on the underclass, whereas she would like to see more research on why more high-achieving minorities are not going into science careers. Some research done at the Urban Institute indicates that many minorities, as well as Whites, are not going into the sciences because of disappointment with their college entry-level science courses.
“These are very smart minority students but they seem to be turned off by their first-year math and science courses, in part because of the inferior way they are taught. So many students are seduced by the social sciences,” she says.
Many experts have noticed a distinct trend among some new think tanks: a narrow focus on specific issues such as welfare reform. Also, issues of study are constantly changing.
“Ten years ago, who would have thought there would be research on vouchers in schools and the impact of the Internet on business?” Nessen says. Affirmative action also has been one of the most controversial issues in higher education and appears to remain a major subject at think tanks. The 1996 Hopwood judicial ruling limits affirmative action in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. The states of Washington and California passed legislative propositions forbidding colleges and universities to be “race sensitive” in its selection of applicants. Florida’s resolution that top students in their class are automatically admitted to college could also negatively affect affirmative action.
In addition to impeding the progress of minorities, Dorn, who is a minority, believes colleges with admissions policies not sensitive to race are “very damaging politically.”
“Our tax base consists increasingly of Black and Hispanic voters. These folks are unsympathetic to taxes for schools they can’t get into,” Dorn says.
During the next decade, Dorn predicts that Texas, like much of the nation, will be “a majority minority” state.
“The University of Texas was one of the best bargains for an education in the country. Now one of the perverse consequences of Hopwood is that our best and brightest minorities in Texas now find extraordinary places like Harvard welcoming them,” Dorn says.
Dr. Walter Williams, chairman of the economics department at George Mason University in Virginia, has been associated with think tanks for many years. He has worked at the \Urban Institute, and is now affiliated with the Heritage Foundation, which calls itself the nation’s leading conservative think tank, and is a trustee at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Williams also writes a nationally syndicated column and is a guest host for Rush Limbaugh’s radio talk show.
Though an African American, Williams is an opponent of affirmative action. He feels affirmative action sets Black students up for failure and he thinks more research is needed on the negative effects.
“Good genes do give an advantage. But our theory explains why small changes in the environment can make a difference in IQ,” says Dickens of Brookings, who has conducted research on how environment can improve one’s IQ.
Dickens also says tests are not always an accurate reflection of one’s ability — sometimes they are the result of inferior schools for both Blacks and Whites.
Dorn says he is concerned about a trend of private financing for public colleges and universities and what repercussions there might be for students. For example, the University of Texas receives just 25 percent of its budget from its legislature. The majority of funding comes from tuition and private sources, and these days administrators spend much time fund-raising. Donors may want to give money for new buildings, but not particularly for maintenance or renovation.
One criticism that Dorn has of think tanks is that they too often focus on components of an issue, such as looking specifically at higher education or secondary education or at community colleges.
“Think tanks have not focused on the entire human resource system,” he says. “There’s a failure to see continuity.”
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