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Nurturing Ph.D.s
To boost the number of minority professors, start by seeing doctoral candidates through their journey.
By Blair S. Walker

When minority doctoral candidates fail, the reason is seldom academic in nature, says the leader of a program focusing on increasing the ranks of minorities holding doctorates.

Minority doctoral candidates typically throw in the towel because they feel alone and unsupported, says Dr. Ansley A. Abraham, director of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board’s State Doctoral Scholars Program.

“Alienation and isolation are two areas that minority students frequently identify as being huge barriers to their being successful at the graduate level,” Abraham says.

“Research will tell you that for all graduate students, the number one barrier to getting an advanced degree or Ph.D. is finances. But very close to finances for minority students is alienation and isolation,” he said during SREB’s 13th Annual Institute on Teaching and Mentoring, a conference on overcoming the shortage of minority faculty by nurturing future doctorate-level scholars.

Ramping up the number of minorities with doctorates is a critical first step toward addressing the low percentage of minority professors nationwide. Currently, only 5 percent of college  faculty are Black, 3 percent are Hispanic and 0.5 percent are American Indian, according to SREB spokesman Alan Richard.

 “University and college leaders need to understand that we can no longer define academic excellence in the exclusion of diversity,” says Dr. Steve O. Michael, Kent State University vice provost and professor of higher education administration. “The future of our graduates, the vitality of our business all depend on our ability to attract diverse talents and to leverage the benefits [of] diversity.”

That lends a certain urgency to the work done by Abraham and the 13-year-old State Doctoral Scholars Program. SDSP has helped 330 students get their doctorates and enjoys a graduation rate of 88.7 percent, compared with an average rate of 37 percent nationally for minority Ph.D.  candidates.

“It is very rare that we lose a student out of graduate education because they could not cut it academically,” Abraham says. “You lose students, particularly minority students, for the other kinds of things, [such as] the politics that take place within departments, the lack of mentorship that trips students up.”

Consequently, Abraham and other SDSP staffers put a special emphasis on what Abraham calls “the unwritten rules,” things like finding out which professors to avoid and researching a school’s graduation rate for minority doctoral candidates.

“We’d like to think that everybody in higher education is for us and supports us, but that’s not always the case,” Abraham says.

Dr. Anita Harris, who teaches women’s studies and anthropology at the University of Louisville, knows this all too well. When she was doing her doctoral work at Louisiana State University, one professor would arbitrarily mark down Harris’ grades as she watched helplessly.

 “It was almost like she was trying to discourage me. She would tear up my work. I had to tell her that I wasn’t going anywhere,”recalls Harris, who was involved with the SREB when she got her Ph.D. in 2004.

“The issue of diversity among university faculty is still with us,” Richard says. “We’ve made a lot of progress and we have hundreds of doctoral graduates. We’re making a dent, but we still have a long way to go.”

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