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Creating a powerhouse: compensation research perks sweeten pot in high-stakes competition for scholars

For the past 24 years Dr. Ron Walters has been a fixture at Howard University. The tenured chairman of the university’s political science department is widely respected in the academic community and is one of an elite group of national scholars who are considered “public intellectuals.”


So when he announced a few weeks ago that he was leaving the university for a tenured position at the University of Maryland at College Park, the questions some people asked were: What’s going on at the University of Maryland?


Joining Walters at College park this fall is Dr. Walter Broadnax who, until recently, was the deputy assistant secretary of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. Broadnax previously taught at Harvard. The two newcomers will join Drs. Linda Williams, Ernest Wilson III, and Sharon Harley to create a formidable public policy team of scholars working on the subject of race and public policy at the campus in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.


“All in all, I have had a good career at Howard,” Walters says. “I have a lot invested in this place and what it represents. But the fact is, Maryland provides me with a tremendous opportunity. And they made a very attractive offer.”


Walters’s departure from Howard is viewed by some as part of a trend in which large, well-financed, traditionally white institutions have begun to compete aggressively for Black scholars. And there are those who claim that when it comes to compensation and the research support that is needed to compete for and retain senior Black scholars universities historically Black colleges and (HBCUs) — and particularly Howard — frequently come up short.


“I love HBCUs,” says Dr. Mary Frances Berry, a former civil rights activist and member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission who is now on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. “I went to one, I’ve taught at Howard, and I’d love to be teaching there now. But when it comes to providing [faculty] what it takes to pursue serious intellectual scholarship, HBCUs aren’t ready for prime time.”


The University of Maryland isn’t the only traditionally white institution that is aggressively building a specialized team (Dream Team) of leading Black scholars. The progress of Harvard University, under the direction of Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., is well documented. Gates’s most recent acquisition is distinguished sociologist William Julius Wilson, who was lured from the University of Chicago and begins at Harvard in a few weeks. Wilson is a sparkling addition to the already stellar Harvard team that includes Drs. Cornell West, K. Anthony Appiah, Orlando Patterson, Evelyn Higgenbotham, Charles J. Ogletree, and judge Leon Higgenbotham.


At Gates’s previous place of employment, Duke University, Dr. Karla F. Holloway, chair of the African and African-American Studies department, also is in a faculty-building mode. “This department has been in existence for 20 years, but there is a new energy and priority to affirming its stability,” maintains Holloway, who is also looking for senior faculty and plans to augment her team — from its existing level of 10 joint appointments — by 30-40 percent over the next three years.


Consequences and Competition


With institutions such as Maryland, Harvard and Duke clamoring to hire clusters of senior Black scholars, one of the questions is: What, if any, are the long-term consequences for HBCUs? “What is going on with Black super stars being spirited away, is something that happens to our white counterparts all the time.” says Howard University’s professor Dr. Clayton W. Bates Jr. “HBCUs may not always be able to make the same counter offers that well-to-do, institutions are able to make. But those scholars who leave Black institutions are not going to become white. They’ll still contribute, but in a different sphere. Sure it takes away, somewhat, from Black institutions, but there will be younger scholars to take their place.”


“I think it means, for Black institutions, that competition has really arrived at their door,” says Dr. Broadnax. “They no longer will he the beneficiaries of having the services of the best and the brightest without having to compete for them.”


The deals that wooed Walters and Broadnax include generous compensation and benefits packages, tenure, reduced teaching loads, and the opportunity to conduct research with full secretarial support and travel budgets. Despite these inducements, however, both scholars cite the opportunity to join a stellar cluster of Black faculty and as a primary factor in their decision to go to College Park — an asset that traditionally has been the appeal of HBCUs.


“The thing is, when I was at Harvard, I was the only and the first Black faculty at the Kennedy School of Government,” says Broadnax. “I won’t be alone at College Park. There is a good number of other Black scholars there — and not just in the social sciences, but across the board.”


“What we see is kind of a maturation of the field [of African-American studies] in American higher education, says Ernest Wilson III, director of the Center for international Development and Conflict Management. He views the current trend in the same context as efforts to create centers of excellence in other fields of study such as astrophysics or medieval English.


“There are now enough [African-American] scholars around of our generation and there is a commitment on the part of some universities to develop these departments. Maryland saw an opportunity to build a team and we want to be the best in the country.” The University of Maryland system, which includes 11 colleges, serves more than 100,000 students, 19.8 percent of whom (20,762 according to the most recent survey) are African-American. More than 10 percent of the 32,493 students who attend the flagship College Park campus are Black (3,557).


“Seeking the Best Scholars”


“We’re trying to build a superior group to do work on race, policy and politics,” says Williams, who led the aggressive charge to recruit both Walters and Broadnax. “We’re seeking the best scholars in these areas and plan, not only to be a scholarly unit, but also to add to the public debate in a real public way.” By the end of the year Williams says the university plans to form a formal committee on race, policy and politics. “There are so many public policy issues that we think are critically important to the Black community,” Williams says. “We felt that an academic unit should add to the visibility of Blacks in these debates.”


Such an academic entity is being welcomed by Margaret Simms, spokesperson for the joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the only think tank which has as its primary mission studying the effects of public policy on the African-American community. “There is no question that it is good to have more attention to issues of race by people who are sensitive to the status of African Americans,” Simms says. “There is a lot of work to be done to help the mainstream community understand African Americans and how public policy affects them.”


While the idea of creating a powerhouse public policy team of African-American scholars began with Black faculty, Williams admits it would have been difficult to bring that strategy to fruition without the support and resources of President William E. Kirwan and other administrators. In Walters’s case, for example, the compensation and benefits package was composed using resources from President Kirwan’s office, the college of behavioral and social sciences, the school of government and politics, and the Center of Politics and Participation.


Perhaps fortuitously, the university’s five-year plan calls for the faculty to become more influential on public policy issues — particularly race. Diversity is another of the plan’s priorities and the institution recently recommitted itself to its affirmative action policies.


The University of Maryland recognizes that in order to win top students in the 21st century, institutions that aim to be competitive are going to need a diverse and prestigious faculty, she adds. “Given the current political debate on affirmative action, you might expect universities to be doing less,” Williams says. “But I think that universities, like the business community, see it differently.”


As delighted as Harley is that Walters is joining her team, the chair of the African-American Studies Department and a Howard alumna, is somewhat ambivalent about Walter’s departure from Howard. “We are happy to have him join us, but personally I feel badly for Howard and I think they will regret it, for many years to come,” she says.


According to Walters, Howard did little to encourage him to stay. Reasons for Considering Other Options Walters was first recruited to Howard from Brandeis University to serve as chair of the political science department in 1972. Over the years, the scholar’s involvement in the university has included: one term on the board of trustees; several terms as the political science department chair; and an active role in faculty politics. In addition, he served as deputy campaign director for Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign and unofficial advisor for the 1988 campaign. Despite these achievements, Walters says the university’s lack of support for his research in recent years is what ultimately led him to consider other options.


“At Black institutions in general, there doesn’t seem to be a tradition of pushing outstanding … senior faculty and providing them with the resources they need to achieve status. This is in part due to the poverty of these institutions, but also because the emphasis has been on the administrative branch of these institutions,” explains Walters.


“That culture has to change, because HBCUs are more and more in competition with other institutions for students and faculty.” Berry agrees with Walters, used to be where You would find the most distinguished Black scholars. The problem [today] is there is not a sense of supporting Black scholars at many HBCUs. One attitude is that you should just he happy you are here. Administration doesn’t think in terms of scholarship and what a scholar needs to get the job done. They see things like research support, secretaries and travel budgets as perks and say, `You should just stay here and teach.”‘


Not an Indictment of HBCUs


These criticisms were dismissed by Howard spokesman Alan Hermesch as individual opinions and not indicative of widespread faculty sentiment. Nor does he feel there is anything particularly unusual about a prominent Howard scholar such as Walters being lured away by another institution.


“Every university in the country looks at and recruits faculty from other universities in the country,” he says. “It’s part of the nature of the marketplace, and should be looked at within the context of the marketplace.”


Hermesh and Dr. Gary Harris, Howard University’s interim associate vice president of research, maintain that there are plenty of satisfied scholars doing research at the institution like Bates, who came to the Washington, D.C. campus after 22 years at Stanford University.


“I’ve not been treated poorly at Howard,” says Bates, who brought a research grant from the National Science Foundation with him and is building a program that will grant masters and doctoral degrees in material science and engineering. “Some of the same hassles I encountered at Stanford are here, too. But overall, the [Howard] administration has been extremely supportive.” Dr. Pamela Gunter-Smith has similar feeling about Spelman, where she is the college’s Porter professor of physiology and chairs the biology department.


“I would have not come if I had not felt there was a commitment [to support faculty research] from the administration. I made a conscious decision to leave a productive research lab with the federal government … to come and set up a lab here. I have not regretted it one bit. My colleagues thought I was crazy. But for me, it was an opportunity to influence young women … to do something important,” says the Spelman alumna.


“There are obstacles here,” Gunter-Smith concedes, “There’s not a lot of the infrastructure to support research activity. But I am [still] doing research and I have a grant. Spelman has made great strides in recognizing that their faculty scientists must continue to practice their craft to be effective teachers.”


In its recent fundraising campaign, which netted the college more than $140 million, Spelman College promised to use its funds to increase resources for faculty. However, Spelman faculty are still expected to cultivate their own resources and financing.


“I’ve found at Spelman that the solid scientists go out and get their money. All of our natural sciences have funding and even our social sciences can get funding if they put the proposals out there.” says Dr. Freddye L. Hill, the college’s academic dean who points out that several Spelman faculty do joint research with larger institutions such as Clark Atlanta University, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and New York University.


Howard’s Harris suggests that the current mobility of Black scholars should be viewed in its proper context. “Talented people, no matter where they are located, are always going to be under siege,” he says. “it happens to me and other capable Howard faculty members. Ron is just one of many.”


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