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Recruiting professorial diversity – University of South Carolina

In a state where lawmakers currently are debating a bill that would
scale back state-sanctioned affirmative action policies, a University
of South Carolina (USC) faculty member is trying to lure
under-represented minorities into the collegiate teaching ranks.

Dr. Aretha Pigford, a professor of education, says she believes she
can raise $150,000 over the next few months to pay stipends for ten
Ph.D. candidates who could begin their final push toward a terminal
degree at the University’s flagship campus in Columbia this fall.
Pigford’s three-year goal is to have thirty students at USC, thus
adding to a pipeline that produces just 1,400 Black Ph.D.s annually,
according to the National Library of Education.

The centerpiece of Pigford’s vision is a pledge that students will
be paired with enthusiastic mentors willing to share teaching secrets
and nurture teaching skills.

“Mentoring is important in education, period,” says Dr. Michael
Nettles, executive director of the Frederick D. Patterson Research
Institute, which studies ways to improve educational opportunities for
minorities. And, he says, “The mentor doesn’t have to be the same race
as the student.”

According to Nettles, it is more important that a student have
someone to depend upon for advice and guidance, and that the
relationship function as a partnership.

With the help of a planning grant from the Kellogg Foundation,
Pigford has spent the past year trying to drum up support for her idea.
If she ran raise the necessary matching funds, she stands to receive
nearly $1 million in Kellogg grants over five years.

Betty Overton, Kellogg’s higher education program director, says
the foundation is “very excited about…this project. It integrates
into higher education our theme of capitalizing on diversity.”

The past year hasn’t been easy for Pigford, but she’s not
discouraged. Although USC’s administration is now supportive, school
President John Palms expressed reservations last fall about the
incentive strategy of tying enrollment at the university to job

Pigford, one of the five tenured Black faculty in USC’s College of
Education, has been knocking on doors on her own campus and around the
country in search of the financial backing she needs to lure the next
generation of African Americans into the college classroom. USC’s
athletics department has agreed to contribute $15,000 for the next
three years, if a graduate student enrolls in a field related to the
welfare of student athletes.

“We applaud the university for creating opportunities for
attracting potential minority faculty,” says athletics director Mike
McGee. “It makes sense for us to support something in academics like
this that will benefit our student-athletes and the university as a

Another key USC administrator backs Pigford’s initiative as well.
Engineering school Dean Craig Rogers told Pigford he has money in his
budget to underwrite a doctoral stipend if she can produce viable

“We are very much supportive of Dr. Pigford’s program,” Rogers
says. “We would like to provide research assistantships for African
American students as part of our [ongoing] research activities. We want
to aggressively recruit African American graduate students,
particularly those who want to earn a Ph.D.”

Limited Numbers

Fewer than 5 percent of all college professors in this country are
Black, according to Nettles. Exclude those who teach at historically
Black institutions, and the number falls to 2 percent.

The Kellogg Foundation’s Overton says it is not surprising African
Americans opt for careers other than teaching at the college level.
Role models are scarce.

“African American see a limited number of them,” Overton says “They
hear how hard it is and look at the numbers and see that maybe it’s not
a career for them.”

But apparently there is interest below the surface among some
Blacks now in college. When Pigford granted an interview last fall to
the local newspaper about her idea, she received more than 600
inquiries from prospective students around the country.

Right in Pigford’s backyard is Shana Robinson, a
twenty-seven-year-old master’s student working on a secondary school
counseling degree at USC. Robinson says she’s intrigued by the prospect
of a program that offers mentoring.

“I feel like I’m stuck at the moment. I can’t get any practical
experience unless I quit my [secretarial] job. And if I do that, I
won’t be able to afford school,” Robinson says.

At USC, one of every thirty-three faculty members is African
American. Robinson says she’s had two Black professors in six years of
study at USC.

“I notice it. But I can’t say it really bothers me. I expected that,” she says.

USC is a national leader among public research universities when it
comes to recruiting African American students. One in six of its
undergraduates is Black.

Antonio Sojourner, an eighteen-year-old freshman from Denmark,
S.C., aspires to become a computer engineer. He recalls that a family
friend once warned him that he wouldn’t see many Black professors in
the classroom.

“I think there should be more,” Sojourner says. “But I guess a lot of [African Americans] aren’t interested in teaching.”

“If we are truly going to be a diverse university, then we have to
do everything we can to make people understand this [teaching] is a
profession that’s inclusive and welcoming,” Pigford says.

Welcomed Support

Several weeks ago, Pigford appeared before the state’s Legislative
Black Caucus to put in a pitch for funding when lawmakers begin writing
next year’s state budget.

“This is a very important program, not only for our state, but for
our country,” she told lawmakers. “We can be a leader [in training
minorities to be college professors]. All we need is a little help.”

She asked the S.C. Commission on Higher Education to consider
giving her a grant, and she is also looking to foundations and
philanthropists known to support teaching initiatives that promote

Meanwhile, Pigford says reaction and support from colleagues and
USC’s administration are heartening. In addition to the engineering
school and athletics department, departments within the College of
Liberal Arts — and possibly other public colleges — have indicated an
interest in contributing toward the stipend pool.

Pigford says she has an agreement to work with the Compact for
Faculty Diversity, an organization in Atlanta that recruits and assists
minorities in finding universities where they can do doctoral work.

Ansley Abraham, the compact’s director, says, “We think it’s a
natural marriage between what she is trying to do and what we are
trying to do.”

The compact organizers annual seminars for roughly 250 minority
graduate students where colleges and universities can send faculty
recruiters to meet the next generation of professors. Abraham says USC
is welcome to participate in those sessions.

Overton said last fall that Pigford’s efforts are important because
“it’s not just about having bodies in the classroom. It’s about having
people bring in diverse points of view and showing young people there
are many different ways to look at the world.”

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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