Research centers abound on the nation’s campuses, offering dynamic career opportunities for scholars at every level
Dr. Pamela Taylor had no delusions about the difficulty of writing
a social psychology dissertation in her last year of graduate school at
UCLA. The New York City native knew it would take a considerable amount
of distraction-free time to finish on schedule. Like numerous other
UCLA students whose dissertation subjects center on African American
populations, Taylor applied for a pre-doctoral fellowship from the
university’s Center for African American Studies.
The research topic, “Attitudes Among African American Singles: A
Test of Four Perspectives” and her application won Taylor full tuition
support for the 1997-98 academic year and a $10,000 stipend from the
university’s Black Studies research center. The annual fellowship
enabled her to get office space at the center, and it freed her up from
having to work part time while she researched and wrote the
“I did not have to worry about supporting myself last year,” Taylor
says, adding that the people at the center “were very helpful.”
For scholars of color, affiliation with research centers and
institutes can represent a critical part of the academic experience. In
terms of training, graduate assistantships, fellowships, office space,
equipment, and research sponsorship, the research center often provides
resources to scholars beyond what they can get in their regular
“Centers and institutes are a source of funding; they are a source
of mentoring; and they are a potential source of a research agenda for
young scholars,” says Dr. Christopher Foreman, a senior fellow at the
Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, D.C.
Academic centers and institutes abound at wealthy universities,
both public and private. At places like the University of Pennsylvania,
it’s not uncommon to have more than one hundred such centers of
research. In some cases, they allow scholars whose research interest is
interdisciplinary to create a center removed from the purview of an
academic department. Others may represent an arm of a department, and
fall under the control of departmental heads. Department chairs who
direct an affiliated research center may grant scholars dual
appointments within both the center and the department.
Centers, whether they have direct affiliation with an academic unit
or not, attract outside research dollars from government, private
foundations, and individual donors. The most successful research
centers have savvy scholars and administrators raising money for them,
the backing of a school’s sponsored research program, and support from
senior administration officials, such as a senior vice president for
Although arrangements vary from school to school, affiliation with
research centers and institutes doesn’t usually translate into extra
cash for faculty members. Dr. Joyce Ladner, former acting president of
Howard University, says it’s more common for faculty members to have
their teaching loads reduced by their respective academic department
than for them to get additional compensation for holding a research
One research center director at the University of Maryland says
it’s highly likely that a research center director who holds an
academic teaching post would receive additional cash for managing a
center. He adds that faculty researchers are partially rewarded with
having access to resources–such as secretarial help, office space, and
equipment –that goes beyond what they get in their regular academic
Centered Career Moves
For senior scholars, research centers offer the promise of
prestige, reduction in teaching loads, additional office space,
equipment, research funding, help from graduate assistants, and close
collaboration with colleagues. Universities, such as Harvard and
Columbia, have lured highly sought Black scholars with promises to run
both an academic department and a prestigious research center.
Dr. Ernest Wilson, associate professor of government and politics
at the University of Maryland took a job at the College Park campus in
1992 after getting the offer of a dual appointment–one in the
government and politics department and the other in the Center for
International Development and Conflict Management (CIDCM). At the time,
Wilson was running a research center at the University of Michigan. He
wanted to have a similar opportunity in his next job.
“The appointment in the center made Maryland’s recruitment of me
more attractive. I had come out of an intense research environment at
the University of Michigan and that’s what I wanted to continue,”
In 1995, he became executive director of the CIDCM. For Wilson,
running a research center allows him to get involved in solving real
world problems. CIDCM has contracts with U.S. government agencies and
works directly with foreign governments. Wilson values the exposure it
affords him as he travels abroad and throughout the United States.
But Wilson, like any other scholar holding down a demanding
administrative job, has to remain productive as a scholar while
managing a research center. His reduced teaching load allows him to run
the center while working on his own research.
For younger scholars, affiliation with a research center or
institute can provide intensive training in the techniques of
conducting research in a respective field. Mentoring by research
scholars offers a dimension to the academic training that graduate
students can miss if they stick too close to their respective academic
“Many times, students don’t know how to do research until they
learn it in the environment of a research center,” says Dr. Ronald
Walters, professor of government and politics at the University of
Some scholars say they appreciate working with graduate students
and junior faculty if they have had research center experience.
“When I meet graduate students who have come through an institute
or center, I find them to be very well-prepared. They have their work
in a departmental setting and they have their work in a research
center,” says Dr. Dianne M. Pinderhughes, director of Afro-American
studies at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign.
Research centers and institutes are often valuable sources for
postdoctoral fellowships for young scholars. Dr. James Lorand Matory,
who holds tenured professorships in both the anthropology and the
Afro-American studies departments at Harvard, says it’s critical that
young scholars get support at the postdoctoral stage. The postdoctoral
fellowship often enables a scholar to prepare his or her dissertation
for publication or helps facilitate other important research and
writing before the start of a teaching job.
Black Studies Research Centers
While not absolutely necessary for the development of Afro-American
studies as a discipline, the research center can play a critical role
in pushing the discipline forward, according to sources. At a time when
many Afro-American studies programs are struggling to survive,
centers–such as Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American
Research and UCLA’s Center for African American Studies–add
institutional weight and legitimacy to the discipline.
The public profile of the DuBois Institute hit a high point with
the arrival of acclaimed scholar Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. as its
director in 1991. Gates brought with him a dazzling array of research
projects to the DuBois Institute. These projects included the Black
Periodical Literature Project, the Norton Anthology of African American
Literature, and others.
Established in 1975, the DuBois Institute reportedly had languished
as a research center before Gates was given the charge to revive it.
The institute has a number of programs, including a highly coveted
fellowship program for scholars outside Harvard.
Dr. Laurent Dubois, who recently earned a Ph.D. in history and
anthropology from the University of Michigan, is spending the year at
Harvard’s DuBois Institute on a fellowship. He is reworking his
dissertation on the Haitian and French revolutions into a book. Dubois
believes the year he spends at Harvard will help him tremendously with
writing the book because of the interaction he is having with scholars
at the institute.
“I’m in dialogue with my colleagues, and that is valuable for me,” Dubois says.
In addition to restoring the institute, Gates, a West Virginia-born
expert in African American literature, has assembled an all-star cast
of Black intellectuals–the so-called “Dream Team”–to boost the
Afro-American Studies Department, which also had languished for years.
Since coming to Harvard, Gates has raised more than $8 million for the
department, according to Boston Magazine.
“Gates is the master academic entrepreneur. [Running a center like
the DuBois Institute] allows him to have a network to team up on
projects, and it allows him to put his name on a lot of things,”
Brookings Institution’s Foreman says.
Dr. Richard Yarborough, chair of the Center for African American
Studies at UCLA, says the research center complements the Afro-American
studies program because it provides research grant support for its
faculty members. The center also supports fellowships for doctoral and
postdoctoral students whose research involves Afro-American studies,
according to Yarborough.
“Getting these students support for a year without them having to
teach enables them to get their Ph.D.,” Yarborough says of the doctoral
fellowships. “Graduate students are often really strapped.”
Yarborough adds that although UCLA’s African American studies
program is housed at the Center for African American Studies on the
campus, the programs are separate entities and each is administered
with separate budgets. Both the academic program and the research
center in African American studies were created in 1969.
Centers on Black Campuses
Dr. Ray Winbush, executive director of the Race Relations Institute
at Fisk University, recalls that long before traditionally White
institutions had centers and institutes devoted to studying
race-related issues, the nation’s historically Black colleges and
universities had established premier research centers committed to such
“Black institutions were dealing with race when no one would deal
with it,” Winbush says. Fisk’s institute was founded in 1941.
He finds it ironic that predominantly White institutions, such as
Columbia and Harvard, get the amount of attention they do with regard
to Black studies research. Winbush wants Black institutions to regain
leadership in the research of race-related subjects and social science
areas related to African Americans.
“Black schools aren’t keeping pace in providing research
opportunities for their faculty, both in the natural and social
sciences,” Winbush says.
For institutions lacking the resources of state flagship schools or
wealthy private universities, establishing and maintaining research
centers can prove especially difficult. A number of Black scholars say
that although HBCUs often have fewer resources than traditionally White
institutions, the real problem is that these institutions are not yet
fully committed to supporting faculty research programs and centers.
“[HBCUs] are not putting the emphasis on research,” Winbush says.
The University of Maryland’s Walters cites the closing by Howard
University administrators of an urban affairs research institute in the
late 1980s as a frustrating and puzzling move for him. Walters, who
served as its director of social science research between 1974 and
1978, says the institute was self-sufficient at the time of its closing.
“Schools get rid of the deadweight, but the institute was pulling its own weight,” Walters says.
Like other prominent HBCUs, Howard University has a number of
centers and institutes that provide research opportunities for students
Prior to desegregation, social science research centers flourished
on HBCU campuses. Desegregation resulted in many of the most talented
scholars being lured away to traditionally White institutions, leaving
HBCU research centers to languish or close.
Winbush is encouraged by the activity of schools, such as
Clark-Atlanta University and Florida A&M, which have been very
aggressive about enlisting federal agencies to help them establish
science and engineering research centers.
“Clark-Atlanta has been highly successful in getting research dollars onto their campus,” Winbush says.
Dr. Kofi Bota, vice-president for research at Clark-Atlanta, says
the recent growth in research centers at HBCUs has resulted from
science initiatives undertaken by the federal government. Since the
mid-1980s, beginning with the Reagan and Bush administrations, federal
agencies have established and funded science research centers at
numerous HBCUs, he says. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the
National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Department of Defense
(DOD), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
have primarily been the sponsors of the centers, Bota adds.
To a lesser extent, a few HBCUs have launched independent applied
science and engineering centers apart from the federal agency
start-ups. These federal laboratories largely have addressed basic
science research issues, while independent centers have tended to focus
on applied technology research. Bota adds that the federally-sponsored
centers are more numerous than the institution-launched technology labs
Nonetheless, the science and technology research centers have
invigorated the research agenda of HBCUs, enabling some schools to
attract top-notch faculty members. He is optimistic that science
research will continue to expand on HBCU campuses, and will do so
largely through the research center.
“It’s impossible to have a first class university without the
research,” Bota says. “Without an organized program of research, an
institution really cannot achieve growth. There’s only so much you can
do in terms of teaching. Research and development represents growth
areas for institutions.”
Walters adds that the commitment to creating campus research centers has to come from the senior administration and faculty.
“Leaders of HBCUs have to make sure there’s central administrative support for research,” he says.
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