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Talented Young Black Scholars Find an Open Path to Ivy League

When Dr. Keisha-Khan Y. Perry applied for a teaching position at Brown University five years ago, she was doubtful that she would even get the job, let alone an interview.

Fresh out of graduate school, Perry, who received her Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin, was completing a post-doctoral fellowship at Smith College in Massachusetts when Brown University granted her an on-campus interview.

“I was one of those people who went to a big state school, so I thought I would teach at a big state school,” says Perry, who applied for an Africana Studies assistant professorship, placing her in direct competition with seasoned scholars who were vying to gain a foothold at Brown.

“This is the kind of job that you want to have after you write three different books and spend 15 years working hard in the field,” says Perry, 34, who fell in love with Brown the moment she arrived on its campus for her interview.

A rising star within the field of Africana Studies, Perry was offered the tenure-track position and joined a department that now includes some of the nation’s most distinguished scholars, such as Dr. Tricia Rose, Dr. Anthony Bogues, and well-known authors Chinua Achebe and John Edgar Wideman.

“My colleagues are some of the leading folks in the field,” says Perry. “I’m glad to be in an Africana Studies department surrounded by people who support my work and where I don’t sound crazy.”

It used to be that newly minted Ph.D.s had to establish themselves and cut their academic teeth at less competitive colleges and universities. That was certainly true for young Black scholars. The prospects of landing a coveted teaching position at one of the nation’s eight Ivy League institutions were dim. In the years leading up to the Civil Rights Movement, most Black Ph.D.s were relegated to teaching at HBCUs.

But things are a bit different today.

With the influx of a new generation of highly trained Black Ph.D.s, Ivy League institutions are aggressively courting these young scholars fresh out of graduate school, luring them to their faculties sometimes with top salaries, pre-tenure sabbaticals and reduced teaching loads.

The trend of African-Americans teaching at Ivy League institutions isn’t new. But almost everyone agrees that, over that past decade, that trend has become more pronounced.

For example, in 1968, Dr. Martin Kilson was the first African-American to be granted tenure at Harvard University. But today, Harvard has more than 200 African-American faculty who are either tenured or on tenure-track lines, a testament, Harvard officials say, to their efforts in promoting diversity.

They point to Dr. Roland G. Fryer Jr., who, in 2008, at the age of 30, became the youngest African-American in Harvard’s history to gain tenure. Like Perry, Fryer received his Ph.D. from a state school—Pennsylvania State University.

Fryer joins other young Black scholars who have found a home in some of the nation’s most exclusive ivory towers. This group includes Dr. Marc Lamont Hill and Dr. Carla Shedd (Columbia University), Dr. Russell Rickford (Dartmouth College), Dr. Imani Perry (Princeton University), Dr. Shaun R. Harper (University of Pennsylvania), and Dr. Travis Gosa (Cornell University) among others.

According to the National Science Foundation, 9,825 doctoral degrees were awarded between 2005 and 2009 to African-Americans, doubling the number granted just 20 years earlier.

“I’m encouraged by what I see,” says Dr. Elijah Anderson, the William K. Lanmann, Jr. Professor of sociology at Yale. “It’s very different from when I was coming along.”

Anderson, 67, is somewhat of an anomaly himself. He’s spent his entire teaching career at elite institutions, moving from Swarthmore College to the University of Pennsylvania, where he stayed for 32 years until he was recruited in 2007 to Yale.

“People like myself broke some barriers and were pioneers of sorts,” says Anderson, whose bestselling book, Code of the Street: Decency, Violence and the Moral Life of the Inner City, continues to be a popular text in college classrooms. “Today, a lot of the success we’re seeing among young African-Americans has to do with the mentoring that they are receiving. You become part of a system and you in turn get mentors to write for you and vouch for you. That’s so important.”

As enticing as it may seem to work at an Ivy League school, Dr. Cornel West, a professor at Princeton, says that he doesn’t always advise people to start their careers there.

“I’ve always felt it was best to do your work prior to tenure at a smaller college,” says West, who has spent the majority of his career within the Ivy League but landed his first teaching job at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

West says that small liberal arts colleges like Williams, Amherst, Bowdoin and Morehouse are good training institutions for young scholars.

“The possibility of going up the ladder in the Ivy League is so slim, so it’s better to come into a position laterally rather than as an assistant professor,” says West. Dr. Imani Perry, 38, arrived at Princeton two years ago with the rank of full professor. Perry, who holds a law degree and a Ph.D. in American civilization from Harvard, initially took a tenure-track job at Rutgers School of Law-Camden when she left Harvard but then made the transition seven years later to Princeton.

“I feel very fortunate to have a job at Princeton,” she says. “Many academics who are doing outstanding work never wound up at a super elite school.”

There have been a few highly publicized examples of young Black scholars who have given up tenure at an Ivy League institution in exchange for an offer at a less competitive institution, but their departure usually involved some form of public slight.

For example, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, who was recruited from the University of Chicago and offered tenure to teach at Princeton in 2006, resigned earlier this year after she was denied a promotion from associate to full professor. She is now a full professor at Tulane University. And, in 1996, Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley left Columbia to become a professor at the University of Southern California after he complained that Columbia’s history department didn’t deem his work scholarly enough.

But despite the perks and prestige that come with teaching at an Ivy League school, many young, non-tenured Black scholars say they are worried about gaining tenure, particularly during these tough economic times.

“If you don’t get tenured at an Ivy League school, you have to go elsewhere,” says one assistant professor who is going through the tenure process now. “Leaving an Ivy League school without tenure and having to teach somewhere else is seen by many as a demotion.”

Many in the academic community were surprised to learn that Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean, a young Black political scientist who has been lauded for her groundbreaking scholarship focusing on voting patterns and the prison industrial system, was denied tenure at Yale. Brown-Dean began her career at Yale in 2003 as an assistant professor of political science and African-American studies after she earned a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University. In the fall, she will start a new job as an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University.

At Brown, Perry says that she doesn’t spend too much time worrying about the tenure process, which is still several years away.

“Of course, I want tenure, but for me I just want to work hard right now,” she says. “There are no guarantees you will be tenured. You have to work hard and produce and then all you can do is hope for the best.”

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