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The National ‘Expertise Gap’

The National ‘Expertise Gap’

Experts say America’s dependence on foreign nationals to fill doctoral ranks has national security implications

By Kendra Hamilton

In 1957, the Sputnik launch galvanized all levels of American society to pour unprecedented resources into science and technology education. In 1983, “A Nation at Risk” raised questions over accountability and standards in education that are still being debated.

Now, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation is insisting that the nation stands at a crossroads that is, in its way, every bit as significant as either of those moments in history. Its report — “Diversity and the Ph.D.,” released in May — documents in troubling detail the exact dimensions of what the foundation’s president, Dr. Robert Weisbuch, is calling the national “expertise gap.”

It’s a gap, he says, that “extends beyond the professoriate. It is diminishing our national leadership in any number of professional endeavors, from determining economic policy to designing museums to inventing new pharmaceuticals.

“Indeed, given our current dependence on foreign nationals to flesh out the doctoral ranks — one in three Ph.D. recipients in 2003 was an international student — it’s a gap that has national security implications.”

Unfortunately, in the summer of the Michael Jackson three-ring circus, the “runaway bride” and the Alabama teen missing in Aruba, few in the media or in society at large appear to have tuned in.
But the weight of the evidence assembled by the report adds up to something far more chilling than the familiar “diversity lags at the Ph.D. level” headlines suggest — because for the first time, the figures on doctoral attainment are placed in the context of the political climate, which, more and more, is openly hostile to diversity.

For example, the report notes that, despite nearly two decades of incremental progress, minority representation in academia remains stalled far below levels of representation in society. While nearly one in three — or 32 percent — of the U.S. doctoral age population was African-American or Hispanic in 2003, only one in nine — or 11 percent — of the doctorates awarded went to candidates from those groups. Indeed, if one includes international students in the total Ph.D.s awarded, Blacks and Latinos drop to only 7 percent of the total — or one in 14.

And things are getting worse. Looking at the experiences of foundations that have been national leaders in diversifying the Ph.D. ranks — Ford Motor Co., Bill & Melinda Gates, Alfred P. Sloan, Mellon and others — the report concludes that the slow, incremental progress of the past 20 years could come to a screeching halt.

Conservative opposition to race-conscious initiatives has forced programs to close down or change their names, emphases and operations. The result has been:

– A decided shift away from fellowship programs aimed at encouraging minorities to pursue graduate education;

– A drop in the level of financial support for minority doctoral students;

– A decline in direct federal investment in doctoral education for minority students;

– Aid packages that are focused more on need and less on under-representation, resulting in major reductions in minority student support;

– Programs that are named so euphemistically that minority students aren’t even aware that there is the possibility of getting support.
Dr. Ansley Abraham, director of the Southern Regional Education Board’s Doctoral Scholars Program, agrees that colleges and universities appear to be snatching defeat from the jaws of the Michigan victory.

“The Michigan decision [upholding the use of race as a factor in determining college admissions] was a good decision, a supportive decision, but unfortunately politics in general and state politics in particular have changed,” Abraham says. Despite the fact that SREB’s program is 12 years old, despite its proven track record, states — Abraham won’t name which ones — are starting to opt out of participating.

“It’s just not a high priority in the statehouses,” he says. “I’m not so sure that the dots have all been connected with helping legislators and the public to understand the connection between investment in graduate education and the economic well being of a nation. The awareness is just not there.”

Nor is the sense that there is a crisis looming.

Indeed, to Weisbuch, who will soon be stepping down from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation to take the helm as president of Drew University, that “loss of urgency is the most heinous aspect of the problem. It raises a question for all academics who have spoken for diversity: Are you sincere? Will you go the distance?”

Dr. Roosevelt Johnson is program director of the National Science Foundation’s Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate, which rose from the ashes of the now-defunct Minority Graduate Fellowship Program, cut down by a discrimination lawsuit in 1998. Johnson isn’t quite ready to “put up the red flag,” but he is concerned about the future — particularly the future of the sciences.

“This country rose to global leadership in science and technology because our institutions of higher learning have been the ones producing the pool of talent, but now, we are getting a lot more competition from Europe and Asia,” he says. “They used to send their best and brightest here, but now they have learned to produce their own.”

Sometime soon, he adds, “This country will have to recognize that it needs domestic leadership. The domestic pool has not been well-groomed for at least the last 10 years. If we don’t do it, it becomes a national security issue because we put our most sensitive areas in the hands of non-domestic talent.”

Fortunately, “Diversity and the Ph.D.” does not stop at making dire prognostications — it also makes seven specific recommendations, including:

– Better communication between programs to avoid overlaps and gaps;

– Better research, especially in the area of longitudinal data, to better determine what strategies do and do not work;

– Vertical integration between K-12, community colleges and doctoral-granting institutions;

– Change at the disciplinary level, to create a more welcoming and socially responsive climate;

– Mentoring and professionalizing experiences, such as lab work and teaching, to ensure success for minorities entering the various fields;

– Consideration of race and need together in crafting support programs;

– More active leadership at the federal level.

None of these recommendations provides the kind of short-term fix that seems to appeal in this age of sound bites. And that’s intentional, notes Weisbuch.

Graduate education is itself slow — it takes seven to 10 years to produce a Ph.D. cohort. And to ensure that there is “a healthy cohort of students of color who are interested in graduate education, you have to get to them when they’re between eight and 12-years-old,” Weisbuch says. Thus, in order to have any realistic chance of success, the recommendations must look to the long term.

But that doesn’t change Weisbuch’s impatience as he looks at the data: “We’re in a race against social injustice and the anger that comes out of that. We’re also in a global race, in which we in the United States need to be able to use the full human resources available to us to remain competitive. Slow progress is not enough. We need to achieve a takeoff.”

The report is available at <>.

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