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Ford Diversity Fellows Urged to Defend Affirmative Action

Ford Diversity Fellows Urged to Defend Affirmative Action
By Ronald Roach

While their fellowship programs have become open to candidates of any race or ethnicity, the roughly 230 graduate students attending the 2005 Conference of Ford Fellows earlier this month found themselves encouraged to defend affirmative action and to continue efforts to diversify the faculties of U.S. colleges and universities.

Ford Foundation President Susan V. Berresford, foundation officials and keynote speakers urged conference attendees to help bring more under-represented minorities into the professoriate. Drawn primarily from 2004 and 2005 fellowship awardees, the audience was encouraged to complete their Ph.D and postgraduate programs. Noted UCLA and Columbia University law professor Kimberle W. Crenshaw exhorted students to vigorously defend affirmative action programs, but to be aware of language that affirmative action opponents have used to attack the policy.

The two-day meeting was the first national gathering of participants in what has been the nation’s largest Ph.D. support program for under-represented minorities since the program underwent eligibility and name changes. Last year, the foundation changed the eligibility criteria from six under-represented U.S. groups, including African-Americans, American Indians and Mexican Americans, to U.S. citizens of any race or ethnicity. Known previously as the Fellowship for Minorities, the programs are now known as the Diversity Fellowships.

Since 1979, the program has provided fellowship funding for some 2,500 African-American, American Indian and Latino doctoral recipients. The program provides tuition and stipend funding at the predoctoral,  dissertation and postdoctoral stages.

Berresford told the fellows that the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Grutter v. Bollinger proved to be a factor in the foundation’s decision to open up the eligibility criteria. Though the 2003 court decision allowed
for the use of race-conscious admissions in higher education, it said race or ethnicity had to be one of many factors and applicants to programs should receive individual scrutiny. Ford officials expanded the programs to “comply with the spirit of Grutter,” said Berresford.  

Another rationale for the changes reflected the belief of Ford officials that faculty diversity effort needs advocates beyond the foundations and the under-represented minorities who have been benefiting from the programs.

“(There) was a realization that we needed to develop more champions of diversity. … We need people from all communities,” Berresford said.
Since 2003, other organizations in addition to the Ford Foundation have broadened their race- and ethnic-specific eligibility criteria for privately-administered graduate school assistance programs (see Black Issues In Higher Education, July 14, 2005). Though a number of past participants in the Ford program expressed dissatisfaction after learning of the program eligibility and name changes, a few students present at this month’s conference expressed support for the changes. 

“I actually think it’s a good idea politically and it’s the right thing to do,” said Azucena Rangel, a third-year Ph.D. student in social psychology at the University of Texas-Austin.

Rangel, a Mexican American and a Ford predoctoral fellow, explained that she has a number of non-minority friends in graduate programs around the United States who she believes are strong advocates of diversity and would work to bring in more under-represented minorities into college and university faculties.

“I would hope that they now could get support for doing high quality work for the betterment of minority populations,” she said. 

Ambivalent about the changes, Elizabeth Todd, a Ford predoctoral fellow in American history at the University of Chicago, said “it’s kind of frustrating” to see the program expanded when the growth of professors from the minority groups has been slow. 

“[The Mellon and Ford] programs were supposed to provide safe havens where students of color could gather and speak freely about the pressures of being in majority White institutions and departments,” said Todd, who is African-American.

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