As a recipient of a prestigious $500,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Amherst College will develop an initiative to identify and prepare students from underrepresented minority groups to become faculty in the humanities.
The grant is part of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) program, which seeks to increase diversity in the faculty at institutions of higher learning. Established in 1988 with an initial cohort of eight institutions, the program has grown to 48 member schools and three consortia.
Amherst joins schools such as Barnard College, Bowdoin College, Brown University, Duke University and Stanford University, as well as three universities in South Africa and a consortium of HBCUs. As of 2017, more than 5,000 students had been selected as fellows, more than 700 of whom have earned doctorates. More than 100 have become tenured faculty.
Dr. Norm Jones, Amherst’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, said the college’s institutional commitment to advancing equity and inclusion makes it well suited to take on such an important initiative.
“We often talk about our work in the context of faculty, students and staff, but these three domains are inextricably bound and depend on one another to create a community in which all people thrive,” said Jones.
Jones will be one of the MMUF program directors at Amherst. Dr. Marisa Parham, a MMUF alumna and professor of English, and Dr. Allen J. Hart, the James E. Ostendarp Professor of Psychology – both of whom are faculty diversity and inclusion officers – will help design Amherst’s MMUF activities. Additional faculty members from Black Studies, Sexuality, English and Women’s and Gender Studies will also participate.
The basic goal of MMUF is to increase diversity across academia. To do so, fellows from underrepresented minority groups are selected and supported as they pursue doctoral studies. The focus is careers as faculty. It does not include professional pursuits such as medicine and law.
The goal of MMUF is compatible with Amherst, a renowned liberal arts institution with a highly diverse student body. At present, 44 percent of U.S. students at Amherst identify as students of color. One of the school’s chief principles is that liberal arts education develops individuals with deep understanding of the world and the possibility to create positive change through innovation and critical thinking.
“The size of our institution allows students to co-create learning environments,” said Jones. “Faculty and students often enjoy a special relationship that allows them to delve more deeply into the construction of courses and ways in which an open curriculum can provide strong scaffolding for future research. This positions any student looking to pursue the professorate in phenomenal ways.”
Recruitment and retention of a diverse student body is one of the college’s greatest accomplishments, Jones noted.
“The professorate is a domain that enjoys national attention without the requisite inquiry into how students develop an interest in teaching while at college,” he said. “MMUF allows us to focus our conversations with interested students in ways that get them thinking about teaching and learning and their opportunities to influence that discourse.”
Approximately 90 percent of Amherst graduates pursue graduate studies, although they have leaned more toward a professional degree rather than a Ph.D. The Mellon grant and participation in MMUF will help promote graduate studies in the humanities and prepare undergraduates to become professors and researchers at colleges and universities, thereby helping build a national pipeline for a more diverse faculty.
Students with great intellectual promise will be identified and, if interested, become fellows. Fellows will receive mentoring, guidance and advice in addition to funding for travel and research. There will be networking opportunities with Amherst and MMUF alumni. The MMUF program will provide visibility for both the participants and the college’s commitment to the humanities.
Completion of the Ph.D. is just one step in becoming a professor and researcher. Academics must focus on how to succeed in the academy, and fellows will be prepared by the insights of mentors.
“There are systemic challenges at play that have existed since elementary school and persist throughout the graduate experience,” said Jones. “Entering into and remaining in academia is really about how professors convene a community of supporters and colleagues, colleagues who understand their scholarship and what’s necessary to advance it. And an institution willing to invest in that scholar’s contributions such that they continue to advance beyond the institutional processes that mark success in traditional but perhaps less-inclusive ways.”
As Amherst’s MMUF fellows complete their doctorates and become faculty at colleges and universities around the country, they will bring their skills and individual styles and perspectives, which can inspire future students to pursue careers as professors.
“The goal is to keep conversation moving and consistent,” said Jones. “Those who will give back to the institution not only by virtue of their membership, but also by introducing unique intellectual contributions that make the environment an inviting and engaging place because of the rich and relevant discourse.”