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A revamped initiative aims to increase minority faculty numbers throughout the state.

After more than a decade of working in the Illinois corrections systems, LaMetra Curry in 2003 enrolled part time in the Adult and Higher Education program in the College of Education at Northern Illinois University. For Curry, a busy mother of two teenage sons, the move in 2004 by the Illinois Legislature and state education officials to restructure the minority graduate student support programs made it possible for her to become a full-time student.

Expecting to finish her doctorate in education by summer 2009, Curry has recently gone back to working full time as a student recruitment coordinator in the NIU education college. Her goal after completing her doctorate is to become a research professor at an Illinois college or university.

“Without my fellowship, I would neither be as far along in my program nor likely in my new position,” Curry says.

Curry is one of 150 current fellows in the Diversifying Higher Education Faculty in Illinois (DFI) initiative. It was established in 2004 when the Illinois General Assembly combined two long-running minority graduate student support programs: the former Illinois Consortium for Educational Opportunity Program and the former Illinois Minority Graduate Incentive Program. Aimed at boosting the number of traditionally underrepresented faculty and administrators at Illinois institutions and the higher education governing boards, DFI operates as a fellowship and mentoring program.

The $2.8 million annual program provides stipends and tuition assistance for traditionally underrepresented students — including those of Black, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian descent — to pursue and complete master’s and doctoral degrees at Illinois institutions. Participants are required to have earned high school diplomas or postsecondary degrees from Illinois schools or have three or more years of Illinois residency.

The two programs were combined following a study on faculty diversity in the state by the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

“While we thought those programs were quite effective, as they were getting minority students graduated, we thought there needed to be more focus on the hiring aspect of that,” says Terry Nunn, the Illinois Board of Higher Education deputy director for diversity and outreach and the state director for DFI.

“Because if you look at the hiring numbers across the country, even right now, they’ve been relatively flat for many, many years for minority faculty,” he adds.

Dr. Ansley Abraham, the director of the Southern Regional Educational Board State Doctoral Scholars Program, says the DFI may now form the single largest minority graduate student support program operated by a U.S. state. The SREB State Doctoral Scholars Program is one of the nation’s largest regional support programs for minority graduate students. Abraham was part of a team hired by Illinois prior to the 2004 consolidation to evaluate minority graduate student programs.

“One of the things I recommended to them was that they should consolidate, which obviously they have done. And their investment didn’t fall off. So, I commend them for that investment,” Abraham says.


Faculty and administrators associated with DFI say that with the consolidation of older support programs they are now concentrating more heavily on the placement of DFI’s graduates into Illinois institutions. Last year, the DFI program hired its first full-time placement coordinator, who is based at the Southern Illinois University Carbondale campus, according to officials. SIUC serves as the base campus for the DFI, whose staff coordinates professional development and research presentation conferences for DFI fellows statewide.

“The legislation created a 21-member program board that would develop policy for the program … So the question for this new governing board was how do we get in the business of making placements happen more than what they have done in the past?” Nunn says.

Dr. José Perales, a DFI program board member and the assistant dean of the University of Illinois-Chicago Graduate College, says there are currently 31 DFI fellows at UIC scattered in a number of disciplines. He notes that since the 1980s when the forerunners of the DFI were in place, a total of 22 former minority graduate fellows have been hired at UIC.

“These programs were actually successful at graduating students, getting them through the graduate pipeline; they were very successful at that. The challenges now are in helping students diversify the academy, especially in Illinois,” Perales says.

One of the challenges has been the practice by higher education institutions to not hire their own Ph.D. graduates right out of graduate school, according to officials. Nunn says it’s critical to develop greater awareness among faculty members and deans at all Illinois institutions — from the community colleges to the research universities — to ensure DFI graduates are made aware of the opportunities in Illinois higher education.

Penny Warren, the assistant dean of student life and multicultural affairs at the Graduate School at Northwestern University and a DFI program board member, says there’s healthy demand for Northwestern Ph.D. recipients from Illinois institutions, but notes the challenge for her institution is that the graduate student population draws mostly from a national and international pool of students. Out of a population of roughly 200 minority graduate students, 20 are DFI fellows this academic year, Warren explains.

“A number of students from other parts of the country who’ve lived in Illinois for a few years actually end up making the commitment to establish their careers here,” Warren says.

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