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Grooming a New Cadre of Faculty Leaders

The Leadership Alliance has produced more than 100 Ph.D.s, one-third of whom are now working in the academy.

As a stellar student at Morehouse College in the 1990s, Dr. Jason Sello navigated a path to Harvard University where he earned a doctorate in biophysics. He credits his participation in the Brown University-based Leadership Alliance program for making it possible for him to conduct research alongside graduate students at the Harvard medical school during the summer before his senior year in college.

“I had a chance to see what Harvard was like on top of getting a better sense of research and what it’s like to be a graduate student. It provided me key exposure to science at Harvard, and it gave Harvard exposure to me. So, that combination made a big difference to facilitate many aspects of my scientific career,” says Sello, who is an assistant chemistry professor at Brown University.

This summer, the Leadership Alliance marked a milestone by celebrating the attainment of 100 Ph.D.s and M.D.-Ph.D.s by participants like Sello since the program’s launch in 1993. During the organization’s annual national symposium that was held in Hartford, Conn., the Leadership Alliance celebrated the 100 Ph.D. milestone with 550 in attendance, according to officials.

“I think it’s a fantastic accomplishment. There are many programs that seek to encourage underrepresented students to pursue graduate school, especially in the sciences. In this particular case, the results are tangible. To have 100 Ph.D.s among its participants is a huge accomplishment,” Sello says.

“With more than 100 Alliance graduates holding a Ph.D., we’ve been successful … We’re fulfilling the promise of diversifying the academy and creating the next generation of minority leaders and scholars,” says Dr. Valerie Petit Wilson, the executive director of the Leadership Alliance.

Wilson notes that the 100th Ph.D. mark was attained last December and the Leadership Alliance boasts a grand total of 117 Ph.D.s among the college graduates who have participated in the program. With more than 100 doctoral scholars already in the pipeline, she expects the alliance to reach the 200 mark within a few years. Officials contend the alliance has produced a larger percentage of doctorates from among its participating students than similar program in the country and has produced a significant number of medical doctors.

Alliance alumni currently occupy faculty positions at research institutions such as Brown, Columbia University, Harvard, Howard University, Johns Hopkins University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University. Minority- serving institutions and liberal arts colleges that count alliance alumni as faculty members include Hunter College, Morgan State University and the University of Puerto Rico.

This past July, 320 undergraduates, who participated in research and study programs on 23 campuses over the summer, attended the symposium to take part in the festivities, according to Wilson. In addition, minority scholars from around the nation, including Leadership Alliance alumni who have gone on to become graduate students, postdoctoral research associates and tenure-track faculty, were on hand for networking, recruiting, panel discussions and research presentations.

“This symposium is an opportunity for students from all of those sites to gather in one place and present their research to one another,” Wilson says.

The Leadership Alliance was established as a national consortium of leading research institutions and minority-serving institutions (MSIs) dedicated to boosting the enrollment of underrepresented minority students in graduate programs. Currently, the alliance claims 33 research and teaching institutions that work together to “invest their financial resources, faculty talents, and student educational aspirations and commitment for the common purpose of improving the prospects of minority participation in the ranks of tomorrow’s faculty,” according to the alliance.

Wilson, who has directed the alliance since 2003, says the program evolved from the effort of Ivy League institutions to create a partnership with minority-serving institutions, specifically to encourage the students from the MSIs to apply to competitive graduate programs. Over time, she notes, the alliance expanded its opportunities to include underrepresented minority students at any institution. The program has also been open to students of any race to include those from disadvantaged backgrounds, says Wilson, a Brown faculty member and dean.

“The long and short of it is that we’re encouraging all students from all institutions who are underrepresented and underserved to be part of our program so as to encourage them to go on to get their Ph.D.s In our initial phase, many of the students who received their Ph.D.s came from minority-serving institutions,” Wilson says.

Dr. James Wyche, the founding director of the alliance, recalls that the early push to launch the program came from Dr. Vartan Gregorian, president of Brown University from 1989 to 1997. At the time, Gregorian recognized that it was going to take the collaboration of many higher education institutions to seriously address the shortage of underrepresented minorities available to fill faculty positions, according to Wyche.

“One of the major issues we sought to address was to increase the number, and that’s why we decided to do it across the academy, across the discipline lines because we wanted to help with other efforts that were being done nationally to populate this pipeline of terminal degree holders,” Wyche says.

“We began to knit together our first initiative that was to set up summer research opportunities for undergraduates and that was how we formed it,” he adds.

He notes that foundations and corporations, like Citibank, the Ford Foundation, Schering-Plough, and federal agencies, like the National Institutes of Health, provided early grant support to get the program off the ground.

Wilson says the Alliance grew to include students in the humanities and social sciences and eventually to extend opportunities to graduate students and postdoctorates. It has also grown to its present size with several institutions.

“After 15 years, the Alliance has a lot to be proud of, including boosting the number of minorities pursuing academic careers,” Wilson says.

“About 32 percent of alliance graduates now hold faculty positions at U.S. colleges and universities — positions that allow them to mentor and encourage other underrepresented students. We’ve created a new cadre of faculty leaders,” she explains.

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