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Garden State Abandons Minority Doctoral Program

As a young student in Newark, N.J., José Lopez was so good at science that his classmates sometimes came to him with their questions. A teacher suggested he become a teacher. Lopez listened.

Now, at 32, Lopez teaches science at an even higher level. He is an assistant professor of physics at Saint Peter’s College, a Catholic school in Jersey City, N.J., where he has been on the tenure track since receiving his Ph.D. from the Stevens Institute of Technology in 2005.

Essential to the completion of his doctoral work was a fellowship from the state designed to increase faculty diversity at public and private colleges and universities in New Jersey. Fellowships are one component of the Minority Academic Careers (MAC) program.

“The MAC program has had a big impact on my career choice—no doubt about it,” says Lopez, who is of Uruguayan and Spanish descent. MAC covered his living expenses, allowing him to concentrate on his studies.

In the future, the challenge of financing doctoral study will be harder for minority students aspiring to follow Lopez and the other MAC fellows into academia: The state Legislature defunded the program in the 2011 budget. No new fellows were named for this academic year, although the last ones can complete their Ph.D.s.

“The defunding was the result of the continuing state fiscal situation,” says Dr. Glenn Lang, acting executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education. “The program was not singled out but was part of larger statewide budget cuts. The current budget only supports the seven remaining doctoral fellows.”

Lopez and other former fellows say they were surprised and dismayed at the cutback, which was announced in September. The chairman of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, state Sen. Ronald Rice of Newark, says he too was unaware that the Legislature has only provided appropriations to wind down the program. “I was surprised,” says Lopez. “It’s just a shame that the MAC fellowship is being eliminated from the budget.”

Natural Progression

Since the Legislature created it about 25 years ago, the Minority Academic Careers program has evolved to include three components. Starting in 1984, research-oriented undergraduates received fellowships to encourage them to pursue graduate degrees, and new faculty had their student loans forgiven. Those new hires do not have to be former fellows. Both components were originally limited to nine state colleges but later expanded to include any school in the state.

In 2000, the loan forgiveness program was converted into minority hiring incentive grants. The doctoral fellowships, such as the one Lopez received, were added that year as well. As legal pressure against minority-specific scholarships mounted, the eligibility criteria were revised in 2005 to include economically disadvantaged White students.

The College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown, N.J., coordinated the two fellowship programs under a contract with the Commission on Higher Education. The coordinating office, now closed, reported in a description of the program that more than 400 undergraduates, doctoral students and new faculty members have gone through the various components of the MAC program.

Lang says the Commission does not know how many undergraduate fellows have gone into academia. The doctoral and new faculty components produced modest gains in faculty diversity, though not enough to significantly impact the overall state diversity figures. A total of 41 former doctoral fellows and beneficiaries of loan forgiveness teach at colleges or universities in the state, says Lang, with seven more on faculties elsewhere.

In the fall of 2007, about 19 percent of the 13,726 full-time faculty employed at degree-granting institutions in New Jersey were minorities. Asians represented 10 percent, African-Americans 6 percent, Hispanics 3 percent and Native Americans less than 1 percent.

Despite the limited impact, Marjorie Powell, who has worked on diversity issues in higher education as an assistant dean at Michigan State University and an equal employment opportunity officer at Georgetown University, says the program and others like it played an important role in increasing faculty diversity around the country.

“The New Jersey system was a great system,” says Powell, now a consultant on human resources and EEO compliance. “With the elimination of these programs, it just makes the job of the institutions that much harder.”

Illinois and Michigan have similar fellowship programs.

Like New Jersey, both started theirs in the 1980s, though with bigger budgets that support more fellowships, which are narrowly targeted to graduate students working to complete terminal degrees.

A total of 1,250 fellows have been through Michigan’s King-Chavez-Parks program, and more than 900 through Diversifying Higher Education Faculty in Illinois, according to officials in those states. Michigan has 321 fellows this year. By comparison, the MAC program has graduated approximately 400 students in its history.

Funding reached a high of $450,000 in New Jersey in fiscal year 2010, versus $1.3 million in Michigan in 2001 and 2002. The Michigan program’s latest budget is $1.2 million after a 3 percent cut.

Since 1989, the Connecticut Community Colleges system has offered a dozen graduate fellowships each year under a union funded program that helps students complete a master’s degree, a prerequisite for teaching at the two-year schools. The annual budget for the fellowships is less than $100,000.

As in New Jersey, White students have been eligible for the fellowships in Connecticut, Illinois and Michigan.

In 2001, Dr. Jack McKillip, a psychology professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, published a study of the results of the fellowship program that Illinois began in 1985. He concluded that the “Illinois investments in minority graduate fellowship programs are bearing fruit for the state and the nation.”

McKillip, now retired, found the fellowships caused “a major diversification” of the state’s doctoral programs, produced 46 percent of Illinois’ new African-American Ph.D.s in the hard sciences from 1988 to 1998 and supported 152 faculty, who constituted 9 percent of the African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans then teaching at Illinois colleges.

In New Jersey, of the 41 MAC participants teaching in New Jersey, 33 were hired under incentive grants at 18 colleges, which use the money to repay up to $40,000 of a new professor’s student loans over four years, according to Lang. The program will use funding from previous years to complete the cycle of loan redemption for existing faculty.

The fellowships for doctoral candidates have provided $20,000 a year for up to four years, including a stipend to attend the annual National Institute on Teaching and Mentoring sponsored by the Southern Regional Education Board.

Assisted Living

The fellowship has helped Lopez launch a promising career at Saint Peter’s, though it didn’t cover all of his expenses as a doctoral student at Stevens Institute, where he earned his Ph.D. Other fellowships, including ones from NASA and the Air Force, funded the equipment and supplies he needed for his laboratory research.

He specializes in microplasmas, an emerging field with commercial and industrial applications for sterilizing medical instruments and water supplies. Last year, Lopez received a $2 million grant from the Defense Department to establish the Center for Microplasma Science and Technology, a national center of excellence at Saint Peter’s. A first-generation college graduate, Lopez comes up for tenure next year. Another MAC Fellow, Dr. Rochelle Parks-Yancy, was awarded tenure this year as an associate professor of management at Texas Southern University. Her field is human resource management. Last spring, she was a Fulbright Scholar, teaching and doing research at American University of Armenia.

Parks-Yancy, 39, received her Ph.D. from Rutgers University in 2004. She received a MAC Fellowship for three years and used it to cover living expenses.

“The MAC was awesome,” says Parks-Yancy. “It really enabled me not to have any financial concerns at all. That was a big thing.”

The Orange, N.J., native says she teaches outside New Jersey because the state has few institutions accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

Two other former fellows have completed Ph.D.s but are continuing their training. Dr. William Harrison, who earned a doctorate in clinical psychology in 2008 from Farleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J., is on the staff of a foster care house in Irvington, N.Y.

“I wanted to gain some real clinical experience before going into academia. I do, however, plan to teach in the very near future,” Harrison says. He called the defunding of the MAC fellowships “an absolute travesty. Without that program, I would have been so far in debt from loans that it would be impossible to earn a living as a professional in my field.”

Dr. Tiffany Morris, who received her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Rutgers in 2009, is a postdoctoral fellow in neurology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. She intends to teach in academia.

With the demise of the fellowship program, no alternative statewide approaches to increasing faculty diversity have been developed, Lang says.

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