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Closing the Gap - By Susan Borowski

Participants in the 2012 Compact for Faculty Diversity Institute on Teaching and MentoringParticipants in the 2012 Compact for Faculty Diversity Institute on Teaching and Mentoring


Closing the Gap


Two longtime programs support minority PhD candidates


By Susan Borowski

The Institute on Teaching and Mentoring is an outgrowth of the Compact for Faculty Diversity, created in 1993 with the specific intent to support minority doctoral students. While Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) was not established with this particular goal, models of the program are in place at various universities around the country, and many of them focus on ensuring the success of underrepresented candidates.   

More than one-third of college students are people of color, yet nearly 80 percent of the nation’s college and university faculty members are white, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.     Ansley Abraham, PhD, (third from left) director of the SREB Doctoral Scholars Program, talks with a group of doctoral studentsAnsley Abraham, PhD, (third from left) director of the SREB Doctoral Scholars Program, talks with a group of doctoral students

The Compact for Faculty Diversity began as an alliance between three regional organizations: Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), and New England Board of Higher Education. Today, SREB is the primary coordinator of the Institute on Teaching and Mentoring.   

The fact that cultural demographics are not yet reflected in the faculty of colleges and universities is a disparity that must be resolved, says Ansley Abraham, PhD, director of the SREB Doctoral Scholars Program. “People of color will drive the economy of the U.S. in the future,” says Abraham. “We in higher education cannot afford to discourage people of color from pursuing advanced degrees, or any degree.”    

Among minority faculty, 7 percent are African American, 6 percent are Asian/Pacific Islander, 4 percent are Hispanic, and 1 percent are Native American. A large number of African American faculty members teach at historically black colleges and universities; only about 4 percent of the nation’s black professors teach at predominantly white institutions.    

“When minority students get to college, they need to see people who look like them in roles of leadership; that is so critically important,” Abraham says. “They need to see role models who have achieved advanced degrees so they’ll be inspired to do the same.”

Institute on Teaching and Mentoring

Abraham is one of the primary facilitators of the annual Institute on Teaching and AbramsPQMentoring. The Institute is the largest gathering of minority PhDs in the nation, bringing together individuals from more than 40 states and more than 230 institutions. This year, the Institute will be held Oct. 31 to Nov. 3, in Arlington, Va.  

Over the past 20 years, 7,000 individuals have participated in the Institute—many more than once. In 2012, nearly 1,200 doctoral scholars attended. SREB doctoral scholars, who receive financial support to pursue their degrees, account for a quarter of the Institute’s enrollees.   

Over a period of four days, and in 50-plus workshops and sessions, Institute scholars explore the journey of earning a PhD and becoming a faculty member. Session topics range from best practices for working on committees or obtaining tenure to writing grant proposals. The Institute also provides a forum for students to build professional networks that last throughout their careers.    

Gina McCaskill recently completed her PhD and has accepted a tenure track position at East Carolina University. She attended all but one Institute during her doctoral program. In 2013, she plans to attend as a junior faculty member.   

The program was expanded four years ago to include a junior faculty professional development conference that runs concurrent with the Institute. “There are different kinds of problems and issues faced once they become faculty, so we added a component to help them transition,” says Abraham.     Gina McCaskill, PhD, Assistant Professor, East Carolina UniversityGina McCaskill, PhD, Assistant Professor, East Carolina University

Through the Institute training, McCaskill learned interviewing skills, salary negotiation, and what to look for in a mentor. Even more than specific skills, she says, “I learned what it is to be a PhD, especially as a minority faculty member. Having support at the Institute from other faculty members who are minorities provided me with a perspective I would need as an African American woman going into academia.”    

Paul Sparks, an SREB doctoral scholar and PhD candidate in the Department of Civil Engineering at Vanderbilt University, has attended the Institute for the past three years. “The Institute has instilled in me an immense basis of support and provided an avenue to make amazing connections with experts in various fields,” he says.    

The Institute provides a lot of skills development opportunities, but Abraham believes its greatest reward may be inspirational rather than informational.    

“It’s one of the few venues these students will ever go into where they will come into contact with that many minority PhD students,” says Abraham. “That has an enormous impact, especially when one is pursuing an advanced degree and is the only minority in the department. It can be very isolating. Talking to other minority students confirms for them that others are going through the same things they are experiencing.”    

Sparks agrees. “I am very thankful for hearing the unfiltered truth about what my peers have gone through. Their knowledge and insight have helped me navigate the process better.”Paul Sparks, PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University, and SREB Doctoral ScholarPaul Sparks, PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University, and SREB Doctoral Scholar

Preparing Future Faculty

The Preparing Future Faculty program has worked with more than 200,000 individuals nationwide over the past two decades. It was originally created to help PhD candidates seeking careers in academia to develop a more rounded skill set.   

“PhDs came out of their programs really prepared to do only one thing: research. So the original mission was to prepare future faculty to address the full range of responsibilities — teaching and service, in addition to research,” says Daniel Denecke, associate vice president, programs and best practices at the Council of Graduate Schools, and PFF program director.   

The Council of Graduate Schools is the primary coordinator for PFF. The program emphasizes mentorship, feedback, and giving students an understanding of what it’s like to be a faculty member in a wide range of institutions.    

Preparing Future Faculty has many offshoots, with universities creating their own approaches. The City University of New York (CUNY) Pipeline Program, for example, encourages minority undergraduates in the CUNY system to enroll in graduate school. During their junior year, they participate in a six-week summer institute to practice critical thinking, prepare for Graduate Record Exams, and learn other essential skills.   

Pipeline students are paired with Magnet Fellows—graduate students who receive a fellowship from the CUNY Graduate Center and who act as mentors as part of their own preparation as doctoral scholars.
Ignacio Montoya, a Magnet Fellow whose goal is to become a professor of linguistics, coordinates the Pipeline Program. “There were students who were motivated and interested in graduate school but didn’t know how to go about the process. I have seen this program be a game changer for some students,” he says.   

Makeba Lavan, a doctoral student in English literature and gender studies, gained essential skills in the Pipeline Program. “My writing is stronger. I am a better speaker, and I am a better critical thinker than I was before,” she says.     

One important feature of the PFF program is exposing students to how different faculty roles and responsibilities can be, depending on the institution.   

Maya Callender, a doctoral student in communication science and disorders, says the ability to interview faculty at various institutions was an important feature of the PFF program at Florida State University. “It helps students to get a realistic idea of what life as a faculty member is truly like and provides an opportunity for students to obtain mentorship from additional faculty,” she says.   

Sarah Doherty, who completed her PhD in 2012, participated in the PFF program at Loyola University Chicago, where it was called the Teaching Effectiveness Seminar (TES). “The program was incredibly helpful in preparing me for a career in academia,” she says. “I was completely overwhelmed when I was thrown into the classroom as a teaching assistant, teaching five sections of Native American history a week and responsible for one hundred and five students per semester. I had no direction, and I couldn’t find a good balance between my teaching responsibilities and my own coursework and research. The TES program offered some great strategies to help me find that balance.”     DanielDeneckeDaniel Denecke, Associate Vice President for Programs and Best Practices at the Council of Graduate Schools, and PFF Program Director

The Council of Graduate Schools has undertaken an initiative focused on building learning assessments into existing PFF programs. The project, funded by grants from the Teagle Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, involves seven awardee institutions, including Harvard and Cornell, and 19 affiliate institutions.    

One of the goals is to help stem the tide of students—especially underrepresented students—from leaving gateway courses, particularly in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. An institution must address this issue as a condition for receiving a Sloan Foundation grant.    

The Council has also partnered with TIAA-CREF to build financial education and debt management skills into PFF programs. The financial education project works with 15 awardees and 19 affiliates.   

“We’re looking more broadly at the talent pipeline,” says Denecke. “Within that program are the issues that first generation and underrepresented minorities often face when they’re taking on debt. So the PFF has evolved to accommodate a variety of different needs in terms of professional and personal development of the professoriate.”

Mentorship Opportunities
Identifying mentors for minority doctoral students is a key component of both the Institute for Teaching and Mentoring and PFF, but teaching mentorship skills to these future professors is also crucial. Abraham Peña-Talamantes, a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Florida State University, says the support he received from minority faculty as a college freshman was critical to his success. “Being a first generation college student from one of the poorest areas of the U.S., it was really difficult to adjust to the university setting my first year,” he says. “It wasn’t until I found a kind of ‘second home’ in Latino professors and advisors that I began to feel motivated to succeed.”   

The need for mentorship continued when he entered the doctoral program: “No one in my family had even graduated high school, and here I was admitted into a PhD program. Not only did everything seem overwhelming, but seeing all the SarahDohertySarah Doherty, Assistant Professor, North Park University in Chicagowhite professors made it hard to think it was even possible for me to achieve my goal.”    

Programs like PFF that provide opportunities for mentoring are vital, says Peña-Talamantes. “Having a mentor to guide you and help personalize your own path to reach that goal—that’s priceless,” he says.    

As minority doctoral students begin their job search, a diverse faculty is often an important factor when choosing a workplace. Sarah Doherty accepted a position teaching history at North Park University, in Chicago, Ill. “As a multiracial, multicultural woman in a field that has historically been dominated by white men, I would have great pause about joining a department or university that does not have much diversity in the faculty,” she says.

Funding: A Constant Challenge
Securing funding for the faculty development programs is difficult. While the SREB is supported by participating states, the need to stay on top of that financing is crucial, says Ansley Abraham. “Diversity isn’t always a high priority in terms of allocating resources to it,” he says. “Keeping the states engaged is one of the biggest challenges we face. But we keep trying to promote and inform and educate on the importance of these programs.”   

Daniel Denecke says PFF is well known, which helps spur funding. “But we’ve also tried to enhance the PFF model by focusing on issues that resonate broadly with funders and policy leaders, such as student assessment, accountability, Abe-Pena-Talamentes2Abraham Peña-Talamantes, PhD candidate, Florida State Universityand debt management,” he says.    

A new challenge looms: ensuring that funders continue to see the need for programs that encourage minorities to seek advanced degrees and become faculty members in higher education. According to Gina McCaskill, “There’s this perception that these programs are no longer needed because we have a black president or because we’ve made some inroads in the number of minorities with PhDs. But we can’t turn around now. We still have a long way to go. We’ve definitely made an impact, but we are not there yet.”●

Susan Borowski is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. Published in our September/October 2013 issue. 

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