Filling the Racial Gap in Academia

By William Raspberry
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

One definition of insanity, someone once said, is to keep doing the same thing in the same way and expect different results. Here's another: Believing that a diagnosis and treatment that worked for a patient in one set of circumstances will work in all circumstances.

I am of an age to remember when the underrepresentation of black Americans in the nation's elite universities was very much a matter of racial discrimination. The prescription that followed from that diagnosis -- whether at Harvard or at Ole Miss -- was to work at eliminating discrimination. And, to an astounding degree, it worked.

And yet a report released last week by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation reveals that while the numbers have been improving with regard to university enrollment, still a small fraction of the doctoral degrees granted by those universities go to blacks or Hispanics -- about 7 percent in 2003. And most of that tiny number is awarded in a small range of disciplines, such as education. Almost certainly, someone will propose an attack on this new problem with the same diagnosis and prescription that worked for the old one.

Robert Weisbuch, president of the foundation that issued the report, acknowledges that affirmative action still has a role to play in increasing the number of African American, Hispanic and Native American students in PhD programs. But he thinks other things feed the problem: economics (both scholarship availability and post-university salaries), the dearth of same-race role models and encouragers, and the above-the-fray attitude often associated with academics.

"I'll give you an example from my own career," says Weisbuch, who in a month becomes president of Drew University in Madison, N.J. "When I was teaching at the University of Michigan, if I heard a PhD student of mine was considering a career as a high school teacher, I'd have said, 'What a waste of our resources.' Now I'd say what a great idea I thought it was."

He makes the point that the University of Texas's Rick Cherwitz has been making for several years: Graduate education, particularly at the doctoral level, has been perceived as a series of silos -- narrow, deep and walled-in structures in which participants learn more and more about less and less and speak in ways only they understand.

Cherwitz, a former dean who has been working to increase minority representation on his Austin campus, says he was looking for something else when he stumbled upon an approach that minorities seem to find particularly attractive.

Graduate schools, he says, sometimes behave as though their main objective is to produce PhDs who will go on to become top-ranked professors or exquisite researchers on some arcane subject or other. He wanted to change the image.

Thus he created a program he calls Intellectual Entrepreneurship, the purpose of which is to teach students -- undergraduate as well as graduate -- that university learning ought to apply to all sorts of community situations.

"Instead of beginning with the idea of graduate school, we begin with a deep and detailed discussion of what the students are interested in, what are their long-term commitments and to whom they wish to contribute value. We found that the students attracted to this sort of exploration were far more likely to be minorities than was the case with the overall cohort of graduate students.

"I think I understand why. When you're from a minority community, or you're the first member of your family to attend college, you're likely to see such a withdrawal from the rough and tumble of everyday problems as dereliction. You may be very bright and capable of learning at the highest levels, but you also feel a sense of responsibility. We're saying you don't have to choose between them."

A similar approach guides the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation's "practicum" awards -- small grants that allow university students to work in a variety of "real life" settings as a way of driving home the falsity of the dichotomy between advanced learning and practical contribution.

As a result, a young woman whose academic interest is cultural anthropology found herself using the artifacts of anthropology -- storytelling, dance, song -- to help delinquent girls improve their self-image. A philosophy student used his training to work on transplant ethics at a major hospital.

Cherwitz doesn't pretend that this approach deals with whatever racial discrimination remains in university programs. But he is convinced that the racial gaps on his campus today, being of a different character than many of us remember, require a different analysis and approach to treatment.

Several approaches, in fact. Cherwitz is lab-testing one of them.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company