By Kenneth J. Cooper, thedefendersonline.com
NEW YORK - Budget pressures have led three large states to cut funding for graduate school fellowships designed to increase the diversity of faculties at each state’s colleges and universities.
The most severe cutbacks are in New Jersey, where the legislature has defunded the Minority Academic Careers program. The Diversifying Faculty in Illinois initiative has lost more than a third of its budget since 2009. The King-Chavez-Parks fellowship program in Michigan has been the least affected, escaping with only a three percent cut.
Connecticut’s program to encourage minorities to pursue master’s degrees and teach in the community colleges is union-funded and has been insulated from the budget pressures mounting in states around the country.
All four fellowship programs were created in the 1980s, the same decade that some private colleges established minority fellowships on their campuses.
In New Jersey, the last seven fellows are being allowed to complete their doctoral studies before the Minority Academic Careers program is completely shut down, according to Glenn Lang, acting executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education. “The defunding was the result of the continuing state fiscal situation,” Lang explained in an email. “The program was not singled out but was part of larger statewide budget cuts.”
During legislative deliberations on the state budget, the higher education commission’s priorities were to protect other financial aid for minority and disadvantaged undergraduates, Lang said.
Marjorie Powell, who worked on diversity issues at Michigan State and Georgetown universities, detected another pattern in the fellowship cutbacks and questioned the priorities of legislatures.
“It’s all a part of the attack on equal opportunity, affirmative action, diversity—whatever you want to call it,” Powell said. “It seems we’ve gone backward.”
New Jersey’s program, created in 1985, has been the smallest of the three PhD fellowship programs, with a budget that maxed out at $500,000 a year. Besides doctoral fellowships, that budget has also supported grants to undergraduates interested in college teaching and repayments of graduate school loans taken by newly-hired faculty members.
The loan repayments and both kinds of fellowships were available at any college or university in the state, public or private. More than 400 undergraduates, PhD candidates and new faculty members have gone through the Minority Academic Careers program, according to its now-closed office at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown, N.J. The largest number of beneficiaries has been undergraduates, with 25 receiving fellowships annually in recent years.
In 2005, the eligibility criteria were revised to include economically-disadvantaged whites, a change made to stave off legal pressure from conservative activists crusading against minority-specific scholarships.
In its 25 years, the Minority Academic Careers program has had a modest impact on faculty diversity in New Jersey, where about 19 percent of almost 14,000 full-time professors were minorities in 2007. Asians comprised 10 percent, African Americans 6 percent, Hispanics 3 percent and Native Americans less than 1 percent.
Lang said 41 former doctoral fellows and new faculty members whose loans were repaid are teaching at colleges or universities in the state. Seven others teach in other states. The higher education commission does not know how many undergraduate fellows made it into academia.
Recent doctoral fellows decried the demise of the Minority Academic Careers program, which helped them pay living expenses and avoid big loan debts that might have altered their career paths.
José Lopez is teaching in-state, as an assistant professor of physics on the tenure track at Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City. In 2005, he received his PhD from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken.
“The MAC program had a big impact on my career choice—no doubt about it,” said Lopez, a Hispanic of Uruguayan and Spanish descent. “It’s just a shame that the MAC fellowship is being eliminated from the budget.”
Rochelle Parks-Yancy is a tenured associate professor of management at Texas Southern University in Houston. She completed her PhD at Rutgers University in 2004, helped by a MAC fellowship.
“It really enabled me not to have any financial concerns at all. That was a big thing,” said Parks-Yancy, who is African American. “I was able to go and I didn’t have to pay anything.”
At this point, Diversifying Faculty in Illinois is the largest of the three doctoral fellowship programs and appears to have been the most successful over the years. In 2009, the Illinois legislature cut the annual budget by 36 percent to $1.6 million, still larger than Michigan’s $1.2 million for King-Parks-Chavez fellowships.
An incomplete count shows at least 1,800 fellows have benefitted from the Illinois program since its creation in 1985, compared to 1,250 in Michigan. The two states once had a reciprocal agreement that allowed fellowship recipients to fulfill their teaching obligations by taking faculty jobs in the other state. Illinois terminated the agreement in 2004 when legislation authorizing the fellowships was rewritten.
The Illinois fellowships can be used to pursue masters or doctoral degrees. The 2004 law limits recipients to members of minority groups underrepresented in the state’s graduate schools: African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans.
At colleges and universities in Illinois, 5 percent of professors are African Americans and Hispanics are 3 percent, similar to New Jersey’s numbers for those two groups.
A study by the Illinois Board of Higher Education found that the presence on campus of other students, professors and staff members from underrepresented groups was a “very important” factor in retaining minority college students. Outside of Chicago, however, chances are the average student is likely to take one course with an African American professor and none with a Hispanic one, the study determined.
In 2001, Dr. Jack McKillip, then a psychology professor at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, published an evaluation of the Illinois program in its first years and judged it a success. The fellowship program, which was then known by different names, had supported 152 faculty members—who amounted to 9 percent of the African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans teaching at Illinois colleges.
“Illinois investments in minority graduate fellowship programs are bearing fruit for the state and the nation,” McKillip concluded.
In Michigan, Rudy Redmond, directs King-Parks-Chavez, so named for civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, César Chavez and Rosa Parks. He conceded the Future Faculty Fellowships have had a disappointing impact on diversifying faculties at the state’s public colleges and universities.
“The number of (minority) faculty has not changed significantly. It still looks pretty close to what it was when the program started” in 1986, Redmond said.
At the flagship University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, for example, African Americans make up 4 percent of faculty members and Hispanics 2 percent, the same as in 1994 for both groups, a campus review recently found .
Redmond blamed the narrow-mindedness of white faculty members who serve on hiring committees: “They want to replicate their own experience. They tend to hire people who look like them and have the same research interests.”
He said King-Parks-Chavez, which includes other components besides the fellowships, enjoys bipartisan support among state officials but still faces an uncertain future, funding-wise. “We’re reasonably optimistic that it will survive, because of the size,” Redmond said. “There’s not a lot of money in these programs.”
The fellowship program of the Connecticut Community Colleges has been spared any cutbacks, thanks to funding from three unions: the Congress of Connecticut Community Colleges, American Federation of Teachers and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Together, they provide $84,000 a year for 12 fellows, one at each of the state’ s community colleges, according to Ken Armstrong, a Connecticut Community Colleges administrator who has coordinated the program since it began in 1989.
Armstrong said the program is designed to diversity faculties and provide minority students with role models. He said 65 percent of the 120 fellows in the last decade have been hired, about a third of them full-time. Part-time instructors predominate at most community colleges. Connecticut’s fellowships are targeted to underrepresented minorities but are available to whites too.
Recent figures show 20 percent of the students in Connecticut’s community colleges are minorities, as are 11 percent of faculty members, Armstrong said.
In New Jersey, with the phasing out of the Minority Academic Careers program, the state at this point has no plans for alternative way to diversity faculties there, said Lang, acting executive director of the state higher education commission.