Welcome to Race on Campus. Between 2010 and 2019, the share of Black recipients of doctorates increased less than one percentage point, according to the annual Survey of Earned Doctorates. That’s bad news for colleges that want to diversify their faculty. Until the number of minority doctoral recipients increases, those efforts will mostly fall flat. Vimal Patel explains why.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions about this newsletter, write me: fernanda@chronicle.com.

Doctorate recipients are still majority white.

Diversifying the faculty is among the most pressing goals that student activists have demanded from their colleges. And under pressure, many have announced high-profile efforts to create a more representative professoriate. But the latest federal data about who earns doctorates — the cloth from which the tenured faculty is cut — shows that progress over the last decade has been extremely slow.

In the decade from 2010 to 2019, the share of Black recipients of doctorates increased less than one percentage point, according to the annual Survey of Earned Doctorates. The gains among other minority groups were similarly meager.

Chart for Race on Campus NL

Until higher education can increase its share of underrepresented doctoral recipients, faculty diversity largely remains a zero-sum game, favoring the institutions that have the money and prestige to pick off the relatively small pool of Black and Hispanic doctoral recipients on the market or at other institutions.

“So Yale is able to steal five faculty members from somewhere else. Well, that means that five other institutions have lost someone,” says Ansley Abraham, director of the State Doctoral Scholars Program, at the Southern Regional Education Board.

Abraham oversees a program that hosts an annual conference of more than 1,000 doctoral students of color. When I covered graduate education as a beat, I would often speak with Abraham, but until this month, we hadn’t connected since before the Trump presidency. We were both struck at the familiarity of our conversation and the lack of meaningful progress — despite the lip service paid to faculty diversity — five years later.

“The increases are minuscule,” he told me. “Because of the nature and structure of the beast called doctoral education — in terms of the way we recruit for it, the way we admit for it, the way we carry out that production — it’s a slow-grinding process. But you can’t get increased faculty diversity unless you get increased minority Ph.D. production.”

The leaky pipeline is real.

Diversifying doctoral programs poses special challenges. They are their own fiefdoms, with limited ability for central administrators to set the diversity goals they can for undergraduate students. Moreover, diversifying your Ph.D. programs doesn’t immediately have an impact on the diversity of your own faculty, as faculty members are typically hired at institutions other than where they earned their degree. So the incentive feels less urgent.

The magnitude of the challenge becomes clear when you drill into the discipline and subfield level. In 2019, the survey data show that there was just a single Black doctorate recipient in many fields. Among them:

  • animal nutrition and poultry science
  • bioinformatics
  • geophysics and seismology
  • particle physics

Abraham says colleges should pay attention to workplace culture issues. The leaky pipeline is real. Fewer and fewer underrepresented minorities remain on an academic trajectory at each step of the process, from undergraduate through the faculty ladder to full professor. Colleges need to start thinking about doctoral production earlier than graduate school, he says.
To begin, they need to demystify the process of going to graduate school. Most doctoral programs offer stipends — pay in exchange for teaching and conducting research — but students don’t always know this, Abraham says. That’s especially the case for underrepresented minorities, who are less likely to have a parent who attended college. “We’ve got to do a better job in higher education of selling ourselves as a destination,” he says.

Undergraduate research experiences are also crucial, Abraham says, both as a way for colleges to turn students on to the possibility of a career in the academy and to identify talent that faculty members can then encourage to pursue graduate school. “There’s a good body of research out there,” Abraham says, “that a much higher percentage of students who are exposed to research experiences earlier go on to graduate school.”

“But what about search committees?” I asked Abraham. In 2019, just one of 254 doctoral recipients in particle physics was Black. At that stage, what’s a physics department searching for an assistant professor of particle physics to do if the one and only Black doctoral recipient already has a job somewhere else?

Abraham is sympathetic to departments that find themselves in that situation, and says that, to some degree, faculty diversity must be thought of discipline by discipline, rather than college by college. But there are still actions the hypothetical particle-physics search committee could take, he says.

“Do I have to have a particle physicist?” he proposes asking. “Maybe I could change my job description enough so that I’m looking for a broader group. Maybe, here are some physicists of color who are not quite in particle physics, but ... particle physics was part of their focus.”

But even that approach, as Abraham acknowledges, has its limitations. Broadening a search for a particle physicist will open the hiring universe — a bit. More than 2,000 physics doctorates were awarded in 2019. Of those, just 11 recipients were Black. —Vimal Patel

Read up.

  • Anna Deavere Smith was one of the first Black women to attend Beaver College, then a women’s college outside of Philadelphia. But she was one of the last “nice Negro girls.” (The Atlantic)
  • Princess Dennar, the first Black woman to serve as director of Tulane University School of Medicine’s pediatrics residency program, was removed from her position this month. Dennar said the move was retaliatory after she filed a lawsuit alleging racism and sexism at Tulane. Some upset students took their complaints about her removal to social media. (The Lens, The Lily)
  • Toni Morrison is most often celebrated as a novelist. Her work as a book editor at Random House was also key for nurturing Black writers. (Medium)
  • Native Americans felt left out during the Trump administration. Now, tribal leaders are fighting for political power. (The New York Times)