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Capitalizing on Unintended Consequences: Lessons on Diversity from Texas
Following the June 2003 Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action, a strong sense of relief prevailed on college campuses that advocate for diversity in higher education. This was, perhaps, especially true at the University of Texas at Austin (UT); for the first time since the Fifth Circuit's Hopwood ruling, the Board of Regents authorized UT to add "race and ethnicity to the criteria considered for student admission and for awarding of scholarships and fellowships in those cases when an individualized and full-file review is conducted as part of the selection process." Nevertheless, a cautionary note must be sounded regarding the prospect for increased diversity in graduate education at UT and throughout the United States. The lesson to be learned from Texas is that it is not predominantly the admissions process that accounts for a dearth of minority students in graduate school; rather, it is the lack of a substantial minority applicant pool that prevents more than incremental progress toward diversity.
The applicant pool for programs in arts, sciences, humanities, and social sciences is characterized by a paltry number of underrepresented minorities. In fall 2003, for example, only 6.3 percent of the 18,000-plus applicants to UT's graduate school were Hispanic, African American, or Native American--a statistic comparable to that at many other graduate institutions. Never in the past ten years, which includes the pre-Hopwood period, has this percentage risen to double digits. Further, more than 60 percent of these minority applicants were in less than 20 percent of the institution's available degree programs. While tinkering with the admissions process and offering additional scholarships and fellowships might make some difference, no profound increase in diversity will occur until significant progress is made in convincing talented minorities to pursue graduate study. Nationally, top-notch graduate institutions play numbers games, waging war with each other to redistribute an already undersized minority applicant population and then declaring victory when statistically insignificant gains are made. The Supreme Court did not and cannot arm us with the ammunition needed to address the real cause of inadequate diversity.
Why do many talented minority students choose not to seek advanced degrees? Having taught undergraduates for a quarter of a century and designed programs during my graduate deanship that attract minority students, I have some personal insights. Many Hispanic and African-American undergraduates admit not giving serious thought to pursuing a graduate degree in traditional academic fields, preferring instead to enter law, medicine, or business. In the words of one undergraduate, "I want to make a difference--to do something meaningful." Not only money and prestige, but also awareness of the societal impact attracts students to medicine, law, and business.
By contrast, graduate education in traditional academic fields is incorrectly perceived as esoteric, as disengaged from a wider community. Except to become professors, some ask, why earn an advanced degree? What can one do with it? Additionally, graduate education is shrouded in mystique, operating under a Darwinian assumption that only the best survive. Accurate or inaccurate, this unattractive picture of graduate education entails significant debt, uncertainty about completion and time to degree, fears regarding prospective employment, and uncertainty about community relevance.
Graduate education need not be this way. At UT we are experimenting with "Intellectual Entrepreneurship" (IE), a new vision of graduate education that challenges students to be more than the sum of their degree-earned parts .* IE challenges graduate students to become "citizen-scholars." The IE philosophy asks students to consider what matters to them most and uses the answers to shape their intellectual and academic development. Thus, it provides a mind set and an impetus for acquiring and producing knowledge in academic disciplines. It also underscores the enormous value to society of the arts, sciences, social sciences, and humanities. By engaging students in community projects where they discover and put knowledge to work, as well as requiring them to identify and adapt to audiences for whom their research matters, IE confirms that traditional areas of scholarship are as vital as the so-called "applied" fields of study. Thus, IE works to debunk the myth that "basic" and "applied" research are at opposite ends of a continuum. For IE participants, graduate degrees are not rewards; they are tools for creating intellectual and practical possibilities and for fulfilling one's passions.
What does the IE philosophy of education have to do with increasing diversity? It demonstrates that attracting minority applicants necessitates more than targeting a population. Implementing changes in education that benefit all may have the unintended--but important--consequence of helping minorities. For example, IE was devised in 1997 to increase the value of graduate education. Yet in 2002-2003 we discovered that 20 percent of students who had enrolled in IE classes were underrepresented minorities, while this same group comprised only 9 percent of UT's total graduate student population. Minorities (many of whom are first-generation students) reported that, by rigorously exploring how to succeed, IE helped them learn the unspoken rules of the game by demystifying graduate school and the academic/ professional world.
More importantly, however, students reported that IE provided one of the few opportunities to contemplate how to utilize their intellectual capital to give back to the community as well as to advance their academic disciplines--something that motivates many first-generation students. The spirit of intellectual entrepreneurship, unlike the remedial tone of "professional development," resonates with and meets a felt need of minority students. Rather than assuming that students have deficiencies that can be corrected by spoon-feeding them technical skills, IE facilitates exploration and innovation. It implores students to create for themselves a world of vast intellectual and practical possibilities, developing the toolkits, networks, and other resources needed to bring their visions to fruition.
Because typical professional development and community outreach initiatives are primarily about enrichment--i.e., they add skills and experiences on top of already acquired disciplinary knowledge--they may have less capacity to tap into and harness student aspirations to discover and own; hence, unlike IE, the philosophy of professional development may not have as much propensity to foster citizen-scholarship. UT students assert that IE has been an important mechanism for improving their odds for completing a degree, increasing their chances for professional and academic achievement, and leveraging their knowledge for social good.
This attitude toward students and the manner in which it supplants traditional top-down, patriarchal methods of education seems especially attractive to minority students. After all, while minority graduate students know they are intellectually smart enough to succeed and may not wish to be "given" special assistance, they often desire--as do other students-- opportunities and experiences allowing them to own and discover the value of their graduate education and to be accountable for it by giving back to the community.
Pre-Graduate School Internships
The potential of the IE philosophy of education to increase diversity in graduate school is perhaps best documented by the "IE Pre-Graduate School Internship" that I began in 2003-2004. This initiative, targeted at UT's brightest sophomores and juniors, underscores the principle of the unintended consequence. Internships pair undergraduates with a faculty mentor and a graduate student buddy. Interns work with their mentors on research projects, observe graduate classes, shadow graduate student teaching and research assistants, and participate in departmental events and disciplinary conferences. Students also take part in workshops where they discuss their experiences and explore their futures.
Rather than focusing on students already interested in graduate study and helping them negotiate the application process, the IE Pre-Graduate School Internships provide an opportunity for students to discover their passions, the value of academic disciplines, and the culture of graduate study. Interestingly, approximately 25 percent of interns are underrepresented minorities, and nearly 40 percent are first-generation students; many did not seriously contemplate graduate education prior to their enrollment in the internship.
Interns report that, for the first time in their undergraduate experience, a "space" was provided to reflect upon the role education plays in meeting their goals. IE empowered them to view academic disciplines not as artificial containers into which students are placed, but as lenses through which to clarify their visions and as tools by which their goals might be realized. The value of IE as a mechanism for increasing diversity, therefore, inheres in its capacity to help students discover otherwise unobserved connections between academe and personal and professional commitments.
From the Texas experience we have learned that to increase diversity the applicant pool must be expanded; graduate education must be made transparent, relevant, and capable of fulfilling students' passions and goals. Diversity requires more than the obvious admissions--related issues; it requires bold, concerted, and centralized efforts across academic geography.
Facing budgetary cuts and pressures to decentralize the administration of education, large research universities will be tempted to revert to a bunker mentality, leaving critical initiatives in graduate education to the freelance efforts of each academic unit. This approach, however, will prevent capitalizing on IE's most powerful lesson: only when we transcend disciplinary boundaries, thinking as a university community, do we create the intellectual synergy for solving complex problems, saving money, and accruing unintended consequences.
I challenge my colleagues throughout the nation to tackle diversity as a whole university, not as a loose confederation of programs. Let us acknowledge that the Supreme Court's decision focusing on admissions will not automatically eliminate a problem that has defied solution for so long.
* Information about Intellectual Entrepreneurship can be found online at http://webspace.utexas.edu/cherwitz/www/ie.