Intellectual entrepreneurship boosts minority scholars

by Richard A. Cherwitz
Tallahassee Democrat
June 25, 2005

MY VIEW

A study by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation indicates that blacks and Hispanics are still significantly underrepresented among recipients of Ph.D.s.

The two groups make up 32 percent of all U.S. citizens in the age range of Ph.D. candidates but only 7 percent of those earning Ph.D.s - a disturbing statistic in view of the dearth of minority faculty.

It is tempting to believe that this insufficient production of minority Ph.D.s owes exclusively to the admissions process and a lack of financial support. While these variables contribute to the problem, an unspoken culprit is the insubstantial minority applicant pool.

Consider the University of Texas at Austin (UT). The applicant pool for programs in the arts and sciences is characterized by a paltry number of underrepresented minorities. In 2003, the same year examined by the Wilson Foundation, only 6.3 percent of the 18,000-plus applicants to UT's graduate school were Hispanic, black or American Indian.

While tweaking the admissions process and offering additional fellowships will make an important difference, no profound increase in diversity will occur until significant progress is made in persuading 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.

Why do talented minority students choose not to attend graduate school? Many admit not giving serious thought to pursuing traditional graduate degrees, preferring instead to enter law, medicine or business not only because of money and prestige but also awareness of the societal impact of these pursuits.

Graduate education need not be viewed this narrowly. At the University of Texas, "Intellectual Entrepreneurship" (IE) is a vision of graduate education challenging students to be "citizen-scholars." 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 documents the enormous value to society of graduate study.

What does the IE philosophy of education have to do with increasing diversity? It was devised in 1997 to increase the value of graduate education for all students. Yet we discovered in 2002-03 that 20 percent of students enrolled in IE were underrepresented minorities, while this same group made up only 9 percent of UT's total graduate student population.

Minorities reported that, by rigorously exploring how to succeed, IE helped demystify graduate school. More importantly, students noted that IE provided one of the few entrepreneurial opportunities to contemplate how to utilize their intellectual capital to give back to the community - something motivating many minority students.

The IE philosophy's potential to increase diversity in graduate school is best documented by the IE Pre-Graduate School Internship begun in 2003-2004. This initiative pairs undergraduates with faculty mentors and graduate student buddies. Interns work with their mentors on research projects, observe graduate classes, shadow graduate student teaching and research assistants, participate in disciplinary activities and explore their futures.

Rather than focusing on undergraduates already certain about graduate study, the approach taken by most outreach programs, Pre-Graduate School Internships provide opportunities for students to discover their passions, the value of academic disciplines and the culture of graduate study.

Approximately 25 percent of interns are underrepresented minorities, and nearly 40 percent are first-generation students.

Interns report that, for the first time in their undergraduate experience, a "space" existed 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 inheres in its capacity to help students discover otherwise unobserved connections between academe and personal and professional commitments.

From IE we have learned that, to increase diversity, the applicant pool must be expanded; graduate education must be made transparent and relevant. Moreover, entrepreneurial experiences must be created for undergraduates, enabling them to discover how graduate study brings their visions to fruition. Learning should begin with students' curiosities and goals driving their lives, challenging them to own and be accountable for their educational choices and intellectual development.

Richard A. Cherwitz is professor of communication studies and rhetoric and composition, and founder and director of the intellectual entrepreneurship program at the University of Texas at Austin. See http://www.ut-ie.com/ or contact him at cherwitz@austin.utexas.edu or (512) 471-1939.