San Antonio Express-News

Grad School Diversity is the Next Goal

Rick Cherwitz
August 12, 2004

Recent national stories and editorials detail the impact of Texas' "top 10 percent" law on diversity in undergraduate education. Ignored is the question of how to diversify graduate school.

Yet without more persons of color pursuing advanced degrees, there will remain an insufficient supply of underrepresented minority faculty, perpetuating the lack of diversity across college campuses.

Richard CherwitzDespite the Supreme Court's 2003 rulings on affirmative action, the prospect for diversity in graduate education appears bleak. There is no equivalent in graduate education to the top ten percent law. The applicant pool in arts and sciences is characterized by a paltry number of underrepresented minorities. In 2003 only 6.3 percent of the 18,000-plus applicants to the University of Texas at Austin's (UT) graduate school were Hispanic, African American, or Native American--a statistic comparable to that at other institutions. Never in the past ten years has this percentage risen to double digits.

Elite graduate schools wage war with each other to redistribute an already undersized minority applicant population, declaring victory when statistically insignificant gains are made. The Supreme Court did not arm us with the ammunition needed to address the real cause of inadequate diversity.

Many talented minority undergraduates admit not giving serious thought to pursuing graduate degrees in traditional academic fields, preferring instead to enter law, medicine or business. Not just money and prestige, but also awareness of these enterprises' impact on society and the career possibilities attract students to medicine, law and business.

By contrast, graduate education in traditional academic fields is erroneously perceived as esoteric, not engaging a wider community. Except for future professors, some ask, why earn an advanced degree? Additionally, graduate education is shrouded in mystique, operating under a Darwinian assumption that only the best survive.

Graduate education needn't be this way. A new vision of graduate education at UT--Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE)--challenges students to be more than the sum of their degree-earned parts, to be" citizen-scholars." IE asks students to consider what matters most to them; it allows passion and personal commitments to shape students' intellectual development, thus unleashing the enormous power of the arts and sciences in society.

What does IE have to do with increasing diversity? Attracting minority applicants necessitates more than targeting populations. Implementing changes that benefit all may have the unintended--but important--consequence of helping minorities.

Minority students report that, by exploring "how" to succeed, IE demystifies graduate school, helping students learn the unspoken rules of the game. IE also provides one of the few opportunities to contemplate how to utilize their intellectual capital to give back to the community as well as their academic disciplines--something informing the career decisions of many minorities and first-generation students. IE empowers students to leverage knowledge for social good.

The potential of the IE philosophy to increase diversity in graduate school is documented by the "IE Pre-Graduate School Internship" begun in 2003-2004. This initiative, targeted at UT's brightest sophomores and juniors, pairs undergraduates with a faculty mentor and a graduate student buddy. Interns work with mentors on research projects, observe graduate classes and shadow graduate student teaching and research assistants.

Rather than focusing on students already interested in graduate study, helping them navigate the application process (the approach taken by most outreach programs), IE Internships provide opportunities for students to think entrepreneurially, discovering their passions, the value of academic disciplines, and the culture of graduate study. 25 percent of interns are underrepresented minorities and nearly 40 percent are first-generation students; many did not seriously contemplate graduate education prior to enrollment in the internship.

To increase diversity the applicant pool must be expanded, making graduate education transparent, relevant and capable of fulfilling students' passions and goals.

As we are learning from IE, exploring unintended consequences may offer one promising path to diversity. I challenge my colleagues nationally to transcend political skirmishes over affirmative action. 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.


Cherwitz is founder of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) Program, and professor in communication studies and the division of rhetoric and composition at UT-Austin.