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A thousand flowers blooming?

Last week I had the privilege of addressing the 18th Annual Compact for Faculty Diversity's Institute on Teaching and Mentoring.  The Institute drew over 1000 doctoral candidates of color from over 75 disciplines nation-wide plus a variety of mentors, scholars, recruiters, and guests. 

As I looked out over the throng, I was awed by the collection of talent and purpose, but fearful of what these 1000 neophyte professionals were about to confront.  Looming large was the uncertainty of launching an academic career—hiring reflects budgets—and, for those who land a tenure-track position, what is their likely quality of life?  With a few slides flashed for empirical grounding, I tried to project the future into which they would be stepping (posted at www.aaascapacity.org as "Building Capacity in STEM:  From Participation to Leadership," Oct. 21, 2011). 

For the blooms of a new generation to face such a tenuous future is a sad commentary on the state of higher education and public policy.  Federal, private, and personal investments in 3-7 years of post-baccalaureate training should yield more than a mountain of debt and doubts about the viability of an academic career.  Yet this is what the U.S. now offers a critical segment of its workforce. 

To compound the situation, these candidates represent the ascending demographic of the country—African Americans, Latinos, American Indians, and Asian-Americans/Pacific Islanders.  Within each of these broad categories, of course, there is even greater diversity that can be linked to national origin, gender, first-in-the-family college completion, etc.  (In STEM disciplines, for example, the minority face of undergraduates is more and more female.)  In short, there is a class, wealth, and subcultural dimension that diversifies these success stories even more.   

The reality is that those 1000 doctoral students embody a large proportion of the country's total minority population that has achieved the status of soon-to-be Ph.D.s.  They have succeeded due to a remarkably modest number of faculty and institutions—largely public—that have provided support of all kinds against formidable odds.  The land of opportunity does not make it easy for anybody, which is perhaps what a meritocracy should be. 

Nevertheless, I worry about the withering of a generation prepared to refresh the higher education workforce.  Even though many will find employment outside the academy, thereby enriching the overall U.S. workforce, the disparity will grow between a college population increasingly "minority majority" and a faculty still mainly white and male.  We can do more and better.    

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