Minority Students Pursuing History PhDs

Carlton Wilson, December 2002

It is well known within the history profession that the number of racial and ethnic minorities with PhDs is distressingly low. Data collected by the AHA and other agencies consistently documents the deplorable state of affairs. In 1979 minorities made-up only 13.3 percent of history PhDs and only 10.2 percent of faculty in history departments. By 2000 there had been only a slight increase of minority faculty to just under 14 percent.1

Most likely, you would not be surprised by the low number of minority PhDs if you took notice of the negligible presence of minority students in history PhD programs. We are all aware that over the past several years, graduate programs have decreased the number of PhD students that they admit. As overall enrollment decreases, so does the already low number of minority students.2 The lack of minority students in PhD programs should be a concern for the history profession. Minorities represent an important segment of the profession's constituency. The profession should be concerned that minority students have full access to the vast amount of teaching, learning, and research that the profession is committed to providing. In other words, in order for the profession to accomplish its mission there is a need for minority participation at all levels.

The job market and funding are often the stated culprits for the decreasing graduate student enrollment. No program wants its graduates to be unemployed. Data collected by the 1999 National Survey of Postsecondary Faculty revealed that nearly 35 percent of historians in the academy may consider retirement within a 10-year period.3 However, allowing, in the meantime, the job market to be such a significant factor in determining enrollment patterns naturally decreases opportunities for minority students. Perhaps the profession needs to examine closely the current job market and explore whether there is a market for minority PhDs. In considering this issue, a colleague recently asked me how many minority PhDs in history I knew who were without jobs. My response was, "None." When graduate programs cut enrollment based upon a "traditional" view of the job market, they may be eliminating opportunities for minority students. I recall a pertinent anecdote from the time when I was a first-year masters student desiring to study British history. My potential adviser honestly expressed to me his dismay over having so many of his students unemployed in academe. During the conversation he abruptly stepped across the hall and asked a colleague whether a black person with a PhD in British history could get a job. Fortunately for me, his colleague strongly assured him that he could. The professor immediately agreed to advise my masters program and was always extremely supportive. Of course, the profession must be aware of the number of PhDs and the job market, but it needs to analyze special areas within the market and be willing to train students who have a desire to fulfill those needs.

Funding also affects graduate admissions. In light of the crises-ridden state economies and cuts in many university budgets, graduate funding has become a significant concern. Many leading research universities have moved to a policy of "full funding" of graduate students. Programs tend to admit only students whom they can completely fund for a set amount of time. Clearly, receiving full funding is a positive thing for any student. However, such funding can be offered only to a select number of students. As a result, enrollment is cut back. It appears that minority students are being caught in this process. There is a possibility that they may not be admitted because "full funding" was not available. This is a difficult situation: on the one hand, students will likely perform much better if they have full financial support but on the other, programs may be denying opportunities for capable students to earn a PhD because full support cannot be provided. The salient question then is whether in its impact upon minority students, the "full funding" policy inevitably becomes an unintentional discriminatory procedure, especially because historically, if given an opportunity, minority students tended to find a way to finance their education.

To be sure, there is a fair amount of frustration among minority students who would like to earn a PhD in history. During the September 2000 meeting of the Association for the Study of African Life and History, the Association of Black Women Historians and the AHA's Committee on Minority Historians sponsored a session on "Increasing the Number of Black PhDs." Representatives from the major professional history organizations participated in a panel discussion that revealed the rather dismal state of affairs and noted the potential role of the organizations in addressing the situation. Members of the audience strongly expressed their frustrations over obstacles to graduate study. Several felt that too many programs were not concerned about having a minority presence. They asserted that the culture of many graduate programs was not friendly to minority students. Similar comments were offered during a session at the OAH meeting in April 2001. Students often noted that they had performed well in their undergraduate or masters program, yet received very limited or no consideration from major PhD programs. Furthermore, minority students who were currently enrolled in programs had few positive comments about the presence of an encouraging environment. In fact some felt they were experiencing "intellectual racism." They lamented that on too many occasions professors and even fellow students may not have respected their ability to engage in rigorous discourse. The perception was that their presence was only respected in terms of being able to represent the "other."4

In order to execute its task well, the committee had to acquire an informed understanding of the current practices in graduate education. It sought to do this in a number of ways, all designed to obtain information from as wide a spectrum of the profession as was possible. In February 2001, the committee surveyed the chairs of history departments, asking them to identify the challenges that graduate education in history conformed. In succeeding months, it surveyed the employers of public historians and graduate students. The most ambitious and comprehensive survey, however, was that sent to 158 directors of graduate studies in May 2001. This daunting questionnaire, of some 40 pages, solicited qualitative and quantitative information on the nature of graduate training in their doctoral programs, the composition of their student body, mentoring practices, financial support for graduate students, departmental culture, attrition rates, placement of graduates, and so on. The response to the survey was extraordinarily gratifying—the committee received 105 completed documents.

In addition to revealing troubling sentiments and displeasure in regards to the culture and direction of certain graduate programs in terms of minority students, the sessions identified other complex issues that may affect the situation. These issues were endemic to graduate programs and undergraduate education that often drive talented minority students to disciplines other than history. It is readily acknowledged that it may be difficult for history to compete with the "glamour" and potential monetary rewards of certain disciplines. My concern, however, is with the students who are interested in and capable of earning a PhD in history, but are not being granted the opportunity.

Dialogue with students, faculty, and administrators reveal that it will be difficult to alter the trend if history departments and graduate programs do not take an aggressive approach. Programs need to actively recruit minority students who are willing and capable of earning PhDs in history. For far too long the profession has allowed talented minority students to be siphoned off by other disciplines. Practically every study that has considered the status of minority historians has noted the need to aggressively recruit students at the undergraduate level. Each year talented undergraduate students are lured into summer programs and internships in the sciences and related fields and some of these students eventually pursue terminal degrees in those respective disciplines. History programs need to consider this approach.

Graduate programs may be able to do a better job of identifying colleges and universities that have a record of producing undergraduate and masters students who have been successful in pursuing PhDs. Traditionally, Historically Black Colleges and Universities have produced the majority of black students who have earned terminal degrees. The Department of History at North Carolina Central University has an average enrollment of nearly 120 undergraduate history majors and 30 masters students each year. Currently, 14 of the university's graduates are enrolled in history PhD programs. Graduate programs that are interested in increasing their minority student enrollments need to go to the source, even possibly establishing partnerships with select schools.

In considering the attractiveness of graduate programs to minority students two factors are commonly noted. The first is the presence of minority faculty, both junior and senior. The number of minority faculty in tenured positions, full professors, or even holding endowed chairs can reflect the level of commitment that a department has recruiting and graduating minority students. Unfortunately, this is an area that needs improvement. According to data from the Department of Education's National Survey of Postsecondary Education, in 1999 racial and ethnic minorities represented only 16 percent of history faculty in tenured positions.5 There are probably no more than two dozen minority historians who hold endowed chairs. Naturally, the mere presence of minority faculty does not necessarily mean that a department is interested in enhancing minority students. But all students should know that there is a possibility for a supportive mentoring environment. It is easy for minority students to feel isolated in a graduate program. Having faculty members who are able and willing to mentor students can mean the difference between success and failure.

A second consideration is the nature of many graduate programs. Do graduate programs offer the areas or fields of study that may attract minority students? Ideally, students should be allowed to feel that they can pursue their scholarly interests. It appears that many minority students tend to pursue study in areas that may be related to their own cultural or historical traditions. There may be less desire to pursue the traditional areas of history. Most graduate programs periodically review their areas of study. Perhaps these reviews should consider areas or fields that may attract minority students. The intent is not to suggest that graduate programs should change their focus, specialty areas, or doing what they do best. My proposal is that programs should consider expanding their fields of study to attract and train minority students who are capable of making a significant contribution to the profession.

Professional organizations should play an important role in addressing this situation. You should be aware that the AHA and various sub-committees are in a position to place the status of minority students and related issues on the profession's agenda. At the 2002 AHA annual meeting the Committee on Minority Historians sponsored a mentoring breakfast for minority students. This informal gathering gave students an opportunity to express concerns about graduate study. A second gathering is planned for the 2003 meeting in Chicago. In addition, at the Chicago meeting the committee will sponsor a session that will specifically address the issue of increasing the number of minority graduate students. Panelists will include Earl Lewis, Ned Blackhawk, Gloria Miranda, and Tony Frazier, a graduate student. It is important that students and especially administrators attend this session. Individuals who are in positions that affect policy should be a part of this discussion. One of the panelists willspecifically address institutional responsibilities.

Professors, however, should not wait for direction from organizations when they have the ability to initiate positive change within their respective departments and programs. Faculty members can recruit and advise minority students as well as participate in administrative and program planning that may create the environment that will allow students to be successful. Indeed, quite a few historians have made a difference in this area. Nell Irvin Painter, Colin Palmer, Joan Scott, Stephanie Shaw, Theda Perdue, and Darlene Clark Hine are among those who have positively affected the lives of many minority graduate students.

We should promote the fact that "historical research, study, and education" is a rewarding and exciting endeavor. Historians are currently studying topics that were not imaginable to past generations. Even the most traditional among us are gradually accepting new paradigms and methodology. The profession should also be just as eager to accept true diversity within its ranks. Graduate programs should be willing to do more than admit one minority student each year, or have just one minority PhD on its faculty. Capable minority students need to be given full and equal consideration to earn PhDs and to compete for faculty positions. This is warranted if the profession is going to serve its constituents and truly "promote historical research, study, and education."

Echoing the sentiments of Lynn Hunt who noted that she "remains fundamentally optimistic about the prospects for American higher education and the place of history within it," I would like to suggest that American higher education should be a benchmark for opportunity, fairness, and equity.6 After all, educators are often the first to criticize other institutions when they fall short in these areas. Within higher education what discipline other than history better serves as an agent to research, analyze, publicize, and enjoin the nation as it pursues opportunity, fairness, and equity? As it has done in the past, the history profession must continue to monitor these ideals within its own ranks. I am confident that the profession will meet these challenges.

—Carlton Wilson is an associate professor at North Carolina Central University and is a member of the AHA's Committee on Minority Historians.


1. Robert Townsend, "The Status of Women and Minorities in the History Profession," Perspectives 40:4 (April 2002), 16–17. Data collected by the AHA indicate that in 2000, out of a total of 1,060 U.S. citizens who received newly granted PhDs in history only 12.4 percent were racial and ethnic minorities. This included Puerto Ricans 0.5 percent; Native Americans 1.1 percent; Asians 2.8 percent, Mexicans and Other Hispanics 3.7 percent; and African Americans 4.3 percent.

2. Unfortunately, currently there is no complete data on the number of minority students enrolled in history PhD programs. The study of graduate programs being conducted by the AHA's Committee on Graduate Education may reveal some useful data. Also, during fall 2002, the AHA's Committee on Minority Historians will conduct a survey designed to collect data on issues affecting minority graduate students.

3. Robert Townsend, "New Data Reveals a Homogenous but Changing History Profession," Perspectives 40:1 (January 2002), 15–16.

4. Nell Irvin Painter asserted in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education ("Black Studies, Black Professors, and the Struggles of Perception," 15 December 2000) that many black faculty often felt that their white colleagues did not respect their intellectual ability. Minority graduate students may be experiencing a similar phenomenon.

5. Townsend, "Status of Women and Minorities in the History Profession," 19.

6. Lynn Hunt, "Democracy and Hierarchy in Higher Education," Perspectives 40:4 (April 2002), 7.