Publication Date

February 1, 1988

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Graduate Education

A number of recent reports have dramatically documented the decline in the number of minority undergraduate and graduate students in colleges and universities. Concommitantly we are witnessing a marked decline in the number of Afro-Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities available for faculty positions, especially in history and other humanities disciplines. According to the National Research Council, the number of new minority Ph.D.’s in history annually has declined by 28.5 percent in the last decade. The future of minorities in the academy appears grim. Unless a concerted effort is immediately undertaken by concerned historians, academic administrators, officials of philanthropic foundations, and leaders of professional organizations, the already negligible representation of minorities in higher education, especially at predominantly white institutions, will disappear.

While there is little to celebrate concerning the seriousness of the problem of recruiting and retaining minority graduate students, we should be encouraged by the attention and support that the Ford Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, and the Rockefeller Foundation have given to the problem. Within our discipline, we can look to the work of the OAH Ad Hoc Committee on Minority Historians and to a recent joint effort of the American Historical Association and the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. The latter was a special symposium on “Recruiting Afro-Americans for Graduate Education in History” sponsored by the AHA in conjunction with the annual meeting of the ASALH in Durham, NC, in October of this past year. This meeting, initiated by the AHA’s Teaching Division, was a significant first step in drawing attention to the two-pronged need to attract more minorities into the profession and to provide the resources and nurture necessary to ensure success.

The high point of the meeting, for me, was a panel composed of doctoral students enrolled at Duke University and the University of North Carolina. The four exceedingly articulate black graduate students minced few words in their critique of the treatment and problems minority students experience in predominantly white institutions. Central to all of their concerns were problems associated with inadequate finances. Few minority graduate students come from families with sufficient financial resources to help meet the mounting costs of higher education, and they must often take jobs during the dissertation phase of their training in order to survive. While departments may be generous with support during the first two or three years of training, by the time the student arrives at the point of researching and writing a dissertation, the funds dry up. As a consequence many minority students take too long to complete their degrees, and, when done, confront massive debts. Obviously more resources need to be made available for longer periods if minority students are to complete their degrees expeditiously.

A second, equally as important, concern of minority students is the negative and dismissive attitudes of non-minority professors. Minority students find it difficult to overcome often overt assumptions that they are less talented, have been inadequately trained (especially if they graduated from historically black schools), and were only admitted into graduate school because of affirmative action. Thus, too often minority graduate students are made to feel marginal.

Moreover, minority graduate students experience difficulty in finding professors who will serve as mentors, especially if they express interest in working in minority history and there are no recognized specialists in that area in the department. Underlying this difficulty with the mentoring process is the unspoken attitude that minority history is not all that important, and that the minority practitioners are, for the most part, mediocre scholars. This lack of respect for the subject matter and the historians therein engaged is communicated to the student in various subtle ways.

Finally, in what may appear to be a contradiction, some minority students are turned off by graduate study because of the tendency to channel them into minority, or Afro-American, history. On the one hand they report conversations with non-minority professors who devalue Afro-American history, but then insist that because the student is black, he or she must only be interested in or capable of doing black history. A black student interested in concentrating in medieval French history, for, example, is viewed with suspicion.

It is important to understand the problems associated with graduate study from the perspective of the students, but we still must develop more imaginative solutions to keeping the pipeline open. Several historians, including Nell Irvin Painter, Robert L. Harris, Jr., Sharon Harley, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, Cynthia Neverdon-Morton, Monica Green, Colin Palmer, and John Hope Franklin, joined in the discussion at the AHA-ASALH meeting to address this issue. It is impossible to report all of the suggestions offered other than in a summary fashion.

All agreed that academic administrators must demonstrate that they care about this issue by making the recruitment and retention of minority graduate students a top priority of graduate deans and department chairs and most importantly, by allocating more resources to raise graduate stipends. It was also suggested that history department graduate committees pay more attention to other indices of ability and potential for success, such as letters of recommendation, samples of written work, and level of personal maturity and motivation, in addition to GRE scores and rank in class. Coupled with this was a recommendation to encourage closer mentoring of minority students, especially those who may be reluctant to ask for assistance in the first years of study.

Several scholars maintained that more attention should be devoted to those bright undergraduates who increasingly are entering professional programs without having given thought to graduate study in history. Faculty members should be on the look out for such individuals, who might be persuaded of the rewards of becoming professional historians. A number of institutions have established early identification programs, whereby faculty organize summer assistantships for promising upperclassmen to give them the opportunity to work one-on-one with scholars on research projects and experience first hand the rewards of academic life. Departments of history should consider setting up such programs aimed specifically at minority students.

Inasmuch as financial restraints play such a major role in the retention of minority students, consideration should be given to the possibly of forgiving undergraduate debts should a talented young student enroll in and complete a Ph.D. in history. While that may be a rather radical approach for some, it is certainly worth trying.

The purpose of this report is to alert the general profession to an issue that is critical to all of us. It would, undoubtedly, help to know about the efforts of various departments around the country to solve, or at least address, the problem. If we could begin to pool our ideas, perhaps we could devise effective strategies to keep the pipeline open. The AHA would appreciate hearing from you. Please contact Noralee Frankel, Assistant Director on Women and Minorities, AHA, 400 A Street SE, Washington, DC 20003.

Darlene Clark Hine is John A. Hannah Professor of History at Michigan State University.