“Diversifying Graduate Education through Intellectual Entrepreneurship: What Forty Years Taught Me”
I have been a faculty member, administrator, and program director at the University of Texas at Austin for 40 years. Based on this experience I wish to tell a story that will be of interest to those who care seriously about increasing diversity in graduate education.
The thesis of this essay is that increasing diversity in graduate school may require us to capitalize on unanticipated consequences; improving education for all students and academic disciplines can have a special and perhaps more substantial impact on underrepresented minorities and first-generation students. Readers should not construe this claim as an argument against affirmative action. To the contrary: Affirmative action in admissions and financial aid is a necessary but not sufficient condition for diversifying graduate school. Unlike with undergraduate education, however, the effect of affirmative action on diversity in graduate programs is less pronounced, frequently inhibiting institutions from creatively searching for answers; for example, practicing affirmative action alone often results in complacency, generating a false sense of consciousness that all that can be done is being done. My fear is that if we do not transcend current political skirmishes over affirmative action, not only will progress be impeded by keeping us from the task at hand, but our efforts will become counterproductive.
To make the case, I will address the subject matter inductively, telling the story of how as a faculty member and administrator I came to these conclusions about diversity almost by chance over the course of the past 40 years: as a faculty member who witnessed the vast majority of his best minority and first-generation students take jobs or enter law, medicine, or business following graduation; as a dean in the Office of Graduate Studies in charge of admissions at one of the largest doctorate-granting institutions in the country who monitored the demographics of the graduate student population in the pre- and post-Hopwood eras and who observed the absence of a substantial underrepresented minority applicant pool; and as the founder and director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium (IE) in 1997, one of the first of its kind of initiatives to re-envision graduate education (not just by providing professional development but by changing the model and metaphor of education from one of “apprenticeship-certification-entitlement” to one of “discovery-ownership-accountability”), who discovered the unique and significant impact this program had for underrepresented minorities and first generation students.
It was the convergence of these initially disconnected experiences that led me in 2003 to introduce IE at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) into the undergraduate curriculum, devising the Pre–Graduate School Internship. The results, I contend, demand that we re-examine status quo models of recruitment and outreach and our less-than-effective approaches to increasing diversity in graduate education. It is time to design, incubate, and test new — perhaps less obvious — methods for increasing the number of persons of color who elect to complete graduate education.
Faculty Reflections on Why Minority Students Do Not Pursue Graduate Studies
For the past 4½ decades, I have served as a faculty member in the Moody College of Communication at UT, teaching an upper-division, undergraduate course titled “Argumentation and Advocacy.” Until recently, when the burgeoning size of the undergraduate population in my department resulted in restrictions being placed on the number of non-majors who could enroll, this class comprised an interdisciplinary audience, including students from communication, education, business, liberal arts, and natural sciences. Over the years, the mean grade point average of students entering the course ranged between 2.9 and 3.0 (on a 4-point scale). In addition to high achievers, my course typically enrolls a substantial underrepresented minority and first-generation population; in the 2017–2018 academic year, for instance, nearly 25% of students were Hispanic, African American, or Native American.
Of note is the fact that since 1978 nearly half of those enrolled in the class indicated a desire to pursue advanced degrees following graduation. Although not in possession of longitudinal data, I regularly have observed that a smaller percentage of minority students in the course express an interest in continuing their studies; most prefer entering the job market instead. Of those minority students who do desire an advanced degree, little interest is communicated for earning a master’s or doctoral degree in the arts and sciences; rather, entering law, business, or medical school is the norm. In an effort to account for this tendency, I frequently ask my minority undergraduates why they prefer professional to graduate education, and why many choose to work following completion of their degree. The answer is clear and unmistakable: Compared to the tangible qualities of a job or a professional degree in law, business, or medicine, minority students — like many undergraduates — do not appreciate fully nor understand the value of an advanced degree in traditional academic disciplines. In the words of one of my recent Hispanic students, “I want to make a difference — to do something meaningful.”
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. Moreover, in recent years, the number of minority students who tell me that they feel an ethical obligation to use their degree to contribute to society has risen; the desire to “give back to the community” frames the identity of many minority students. For them, graduate education in the arts and sciences often appears esoteric, not engaging a wider community. Except for future professors, some of them ask, why earn an advanced degree?
Additionally, many of the minority students enrolled in my class — based on their observation of and conversations with teaching assistants — perceive that graduate education is shrouded in mystique, operating under a Darwinian assumption that only the best survive. So, why invest additional years and incur financial debt when no clear or predictable outcome can be envisioned?
Whether these perceptions are accurate or not, they might explain why many talented first-generation and underrepresented minority undergraduates do not pursue advanced degrees in the arts and sciences. It is this anecdotal, but important, data and first-hand experience that I took with me to my position as an administrator.
Insights on Diversity Acquired by a Graduate Dean
From 1995 to 2003, I was an academic dean in the Office of Graduate Studies at UT — one of the nation’s largest graduate schools. Despite the absence of dental and medical schools, in excess of 11,000 graduate students enroll annually, and more than 18,000 seek admission each year to one of UT’s 100-plus graduate degree programs. In addition, UT consistently ranks among the top three institutions in the country for number of doctoral degrees awarded.
One of the major items in my administrative portfolio was overseeing admissions. In 1996, shortly after my arrival in the graduate school, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court handed down the Hopwood decision, declaring unconstitutional the race-based admissions practices of UT’s law school. To comply with this ruling, a decision was made by the attorney general of Texas and UT officials to abandon use of race and ethnicity in all admissions and financial aid decisions — not just in law but in undergraduate and graduate education as well. Because the Fifth Circuit includes only three states, UT was placed at a distinct competitive disadvantage, becoming one of the only top-tier schools nationally to render admissions decisions without utilization of some form of affirmative action. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that in the year following Hopwood, minority enrollment in the graduate school plummeted by double digits. To say we faced a crisis would be an understatement.
Yet, as the title of an op-ed I penned in 1999 suggested, perhaps the impact of Hopwood was both a “curse and blessing.” Although it was true that minority enrollment declined in the short term, the real culprit underpinning the lack of diversity in graduate education (before and after Hopwood) was obscured amid the emotionally charged rhetoric of the time. What we discovered was that Hispanic and African American student applications to UT’s graduate school decreased by 22% and 38%, respectively, in the wake of Hopwood, and that this accounted for the bulk of the decline in enrolled minority students.
What we did not know then was that a drop in minority applications was occurring at other institutions — including those that practiced affirmative action — and that this would become a national trend. Even more significant, however, was the fact that abandonment of race-based admissions policies at UT did not accrue significant changes in the percentage of minority applicants accepted into graduate programs (selectivity); the graduate school continued to admit approximately the same percentage of Hispanic and African American applicants than it did prior to the race-blind admissions policy mandated by Hopwood.
Cognizant of this, many of us began to examine more closely longitudinal data on the total number of minority applications, wondering whether we had indeed made substantial progress toward diversity in the years prior to Hopwood. The Fifth Circuit’s ruling, then, became an opportunity for us to be proactive — to ascertain in the absence of affirmative action what might be done institutionally to attract a larger applicant pool composed of the best and brightest of all races and backgrounds.
In 2003, following the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action in admission to graduate and professional programs (which opened the door for UT to again consider race and ethnicity in evaluating applicant credential files), and fearing that little would be learned from the Hopwood experience, I decided to take a second look at the data. What I learned was that the applicant pool for graduate programs in the arts, sciences, humanities, and social sciences is characterized by a paltry number of underrepresented minorities.
In fall 2003, for example, only 6.3% of the 18,000-plus applicants to UT’s graduate school were Hispanic, African American, or Native American — a statistic comparable to that at many other graduate institutions. Especially disturbing was the fact that never in the past 10 years, which includes the pre- Hopwood period, had this percentage risen to double digits. Furthermore, more than 60% of these minority applicants were in fewer than 20% of the institution’s available degree programs. In short, what was learned from the Hopwood experience was that, although tinkering with the admissions process and offering additional scholarships and fellowships might make some difference, no profound increase in diversity can occur until significant progress is made in convincing talented minority students to pursue graduate study.
The picture that began to emerge for me was striking: Nationally, topnotch graduate institutions play numbers games, waging war with each other to redistribute an already undersized minority applicant population and then declaring victory when statistically insignificant gains are made.
Although subsequent Supreme Court decisions might have helped UT recoup some of its losses locally, these rulings did not arm us with the ammunition needed to address at the national level and in a profound manner the real cause of inadequate diversity. The question persisted: Why does the percentage of minority graduate students at UT average lower than their percentage of the population, and why has it never risen much higher — even in the pre-Hopwood era? The answer, of course, is that there remains an insufficient minority applicant pool; this was the case in both the pre- and post-Hopwood eras. Thus, the concern I first encountered as a faculty member lingered: Why do so few minorities seek graduate education — regardless of admissions and financial aid policies?
At the same time that I was wrestling with the recurring and nettlesome problem of why the minority graduate applicant pool is so small, a new assignment was added to my portfolio in the Office of Graduate Studies. Besides being responsible for matters of admissions, I was asked to think about the pressing issue of graduate student welfare. The result was my creation and direction of a program designed to improve graduate education for all UT students — an initiative that only in retrospect could be seen in relationship to the ongoing quest to increase diversity. It is to this program and its unanticipated consequences that I now turn the discussion.
Intellectual Entrepreneurship: Intended and Unanticipated Consequences
Like many graduate schools at the time, in 1995 and 1996 UT began examining its educational practices, particularly in doctoral degree programs. Increasingly, concerns were expressed about matters such as insularity and narrowness of graduate training; shrinking academic job markets, especially in the humanities and some of the sciences; insufficient student preparation in pedagogy and other skills needed for survival inside and outside of academe; and the lack of interdisciplinary educational pathways requisite for discovering knowledge and meeting society’s challenges in the 21st century.
Unlike most institutions, however, UT’s foray into the issue of graduate student welfare soon became much more than a mechanistic exercise in professional development and job placement; it became a call for a new vision and philosophy of education.
During my first year in the Office of Graduate Studies, UT became part of the first round of institutions to participate in Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) — a national program designed to prepare doctoral students for teaching positions at non-research schools. Although a terrific program, I became concerned both nationally and locally about the implicit negative theme, premise, and tone of PFF and its tendency to reinforce a teaching-versus research dichotomy that in the end would only keep elite graduate programs and top-notch students from becoming involved.
This led to a decision to build on and move beyond PFF, to take UT in a somewhat different philosophical direction. Rather than thinking about what is insufficient and wrong with graduate education, which leads to remediation (and ultimately, therefore, alienates faculty), I concluded that we should explore the enormous and untapped value of graduate education, finding ways to maximize and celebrate that value for students and society at large.
This, in essence, was the birth of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium (IE), the goal of which was to empower students to discern their personal and professional identity, amassing the intellectual capital, professional skills, and knowledge needed to bring their visions to fruition.
From 1996 to 2003, IE was a university-wide initiative under my direction in the Office of Graduate Studies. This program asked: “Thinking as broadly and boldly as possible, how can graduate students take full advantage of opportunities to use their expertise to make a meaningful and lasting difference in their discipline and the community?” Through 18 graduate level, cross-disciplinary courses and internships (addressing topics such as writing, pedagogy, communication, ethics, consulting, technology, and entrepreneurship); PFF; a discipline-specific consulting service (that delivered the IE platform to scientific labs, centers, and other academic units); a synergy group initiative designed to help solve community problems; nine interdisciplinary doctoral and master’s portfolio programs; a graduate writing project; and a variety of workshops, IE enabled students to own their education, making informed choices about where and how to use their research expertise.
More than a program designed to provide a predetermined skill set and assist students with job placement, IE quickly became a philosophy and vision of education. IE was premised on the belief that intellect is not limited to the academy and entrepreneurship is not restricted to business. Entrepreneurship is a process of cultural innovation. Whereas the creation of material wealth is one expression of entrepreneurship, at a more profound level, entrepreneurship is an attitude for engaging the world. Intellectual entrepreneurs, both inside and outside universities, take risks and seize opportunities, discover and create knowledge, and innovate, collaborate, and solve problems in any number of social realms: corporate, nonprofit, government, and education.
The aim of IE was from its very inception to “educate citizen-scholars” — individuals who own and are accountable for their education and who utilize their intellectual assets to add to disciplinary knowledge and as a lever for social good. The IE philosophy, in short, concerns anything from building products out of ideas, to becoming socially or politically engaged based on one’s knowledge and convictions, to teaching (in the broadest sense of that term), to constructing an academic program of research and knowledge, to producing music and art. In developing the IE program and vision, it was and remains my conviction that successful and resilient academic professionals are intellectual entrepreneurs.
From 1996 to 2003, IE enrolled more than 5,000 students in more than 90 academic disciplines from every college and school on UT’s campus in classes, workshops, internships, and other activities. IE won national acclaim — including recognition by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, Fast Company Magazine, and the New England Resource Center for Higher Education — and was the focus of nearly a hundred newspaper, magazine, and scholarly articles.
The success of IE derives from four core values: vision and discovery, ownership and accountability, integrative thinking and action, and collaboration and teamwork.
First, intellectual entrepreneurs develop visions for their academic and professional work by imagining the realm of possibilities for themselves. This is a discovery process in which individuals continually and regularly learn more about themselves and their areas of expertise. It is also a rediscovery process in which professionals not only invent but also reinvent themselves. To accomplish this, intellectual entrepreneurship requires individuals to do more than simply perform their jobs (e.g., heading corporations, conducting research, developing public policies, teaching undergraduates, running nonprofit organizations) and acquire education and training. It also requires individuals to contemplate who they are, what matters most to them, and what possibilities are available to them.
Second, intellectual entrepreneurship necessitates ownership and accountability. Having discovered more about themselves and their disciplines, intellectual entrepreneurs take responsibility for acquiring the knowledge and tools required to bring their vision to fruition. Jobs are not predetermined outcomes or entitlements acquired after completing an education or obtaining a certain level of proficiency. Instead, jobs are opportunities for intellectual entrepreneurs to accomplish their goals.
Third, intellectual entrepreneurship involves integrative thinking and action. Intellectual entrepreneurs know the limitations of partial knowledge and working in a vacuum. For intellectual entrepreneurs, “synergy” is more than a buzzword: Something greater than the sum of the parts can indeed be produced when people engage in integrative thinking. This requires individuals to abandon a “silo” mentality, moving away from conventional notions of discrete academic disciplines and lone scholars in search of the truth.
Finally, intellectual entrepreneurship entails collaboration and teamwork. People in collaborative relationships make integrative thinking and synergy possible. Whereas ideas are the commodity of academic institutions and therefore have been the traditional focus of the delivery of graduate education, intellectual entrepreneurs understand that creativity and ideas are generated when people and networks are viewed as the primary resource.
Perhaps the best way to capture the distinctiveness of the program and philosophy is to understand how IE seeks to change the received view of graduate education. Consider the more traditional language associated with “professional development” programs and PFF. These initiatives, by definition, function as “supplements” to or an “enrichment” of graduate education.
They buy into existing cultural metaphors of graduate education, all of which are oriented toward “helping” students and “giving” them what they lack. Not only is this thoroughly paternalistic and remedial, it reinforces the current model of graduate education as a process of apprenticeship-certification- entitlement. On this view, graduate students learn/study at the feet of a master, pass certain tests, and perform specific rituals to obtain a degree that, in turn, entitles them to a job. IE, by contrast, envisions graduate education as a process of discover-ownership-accountability. From the time they enter graduate school, IE challenges students to imagine what is possible and to begin constructing resources to bring their visions to fruition. The job market, for example, is not a “placement” question confronted following completion of academic work: It is a vital part of students’ simultaneous and ongoing exploration of their intellectual and professional identity — something students discover and own. Unlike traditional approaches to graduate education, then, IE does not view professional development as after the fact (to supplement or enrich the more important knowledge acquired in a discipline) or categorically separate from one’s intellectual and academic development.
The significance of the discovery-ownership-accountability model of graduate education is revealed in what students reported about their IE experience. IE did more than the obvious (e.g., assisting students in finding jobs, producing successful grant proposals, completing dissertations, improving teaching effectiveness, etc.). IE students told us that for the first time during their graduate school tenure, they were beginning to fully understand who they were (their professional goals, ethical commitments, and personal aspirations) and to discover the value of their disciplines. In the words of a recipient of one of UT’s most prestigious fellowships, “I am a better engineer.” Like many IE students, he became accountable: Suddenly, this engineer had to explicitly confront and articulate the assumptions of his discipline in front of people from other academic fields — something that gave him a richer appreciation and self-awareness of his area of study.
Students also gained intellectually from the interdisciplinary character of the IE graduate experience. Many learned to integrate and put their knowledge into larger, more comprehensive perspectives, envisioning how seemingly separate disciplines might work together to solve a shared academic or social problem. Departments and methodologies became for IE students marked by more than the usual political boundary lines. It was not surprising that IE students began to think about jobs not as positions culminating a graduate education but as careers and possibilities. Jobs were seen as created rather than given and were based on one’s passion and plans to implement one’s visions.
Perhaps the most consequential benefit of IE, however, was its effect on student self-esteem. No longer did students feel alone, beaten back, and marginalized. They were able to comprehend the enormous value of their expertise — even as students — and the wide range of audiences for whom that expertise mattered. IE students discovered that they need not and should not apologize for being scholars — that they can make a profound difference whether in academe or in the community.
At this point, readers may be wondering what the IE program and philosophy have to do with the issue of diversity. To be honest, at the time IE was developed and implemented, I could not have made a connection. More than 2 years into this university-wide initiative, my boss, the vice president and dean of graduate studies and a demographer, asked me what I knew about students who took IE classes and participated in IE activities. Other than what I thought was important, namely, that IE attracted students from all disciplines and that there was no significant difference between the academic credentials of those who did and did not participate (i.e., IE was for more than those with remedial problems), I did not know much else.
What I subsequently discovered in researching an answer to this question turned out to be one of IE’s most substantial consequences, though certainly not intended: Twenty percent of students enrolled in IE classes and activities were underrepresented minorities, whereas this same group made up only 9% of UT’s total graduate student population. On learning this, I immediately set out to ask African American, Hispanic, and Native American graduate students why they participated in IE.
Minority students reported that by rigorously exploring how to succeed, IE demystified graduate school and the academic-professional world, helping them — many of whom were first-generation students — learn the unspoken rules of the game. More important, though, students told me that IE provided one of the few opportunities to contemplate how to utilize their intellectual capital to give back to the community as well as to their academic disciplines — matters informing the career decisions of many first-generation and minority students. It was interesting to find that this confirmed what my undergraduates had told me for years (noted earlier in this essay).
I also learned from conversations with students that, unlike professional development, the spirit of intellectual entrepreneurship resonates with and meets a felt need of minority students. This is because IE facilitates exploration and innovation; it implores students to create for themselves a world of vast intellectual and practical possibilities, developing the tool kits, networks, and other resources needed to actualize their visions. This attitude toward students, as well as the manner in which it supplants empowerment for traditional top-down, paternalistic methods of education and professional development, seems especially attractive to minorities. After all, although minority graduate students know they are intellectually smart enough to succeed and may not wish to be given special assistance or professional development, they often desire — as do other students — opportunities and experiences that allow them to own and discover the value of their graduate education and to be accountable for it by giving back to the community.
This propensity to foster citizen-scholarship may be one reason why Harvard Afro-American Studies scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., once proudly proclaimed, “I am an intellectual entrepreneur.” The IE philosophy, therefore, may be an important mechanism for improving odds for completing a degree, increasing chances for professional and academic achievement, and leveraging knowledge for social good — outcomes that are important to many, including minority students. In fact, the IE data convinced me that more interest in graduate education might be generated if minority students could discern a closer link between added knowledge and fulfillment of their various political and social agendas.
Having learned this, the epiphany was realizing that I now had some answers to the daunting questions confronting me in my two other professional lives: as a faculty member wondering why many of my best minority students were not continuing their education in traditional academic fields and as a graduate dean searching for ways to increase the applicant pool and do more than play the redistribution game. So, I decided to take the precepts of IE to the undergraduate experience.
Pre–Graduate School Internships: Incorporating IE Into the Undergraduate Experience
During my final 2 years in the Office of Graduate Studies, I began to contemplate how, analogous to what was done for graduate students in IE, we could devise an experience or opportunity that allowed undergraduates to discover in an entrepreneurial manner more about themselves and their academic disciplines — a desirable and difficult task, in view of the fact that undergraduate education is so compartmentalized and top-down. The idea was that, if such a “space” could be created, additional numbers of students — especially minorities — might discover the value of an advanced degree.
In the 2002–2003 academic year, I piloted a program with several of the local colleges and universities that were part of UT’s PFF consortium. Approximately a half dozen of the brightest juniors from these schools, many of whom had never thought about graduate education, spent several hours a week shadowing UT faculty and graduate students, endeavoring to learn about the institution and the culture of graduate study. This experience was entirely unstructured and experimental. However, based on overwhelmingly positive feedback, I decided to roll out a more rigorous and scaled-up project for UT’s own undergraduates, many of whom know surprisingly little about graduate education (often assuming it is just “advanced” undergraduate education).
On returning full-time to my academic department in the 2003–2004 year, I designed and offered the IE Pre–Graduate School Internship. Open to students in all disciplines, the internship is an opportunity for bright UT undergraduates to work with a faculty supervisor and a graduate student mentor to learn about those unique aspects of graduate study that make it distinct from the undergraduate experience (e.g., conducting research, writing for scholarly audiences, participating in seminars, serving as teaching and research assistants, publishing articles in professional journals, becoming members of scholarly organizations and learned societies, preparing for an academic or professional career, and more).
Examples of internship activities include observation of undergraduate instruction done by graduate student teaching assistants; attending graduate classes, seminars, and departmental research colloquia; undertaking a research project (similar to what one might engage in as a graduate student); attending meetings of graduate professional organizations, journal groups, lab sessions, and other academic gatherings for graduate students and faculty; discussing one’s discipline, graduate study, and career development with faculty and graduate students; observing graduate student/faculty interactions (where permitted); and attending state, regional, or national conferences run by a discipline’s professional organizations.
In addition to working with their mentors, a key part of the internship is meeting regularly and interacting as a group. Building on the tenets of IE, the goal is to get students to stand back from and move beyond the mechanics of just “doing” the internship. They are encouraged to interrogate and study what they are doing, their discipline, their program, and the people in it, and to reflect on what they are learning about themselves, academe, and the culture of graduate study. Interns are asked to approach the experience as anthropologists and to record their observations in a journal.
At the end of the semester, students write an internship summary, sharing it with their fellow interns, mentor, and faculty supervisor. Forty students participated in the IE Pre-Grad Internship during the first year (2003–2004). Over 3,000 student have participated since then. They work in academic disciplines in liberal arts, communication, education, fine arts, engineering, natural sciences, information, pharmacy, nursing, geological sciences, public affairs, architecture, business, and law.
Like the IE Program, the Pre-Grad Internship thus far (2003–2018) has attracted a disproportionate number of minority, first-generation and economically disadvantaged students (approximately 70%). The experience of one of these interns illustrates what we continue to learn about the IE philosophy and its inherent connection to the issue of diversity.
Consider the case of a Hispanic senior studying biology who enrolled in the Pre-Grad Internship. Her story is a familiar one. As a science student, she always assumed she would become a medical doctor, using her talents to contribute to the well-being of others. Until recently, she never imagined that a graduate degree in a science or education discipline might equip her to fulfill her vision of contributing to the community. This student’s revelation did not occur because a graduate program “recruited” her or because of a recruitment workshop that explained how to apply to graduate school and obtain financial aid. Her transformation came from her epiphany during the internship that she is an intellectual entrepreneur.
Early in her internship, this student discovered the desire to develop a comprehensive community health center. When asked what knowledge and skills might be needed to accomplish this, she began to approach her education in a more inductive, entrepreneurial manner. Instead of starting with an academic discipline (typically the one in which an undergraduate degree is earned) and then devising a strategy for admission, a practice common among most would-be graduate students, she utilized her desire to contribute to society as a lens for determining the most appropriate, relevant fields of study.
This student’s participation in the IE Pre-Grad Internship produced a major revelation. She learned the importance of approaching academic decisions as an intellectual entrepreneur — to discover, own, and be accountable for educational choices. She discovered that becoming a professor may afford her the requisite intellectual capital and therefore the greatest potential to impact both academe and the community. Via teaching and research, she envisioned a plan for sharing her knowledge and training with the widest possible audience. Although never seriously considering being a professor, she now admits that this is an important professional prospect. It is not surprising that this student recommends the IE Pre-Grad Internship for first-generation, minority students: “It connects you with experiences and opportunities relevant to your dreams and goals, placing you strategically on the game board of life.”
The experience of this student documents that increasing diversity in graduate education means moving beyond formulaic recruitment strategies. We must create experiences enabling undergraduates to discover how graduate study brings their visions to fruition. This entrepreneurial approach to recruitment does not commence with institutions, academic disciplines, professional development initiatives, or questions about “how to apply to graduate school.” It begins with students’ curiosities and goals driving their lives; it challenges undergraduates to own and be accountable for their educational choices and intellectual development, viewing themselves as active agents who are the recruiters rather than the passive targets of institutional recruitment.
This entrepreneurial approach also challenges the customary habit of institutions of higher learning that, in an attempt to increase diversity, begin by asking current minority graduate students why they decided to pursue an advanced degree. The hope is that their answers will translate into persuasive strategies for convincing others to attend graduate school. In addition, a typical tactic is to identify minority students who have taken the GRE and encourage them to apply to one’s institution. These efforts, although well intended and useful for many reasons, miss the point when it comes to dramatically increasing diversity: To expand the national applicant pool, which is absolutely essential to increase the total number of students of color in the graduate school pipeline and eventually the number of minority faculty, we should be inquiring of and engaging students not presently enrolled in graduate programs. We also should focus our efforts on undergraduates who have not taken the GRE, especially those who have never seriously contemplated advanced study. Attention must be directed to students like the one described above who can help us discern why many talented minority undergraduates do not pursue or even contemplate graduate study. And if we are willing to adapt our methods of education and models of recruitment to what is learned, it may be possible to increase the number of minorities enrolled in graduate programs.
I hope what is clear from these reflections on my experiences as a faculty member, graduate dean, and program founder is that increasing diversity requires us to think in novel ways. As suggested in this essay, the national applicant pool must be expanded, and to accomplish that, graduate education must be made transparent, relevant, and capable of fulfilling students’ passions and goals. Admittedly, IE is a modest first step in that direction. IE’s value as a mechanism for increasing diversity inheres in its capacity to empower students to discover otherwise unobserved connections between academe and personal and professional commitments. It does this by providing spaces to view academic disciplines not as artificial containers into which students are placed but as lenses through which to clarify their visions and tools by which their goals might be realized.
Finally, as we are learning from IE’s 22 year history, exploring unanticipated consequences may offer one promising path to diversity. I challenge my colleagues nationally not to become ensnared in political debates about affirmative action. Let us concede that affirmative action is necessary and simultaneously acknowledge that the Supreme Court decisions focusing on admissions will not automatically eliminate a problem that has defied solution for so long.