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Intellectual entrepreneurship and diversity

To increase minority participation, graduate education programs must be made transparent and have greater social relevance.
University Business, Jul 2005

A study by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation indicates that African Americans and Hispanics are still significantly underrepresented among recipients of Ph.D.s. The two groups comprise 32 percent of all U.S. citizens in the age range of Ph.D. candidates but only 7 percent of those earning doctorates.

Most disturbing about this data is the obvious implication: without more persons of color earning advanced degrees, there will remain an inadequate supply of underrepresented minority faculty (who at present comprise a woeful 7 percent of full-time faculty at public doctoral institutions), perpetuating a lack of diversity across college campuses. To say we are caught in a vicious cycle is a gross understatement.

It is tempting to blame the insufficient production of minority Ph.D.s on the admissions process and a lack of financial support. While these variables do indeed contribute to the problem, an unspoken culprit is the insubstantial minority applicant pool.

Why do so many
talented minority
students choose
not to pursue
graduate degrees?

At the University of Texas at Austin--one of the nation's largest graduate schools and leading producers of Ph.D.s--the applicant pool for programs in the arts and sciences is characterized by a paltry number of underrepresented minorities. In 2003 (the same year examined by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation), only 6.3 percent of the 18,000-plus applicants to UT's graduate school were Hispanic, African American, or Native American.

While factoring race and ethnicity into the criteria considered for admission and for awarding scholarships and fellowships will certainly help, no profound increase in diversity will occur until significant progress is made in persuading talented minorities to pursue graduate study. Nationally, top-notch graduate institutions play numbers games, competing with each other to redistribute an already undersized minority applicant population.

Why do talented minority students choose not to pursue traditional graduate degrees? Many prefer instead to enter law, medicine, or business, not only because of money and prestige but also awareness of the societal impact of these pursuits. First-generation students or those from minority communities may perceive withdrawal from the rough-and-tumble of everyday problems as dereliction. These students are bright and capable of learning at the highest levels, yet feel the tug of social responsibility.

Ironically, graduate education need not be viewed as an insular enterprise devoid of social relevance. UT's "Intellectual Entrepreneurship" (IE) is a new vision of education that challenges students to be "citizen-scholars." By engaging students in community projects where they discover and put knowledge to work, as well as adapting to audiences for whom their research matters, IE documents the enormous value to society of graduate study.

How does IE increase diversity? Devised in 1997 to increase the value of graduate education for all students, by 2002-2003, 20 percent of students enrolled in IE were underrepresented minorities, while this same group comprised only 9 percent of UT's total graduate student population.

Minorities report that, by rigorously exploring how to succeed, IE demystifies graduate school. More importantly, students note that IE provides an opportunity to contemplate in an entrepreneurial fashion how to utilize their intellectual capital to give back to the community.

This intellectual entrepreneurship seems to resonate with minority and first-generation students, facilitating exploration and innovation. Put simply, IE changes the metaphor and model of education from one of "apprenticeship-certification-entitlement" to one of "discovery-ownership-accountability."

IE's potential to increase diversity in graduate school is best documented by the "IE Pre-Graduate School Internship" begun in 2003. This initiative pairs undergraduates with faculty supervisors and graduate student mentors. Rather than being outsiders looking in or passive targets of recruitment, IE interns function as "anthropologists," immersing themselves in the day-to-day experiences and activities of graduate school and then interrogating the academic culture in which someday they may reside.

Approximately 25 percent of interns are underrepresented minorities and nearly 40 percent are first-generation students. Interns report that, for the first time, a "space" exists to reflect upon the role education plays in meeting their goals. The program doesn't segregate intellectual and professional development, as is the case on most college campuses today; the two are linked parts of an entrepreneurial approach to learning.

IE teaches us that to increase diversity the applicant pool must be expanded; graduate education must be transparent and relevant. Moreover, entrepreneurial education and experiences must be available for undergraduates, so they can discover how graduate study brings their visions to fruition. Entrepreneurial learning challenges students to own and be accountable for their educational choices and intellectual development.

Richard A. Cherwitz is professor of communication studies and rhetoric and composition, and founder and director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program at the University of Texas at Austin.

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