The National 'Expertise Gap'

By Hamilton, Kendra | Black Issues in Higher Education, July 14, 2005 | Go to article overview

The National 'Expertise Gap'


Hamilton, Kendra, Black Issues in Higher Education


Experts say America's dependence on foreign nationals to fill doctoral ranks has national security implications

In 1957, the Sputnik launch galvanized all levels of American society to pour unprecedented resources into science and technology education. In 1983, "A Nation at Risk" raised questions over accountability and standards in education that are still being debated.

Now, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation is insisting that the nation stands at a crossroads that is, in its way, every bit as significant as either of those moments in history. Its report-"Diversity and the Ph.D.," released in May - documents in troubling detail the exact dimensions of what the foundation's president, Dr. Robert Weisbuch, is calling the national "expertise gap."

It's a gap, he says, that "extends beyond the professoriate. It is diminishing our national leadership in any number of professional endeavors, from determining economic policy to designing museums to inventing new pharmaceuticals.

"Indeed, given our current dependence on foreign nationals to flesh out the doctoral ranks one in three Ph.D. recipients in 2003 was an international student - it's a gap that has national security implications."

Unfortunately, in the summer of the Michael Jackson three-ring circus, the "runaway bride" and the Alabama teen missing in Aruba, few in the media or in society at large appear to have tuned in.

But the weight of the evidence assembled by the report adds up to something far more chilling than the familiar "diversity lags at the Ph.D. level" headlines suggest-because for the first time, the figures on doctoral attainment are placed in the context of the political climate, which, more and more, is openly hostile to diversity.

For example, the report notes that, despite nearly two decades of incremental progress, minority representation in academia remains stalled far below levels of representation in society. While nearly one in three - or 32 percent - of the U.S. doctoral age population was African-American or Hispanic in 2003, only one in nine - or 11 percent - of the doctorates awarded went to candidates from those groups. Indeed, if one includes international students in the total Ph.D.s awarded, Blacks and Latinos drop to only 7 percent of the total - or one in 14.

And things are getting worse. Looking at the experiences of foundations that have been national leaders in diversifying the Ph.D. ranks - Ford Motor Co., Bill & Melinda Gates, Alfred P. Sloan, Mellon and others - the report concludes that the slow, incremental progress of the past 20 years could come to a screeching halt.

Conservative opposition to race-conscious initiatives has forced programs to close down or change their names, emphases and operations (see "Affirmative Action Fallout, " pg. 28). The result has been:

* A decided shift away from fellowship programs aimed at encouraging minorities to pursue graduate education;

* A drop in the level of financial support for minority doctoral students;

* A decline in direct federal investment in doctoral education for minority students;

* Aid packages that are focused more on need and less on under-representation, resulting in major reductions in minority student support;

* Programs that are named so euphemistically that minority students aren't even aware that there is the possibility of getting support.

Dr. Ansley Abraham, director of the Southern Regional Education Board's Doctoral Scholars Program, agrees that colleges and universities appear to be snatching defeat from the jaws of the Michigan victory.

"The Michigan decision [upholding the use of race as a factor in determining college admissions] was a good decision, a supportive decision, but unfortunately politics in general and state politics in particular have changed," Abraham says. Despite the fact that SREB's program is 12 years old, despite its proven track record, states - Abraham won't name which ones - are starting to opt out of participating.

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