Scaling The: Ivory Tower: Bucking Historical Trend, Some Young Black Scholars Finding an Open Path to Ivy League

By Watson, Jamal Eric | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, July 7, 2011 | Go to article overview

Scaling The: Ivory Tower: Bucking Historical Trend, Some Young Black Scholars Finding an Open Path to Ivy League


Watson, Jamal Eric, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


When Dr. Keisha-Khan Y. Perry applied for a teaching position at Brown University five years ago, she was doubtful that she would even get the job, let alone an interview.

Fresh out of graduate school, Perry, who received her Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin, was completing a post-doctoral fellowship at Smith College in Massachusetts when Brown University granted her an on-campus interview.

"I was one of those people who went to a big state school, so I thought I would teach at a big state school," says Perry, who applied for an Africana Studies assistant professorship, placing her in direct competition with seasoned scholars who were vying to gain a foothold at Brown.

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"This is the kind of job that you want to have after you write three different books and spend 15 years working hard in the field," says Perry, 34, who fell in love with Brown the moment she arrived on its campus for her interview.

A rising star within the field of Africana Studies, Perry was offered the tenure-track position and joined a department that now includes some of the nation's most distinguished scholars such as Dr. Tricia Rose, Dr. Anthony Bogues, and well-known authors Chinua Achebe and John Edgar Wideman.

"My colleagues are some of the leading folks in the field," says Perry. "I'm glad to be in an Africana Studies department surrounded by people who support my work and where I don't sound crazy."

It used to be that newly minted Ph.D.s had to establish themselves and cut their academic teeth at less competitive colleges and universities. That was certainly true for young Black scholars. The prospects of landing a coveted teaching position at one of the nation's eight Ivy League institutions were dim. In the years leading up to the Civil Rights Movement, most Black Ph.D.s were relegated to teaching at HBCUs.

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But things are a bit different today.

With the influx of a new generation of highly trained Black Ph.D.s, Ivy League institutions are aggressively courting these young scholars fresh out of graduate school, luring them to their faculties sometimes with top salaries, pre-tenure sabbaticals and reduced teaching loads.

The trend of African-Americans teaching at Ivy League institutions isn't new. But almost everyone agrees that over that past decade, that trend has become more pronounced.

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For example, in 1968, Dr. Martin Kilson was the first African-American to be granted tenure at Harvard University. But today, Harvard has more than 200 African-American faculty who are either tenured or on tenure-track lines, a testament, Harvard officials say, to their efforts in promoting diversity.

They point to Dr. Roland G. Fryer Jr., who in 2008, at the age of 30, became the youngest African-American in Harvard's history to gain tenure. Like Perry, Fryer received his Ph.D. from a state school--Pennsylvania State University.

Fryer joins other young Black scholars who have found a home in some of the nation's most exclusive ivory towers. In this group Dr. Marc Lamont Hill and Dr. Carla Shedd (Columbia University), Dr. Russell Rickford (Dartmouth College), Dr. Imani Perry (Princeton University), Dr. Shaun R. Harper (University of Pennsylvania), Dr. Travis Gosa (Cornell University) among others.

According to the National Science Foundation 9,825 doctoral degrees were awarded between 2005 and 2009 to African-Americans, doubling the number granted just 20 years earlier.

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"I'm encouraged by what I see," says Dr. Elijah Anderson, the William K. Lanmann, Jr. professor of sociology at Yale. "It's very different from when I was coming along."

Anderson, 67, is somewhat of an anomaly himself.

He's spent his entire teaching career at elite institutions, moving from Swarthmore College to the University of Pennsylvania, where he stayed for 32 years until he was recruited in 2007 to Yale. …

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