Image: Kevin Van Aelst
When it comes to diversity, graduate schools talk a good game. Well-intentioned professors and administrators want a graduate-student cohort that looks like America, but one look at the demographics shows how far we are from that goal.
In 2016 only 15 percent of all doctorates awarded by U.S. universities went to African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, although those three groups together represent more than 30 percent of the U.S. population, and about 35 percent of the population that might be considered of doctoral-graduate age.
Clearly, the obstacles for those students are high and daunting. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds may never learn about opportunities available to them on the graduate level. If they do go to graduate school, many feel isolated within a community where few others (if any) look like them or share their experience. Undergraduate diversity efforts face well-publicized legal and social trials, but diversifying the graduate-student body might be even harder — from the point of recruitment through retention to degree completion.
Against those challenges, the City University of New York Graduate Center has built an exemplary model in the humanities and social sciences that begins at the undergraduate level and continues through the Ph.D. CUNY’s concerted efforts enable the institution to fulfill the mission of an urban public university — and show the way to the rest of us.
CUNY’s two main initiatives on this front are its undergraduate and graduate Pipeline Fellows Programs. The first recruits promising undergraduates from the system’s many branch campuses and exposes them to graduate school as a next-step possibility. The idea is not so much to get them to go to CUNY’s Graduate Center (though some undergraduate fellows do), but to give them background knowledge and preparation for wherever they land after a B.A.
The graduate pipeline program recruits and admits diverse candidates to the university’s one graduate school of arts and sciences. The two pipeline efforts are separate but connected — as they are both housed in the graduate school’s Office of Educational Opportunity and Diversity Programs — and encompass outreach, recruitment, admission, and retention.
The architect of this combined structure is Herman L. Bennett, a professor of history at the Graduate Center. His successes are instructive. Bennett didn’t invent any new programs — instead, he changed how the existing ones operated and, in so doing, raised CUNY’s diversity numbers. More important, his work helped change the collective understanding of diversity in the graduate school.
Both pipeline programs date back to the early 1990s but had underperformed for years. Three years after Bennett joined CUNY’s faculty, he took on the position of executive officer of the graduate school’s diversity office. During his six years at the helm — through the present — he has unified and modified the two programs, and in the process unlocked their potential.
Bennett started small. He recalled that when he joined the Graduate Center, he encountered a nearly all-white department and an institution in which "there wasn’t a lot of advising."
His work started in his own department, where he tried to develop what he calls "a culture of advising." Students "weren’t being properly prepared," he said. "They came to me because I was pushing them." He brought in a grant writer from the American Council of Learned Societies to talk with them, and spent his own research funds to send graduate students to archives abroad. "They came back and talked about it," he said.
Because he was "perceived as being helpful," Bennett was offered the graduate school’s top diversity job. There wasn’t much to it at the time. "They gave me keys to an empty office," Bennett said, "and told me that I had to hire an administrative assistant and staff the place" — all while teaching his regular courseload.
The programs themselves were hollow shells, languishing from lack of care. When Bennett took office, the graduate-pipeline program looked completely different from today. (It also had a different name.) Universitywide, there were just eight graduate fellowships designated for minority candidates.
It was a well-intended set-aside but it did little to promote diversity because of how the money was administered. Applicants had to apply for admission to one of CUNY’s doctoral programs and then attract the attention of that program’s admissions committee. Only then could the Ph.D. program propose the candidate for one of the eight diversity fellowships. At the time Bennett took over, many of the graduate programs — the CUNY Graduate Center has 32 in all — had never admitted a diversity fellow.
He converted the program from eight full fellowships to 18 "top-ups" — that is, awards of $10,000 a year that were added to a student’s initial offer of admission. The change not only increased the number of diversity fellows, it also aided the university’s recruitment. "More students started applying and getting in," said Bennett, and graduate diversity at CUNY gained critical mass.
Bennett also gave the two pipeline programs substance and coherence. For example, he gathers the fellows monthly for mini-conferences devoted to career-development issues like grant writing and how to publish articles. These meetings contribute to "a culture of professionalization," says Bennett, in which the students learn about their place in the academic profession.
The meetings also allow the fellows to see each other regularly, which strengthens the bonds between them. "I feel like I’m among colleagues," said Robert P. Robinson, a Ph.D. student in the urban-education program and one of a number of Pipeliners I reached out to by email. "It’s a beautiful thing."
Ashley Agbasoga, a Ph.D. student in anthropology at Northwestern University who was in CUNY’s undergraduate pipeline program, said it "felt like a family."
Not surprisingly, attrition is not a problem among the graduate fellows. "Since I’ve been in this program we haven’t lost a single grad student," says Bennett. He credits not himself but the perspective he introduced. "It’s about the work," he says. "It’s about your scholarship." He wants the students to "focus on themselves as professionals."
The commitment to professionalism is matched in the undergraduate pipeline program. Each year it recruits 30 undergraduates, mostly from underrepresented minority groups, and brings them to the Graduate Center to introduce them to the world of graduate study. The program does wide outreach to applicants, via both career fairs and social media, Bennett said. Other students throughout the CUNY system are referred to the program by faculty members.
The undergraduate experience stretches over a year — from spring through the following fall. Before Bennett took over, "it was run as a place of occasional lunches," but he quickly understood that "we needed a 12-month presence. I needed to be in that office every day."
He also realized that the potential within the pipeline program lay in the neglected summer between the spring and fall terms. "We reoriented the program around a summertime core," he said. Undergraduate fellows now attend a six-week, intensive summer introduction to graduate school. They take a humanities or social-science course (depending on their interests), and a GRE preparation course. They also attend numerous meetings with experts that Bennett brings in. These commitments fill every day, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. "We talk to them about courses, about their writing," Bennett said. And he personally meets with each student two or three times over the course of the summer.
The program supplies breakfast and lunch to the undergraduates, and they eat together. This promotes esprit de corps — what one fellow, Lou Cornum, a Ph.D. student in English who teaches in the summer program, described as "a genuine spirit of being in this together."
The meals also supply simple nutrition for students who are, said Bennett, "overwhelmingly poor." Attendance went up when the program started providing meals, he recalled. "It changed the whole dynamic."
The poverty of the students requires alertness to other problems, too. "Almost every summer," said Bennett, "there’s a moment when someone can’t afford bus fare or train fare. I remember one student asked if he could Skype in because he couldn’t afford the bus fare. He didn’t want to ask for the money because he didn’t feel entitled to it."
Many Pipeliners live in households earning less than $30,000 a year. Many are responsible for contributing to their household income. Some are independent minors. "Every year," Bennett said, "there has been at least one student who is homeless. That usually doesn’t come to our attention immediately. One homeless kid knew which libraries were open at night so she could get her work done."
Graduate school does not usually contemplate, let alone anticipate, such acute levels of need. Bennett says simply, "We try to reach out as best we can."
As a result, students emerge from their pipeline summer "fully charged," said Bennett. "They know each other and themselves really well."
These ties cross the graduate-undergraduate boundary. Undergraduate Pipeliners are matched with graduate fellows in mentoring relationships, and many graduate-student Pipeliners work in the summer program. There’s also "quite a bit of peer mentoring going on," said Ethan Barnett, who was a Pipeliner at CUNY and is now a Ph.D. student in history at the University of Delaware. The students serve each other as advisers, editors, counselors, and simply as narrators of their own experiences.
In that way, said Bennett, "the students perpetuate their own culture." The older ones teach the younger ones. "We offer them professionalization," the professor says, and they pass it down amongst themselves. Many undergraduate Pipeliners apply to graduate school, and while they scatter around the country, a few always enroll at the CUNY Graduate Center.
Students relax and thrive in this culture. The program "gave me a space to sound like myself," said Michael Mena, a pipeline fellow and a Ph.D. student in anthropology at CUNY. Without it, he said he "would have returned home." Sheneque Tissera, a former undergraduate Pipeliner, said that the program helped her "understand who I am, and what I need to do to succeed." Tissera left graduate school with a master’s degree in geography to pursue a career in entertainment, but she nevertheless credits the program with pushing her "to follow my dreams."
It’s hard to overstate the importance of this work. On one hand, it’s an extraordinary instance of, as Bennett puts it, "being present and offering them the resources that we can." On the other hand, it’s the creation of what he describes as "both a culture of diversity and a culture of inclusion."
The creation of such a "cohort effect" is the point of important philanthropic diversity initiatives like the Mellon Foundation’s Mellon-Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, which funds similar efforts at dozens of campuses nationwide and abroad. The CUNY program operates on a larger scale: It admits larger numbers, and does more to link the undergraduate and graduate experience. And its modest cost results from what sets it apart: the personal attention. It’s a culture that Tissera describes as "totally geared toward the student."
If we see these programs "only as ‘race work,’" says Bennett, "then we don’t see what it means to help underrepresented minorities think of themselves as scholars and producers of knowledge." The fellows have, "at their disposal, the resources of the institution and an understanding of how the institution works, so that they can produce first-rate scholarship and be amazing teachers."
It helps that they’re learning from an amazing teacher themselves. Bennett will step down from his post at the end of this academic year and return to his regular faculty duties. At this moment of transition, we should all hope that CUNY keeps pushing his ideas forward. Bennett’s exemplary work offers his institution — and all of higher education — a chance to "rethink what we mean by the public interest, what the university is, and how underrepresented people fit into it," and something more: "how they’re constitutive of it."