Look in your own backyard

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Metaphorically, that is.

What can you do to increase the representation of minoritized people in your department and in your lab?

Well, the big answer to the question is that anything worthwhile takes work. This is not just worthwhile, it’s important. So, it will require effort on your part. And it means challenging yourself to learn new things, and instead of just adopting new practices, but are open to a new mindset, which means aligning your actions with your values. That’s hard work.

But do you want an easy win? Do you want a practical piece of advice, about something you can do that will work? Even though federal agencies have spent a minor fortune on funding to construct a torturous pipeline to only make marginal progress at best, you want to make a difference on in your own realm? Okay, I have a suggestion:

Look in your own backyard.

Think locally, not globally.

I think one of the major impediments to a truly equitable higher ed for everybody is the tacit requirement that you need to be mobile for a whole decade of your life. And committed to the possibility of settling somewhere that you don’t want to settle. We are not going to be changing that culture overnight, but we can choose to live our own lives differently.

Here are three facts (or you can call them assertions or whatever), and I think this is all you need for me to convince you:

  1. You’ve got to recruit first-gen minoritized students if you’re looking to contribute to changing the culture and demographics of your field.
  2. Many students in this population have good reasons to pursue their education and training close to their families, friends, and neighborhood where they grew up.
  3. If you’re training PhD students, then you almost certainly have a substantial pool of highly qualified students who are grew up and are attending college within a couple hours of you. Some might be in your own university, but they’re more likely to be in a regional state university nearby.

Programs that aspire to be “excellent” (whatever that means — seriously, what the hell does that word mean?) and highly ranked want to attract a massive pool of the most promising candidates from all over the place. As a consequence, well-resourced graduate programs pull in students from all over the country, and beyond.

But really, you don’t need to do this. Your program won’t fall apart if you recruit local students. Why are you in this business of higher education? Are you in it to train students and help them fulfill their potential, or are you here to maximize your publication rate at the cost of equity? Your recruitment strategy doesn’t have to be focused on picking The Best You Can Get using the traditional metrics (which are the metrics that maintain this pipeline that minoritizes people who are different). You can pick students who have shown they have the capacity to excel, and then you an invest in them. And these students can be in your own backyard. Really.

How do you do this? Build connections with people at your local regional public universities and community colleges. You can start by inviting a researcher over there to your seminar series. Recruit their undergrads to do research in your lab for the summer. Heck, if you have money to hire undergrads, hire some of them to work in your lab during the academic year. Get to know individuals, and see what they can do. Nobody is asking you to “take a chance” on anybody. Just do the work to learn about the human potential in your own backyard. So when you invite students to apply and they do, you don’t have to rely on grades and scores and publications and letters of recommendation, because you already know them.

In my experience, big doctoral-granting institutions have poor relationships with the regional publics that are right nextdoor. For example, UCLA is just up the road from us here at CSUDH, but for the most part (with one notable exception that I’m aware of) we’re not genuinely seen as a recruiting ground. Elsewhere, when I visited UC Riverside, it seemed nobody had much to do with CSU San Bernardino even though it’s very close by. Same for UC Davis and Sacramento State. I’ve seen this further away, too. At Michigan, there’s almost nobody from Detroit! And in the South, the same dynamic happens between R1s and HBCUs. And up north, so few real relationships with TCUs.

It’s not as if folks at these regional publics are desperately working to build ties with local PhD-granting institutions, because, frankly, we have had bad experiences with them. Some of our most promising students have been treated poorly once they arrived, and every time we get a call from them, they want to write us into their grant but not really give us any of the money. Which means that if you want to build this relationship, you’ll need to penetrate through a history of well-earned mistrust. So yeah, it takes work. But it’s entirely do-able, and it’s probably working better than whatever you’re trying right now, is my guess.

The bottom line is that, at the moment, I’m advising a bunch of really talented students who want to go to grad school. And most of them don’t want to look all over the United States to enter a PhD program — they want to stay within a short drive of family. That’s not a deficiency in these students that we should try to fix — that’s simply a mismatch between their priorities and the culture of higher education. Instead of investing all of our efforts in inculcating these students into the mold of the current applicant pool, we need to change our own perspective on what a promising scholar looks like.

Sure, it’s okay to work with students to show them what it would be like to move away from home for grad school. But it’s also okay to accept the reality that what makes them valuable to higher education is their connection to their community. It’s critical for us to realize that true diversity means bringing in people with different value systems and different priorities. Which, by extension, means that we need to change our labs and our departments so that we recruit more local students. Which means that we work more closely with local universities to build strong relationships.

How about you pull up the website of local universities and see who’s there? Maybe even pick up the phone?

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