What’s Wrong with USF’s Minority Dissertation Fellowship Program?

Tony Fels
Contributing Writer

Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on April 17, 2014

Tony Fels is a history department associate professor.
Tony Fels is a history department associate professor.

USF’s faculty know all about our school’s Minority Dissertation Fellowship Program, but members of the wider campus community may not be so familiar with it. Started in 1993 under a grant from the Irvine Foundation, the program supports African-American, Latino and/or Asian-American graduate students with a year of financing and academic resources at USF as they complete their doctoral dissertations. Recipients also gain experience teaching one course per semester. Midway through their fellowship years, the doctoral fellows go on the job market in search of a full-time, tenure-track position in their particular field.

But here is what makes the program really significant: if USF likes what it sees in a particular fellowship recipient, the university may directly offer that person a tenure-track position at USF, bypassing the usual process of undertaking a nationally-announced search for every faculty job. Over the past twenty years, about seventeen faculty positions, all in the Arts College, have been filled in this way, augmenting our teaching staff with many hard-working and talented young scholars.

The MDF program is thus a prime example of the sort of affirmative action program that proceeds along the lines of a preference system. In fact, it j.s an extreme version of a preferential hiring program, since nobody other than a member of the three designated minority groups can apply. In the post-Proposition 209 world of California, such a program would no doubt be illegal at our state’s public universities. Private universities have greater leeway to fashion their own rules, but since USF receives state and federal funds for various purposes, the program’s legality may be questionable even here. One can easily imagine an individual with “legal standing” –that is, a qualified applicant for a new faculty position at USF, say, someone with a PhD who has even taught successfully on an adjunct basis here for years –objecting that he or she did not • have the opportunity to compete for that position, simply because they were white.

But it is not the legal problems that most concern me about this program; it is the ethical issues involved. I have been a supporter of the MDF program for the past twenty years, but I no longer am. When USF’s full-time faculty was overwhelmingly white (about 88% in 1991), a good case could be made for the advantages of ethnically diversifying the faculty, even at the expense of limiting equal opportunity for all. Affirmative action in fact began in the 1960s with preferences, and its moral clout derived from its claim to right historical wrongs for groups that had been systematically excluded from job and educational opportunities through deep-seated prejudice. Such exclusions, however, are long gone, especially within the academic setting. At USF today the ethnic proportions of the full-time faculty have changed (whites comprise about 74%) and probably reflect those of the available pool of all PhDs quite closely.

As the Supreme Court struck down the original rationale for preferences (based on righting past wrongs), in favor of the much weaker argument about the educational value of diversity in itself, it has become even less justifiable to exclude white academics from competing for faculty positions simply in order to continue to enhance ethnic variety. At what point do the diminishing educational returns of elevating faculty of color drop below the moral costs of excluding other hard-working and talented academics who happen to be white? That point would seem to have been reached, especially in the case of faculty preferences for Asian Americans, a group that today outperforms European Americans and all other ethnicities by virtually every measure of social success.

The current fellowship program has produced other deleterious effects, some of which appear to have arisen only recently. USF now requires applicants to pursue topics related to the subject of diversity, straight jacketing academics of color into “studying themselves” if they wish to take advantage of the program. This limitation on what a given scholar may wish to study would seem to encourage the formation of new stereotypes, instead of serving to dispel old ones. Once on the USF faculty, graduates of the program, who earlier used to function exactly like every other faculty member, now seem increasingly to constitute themselves as an interest group, advancing special and sometimes dubious areas of study, like the new Critical Diversity Studies major, a major that appears to have few or no matches at any other American university.

In these ways the integrationist aims of the original fellowship program, like the original goals of affirmative action generally, have fallen by the wayside. And always in the background lurks the problem of all preference programs, which, as the African-American essayist Shelby Steele has pointed out, threaten to undermine the achievement of their recipients by depriving them of their chance to succeed in a wideopen competition. For all these reasons, it is time to rethink the program and probably to end it.

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