When Lehman Benson III was a psychology student at the University of California-Davis in the 1980s, becoming a professor had not occurred to him.
“There were a bunch of us who were getting good grades in school, but we thought that if you’re smart and successful, you get a job like a lawyer, doctor or engineer. None of us thought about being a professor. A lot of my friends at the time, many who were minority students, thought that way,” said Benson, who is now an associate professor at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management.
Then, he went to a meeting on campus about a relatively new program.
“For the first time I saw people who looked like me who were professors,” said Benson, who was part of a small percentage of Black students at the university. “I had a professor who looked me in the eye and said, ‘You can do this’ and told me how rewarding it would be.”
It was also at that meeting where Benson learned about the University of California’s President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program and decided to pursue a career in academia.
Established in 1984, the program “offers postdoctoral research fellowships, professional development and faculty mentoring to outstanding scholars in all fields whose research, teaching, and service will contribute to diversity and equal opportunity at UC.” Ideally, fellows will finish as strong candidates for tenure-track positions at their host institution within the UC System.
Over the past 37 years, the UC program has a strong track-record of resulting in diversified faculty ranks at big public universities, which have historically recorded an overrepresentation of white and and male scholars. It has since expanded into a consortium that includes numerous public research universities in other states, including the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
This fall, the UA will become one of the newest members of that consortium. It’s launching its own Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship Program — which will provide early career scholars with faculty mentoring, professional development and academic networking opportunities — as part of an intentional effort to diversify its faculty.
Creating a pipeline
Faculty demographics at Arizona’s flagship university, which is also a Hispanic Serving Institution, reflect racial and ethnic disparities common at universities across the country. According to a university report from this time last year, 74.6% of the UA’s faculty identified as white, and 55.6% identified as male; 2.5% of faculty identified as Black, 9.7% identified as Hispanic, and 1.9% identified as Native American and Alaskan Natives.
“I knew when I got here that we had to do more to fill the pipeline of BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) professors because we just don’t have enough. … People just haven’t made it a high priority,” President Robert Robbins said. “We’ve got such a large diverse population of students, but those students by and large don’t have enough role models — people who like them, understand them and come from where they come — that can be mentors and advisors who can help our students realize their hopes and dreams.”
So, when a group of Black faculty and staff members, as well as the Black Community Council — which is made up of independent community members and two advisors, including Benson, who advise the UA president and provost — approached Robbins last spring about implementing the fellowship program as part of the solution, he was on board.
Applications for the fellowship program are open until Nov. 1 and will start out next year on a small scale. Robbins has budgeted approximately $415,400 for Fiscal Year 2023 to fund four postdoctoral positions, with an option to renew each while adding four new fellowships the following year.
“We want to start small with a small cohort and make sure we’re successful,” Robbins said. “If we have as good of a success rate as the University of California System — say we average 10 per year and get to keep seven — that’s seven more than we’ve got right now.”
The benefits of the fellowship program extend far beyond a two-year timeline. It has the potential to create inclusive cultural change on campus and in the surrounding community.
When Benson joined the program in 1993, he met mentors he still keeps in touch with to this day and credits them with helping launch a successful career. They taught him the unwritten rules of academia many first-generation graduate students don’t know, like best practices for submitting to academic journals, conducting research and how to balance committee work with research and teaching expectations.
The fellowship also prepared him to navigate sometimes-challenging academic settings.
“I was in the lab with an expert, so I watched how it was done the right way. This person happened to be a woman so I saw how she dealt with issues of sexism. Seeing someone who was successful, who was also a minority showed me how to do this,” said Benson, who accepted a faculty position at the UA one year into the program. “It was also a win-win for the university because for a year they had an African-American in the lab bringing that perspective, too.”
Diversified knowledge production
Hiring employees with a range of perspectives and personal experiences was something Wyllstyne Hill, president of the Black Community Council and retired CIO of Raytheon Missile Systems, prioritized during her tenure as a top-level corporate manager.
“You get a much stronger set of visionaries when you’re looking out at a diverse team that can come up with solutions in different ways and work together as a team,” Hill said.
Building that kind of diverse workforce pool, however, starts at the university level, where tomorrow’s engineers are training today. And that’s something she thinks the new fellowship program — and any other effort to recruit diverse faculty — could help the UA accomplish.
“It will give you a better sense of how we can support our students in a way that will create equal opportunity,” Hill said. “It’s also about the culture of showing the students that they’re in an environment where diversity is not only important, it’s necessary.”
But a program like the President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship at the UA is “not just about hitting demographic boxes,” said Leslie Gonzales, an associate professor of higher education at Michigan State University. “It’s about diversifying the knowledge production that folks are bringing to campus.”
Gonzales said many academic disciplines have shaped generations of research around mostly white and often male populations, which can sometimes be to the detriment of producing complete scholarship. In a field like human medicine, for example, “when teams are more diverse — when they include women or people of color — you’re more likely to have an accounting of how a certain intervention or illness affects women, for instance.”
But achieving that by introducing a more diverse faculty pipeline through something like the postdoctoral fellowship program can also mean introducing new research methods and priorities. And sometimes those new approaches can compete with the standards of senior faculty, who are often making tenure and promotion decisions for up-and-comers.
That’s why, Gonzales said, it will be critical for the UA to send a clear message to faculty and individual departments that the university values the diverse knowledge production that will come out of the fellowship program.
“It’s incredibly important that universities are thinking about how to support their faculty to recognize and value perspectives and ideas that may seem somewhat new or novel or maybe even challenging to their academic discipline,” Gonzales said. “It takes some intentional, systematic, ongoing learning conversations about what scholars count as good work in their field and how they tweak their evaluation process to reflect that.”
Kathryn Palmer covers higher education for the Arizona Daily Star. Contact her at email@example.com