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Toward a More Diverse Professoriate

by Debbie Gibson

As a Ph.D. student at Texas A&M, Deneese Jones found the work exhilarating but the environment difficult. In class, she was often the only person of color in the room, increasing her sense of isolation. In addition, only one of her professors was African American. She knew that if things were to change, she would have to be a catalyst.

Jones began by writing and submitting several research grants to support her work. Her most significant mentor was her African-American professor, who understood the challenges she faced. Jones developed a deeper professional relationship with this professor, and soon she had established a supportive network that allowed her to thrive and achieve her goals. In 1991, she received her doctorate in curriculum and instruction, focusing her research on reading instruction and issues of equity.

Photo of Deneese Jones and Tomas Wayne EdisonDeneese Jones with SREB doctoral scholar Tomas Wayne Edison, whose research focuses on Afro-Caribbean Literature.

Today, Jones is associate dean of the Graduate School providing leadership for a program aimed at eliminating some of the problems she encountered. She is also an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at UK.

The Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) Doctoral Scholars Program seeks to address the present under-representation of minorities in higher education by encouraging ethnic minority students to pursue doctoral degrees and become college-level professors. "The program takes a multi-faceted approach," Jones says. "Besides the financial support, students also have an opportunity to work closely with faculty members in research. This teaches them the expectations and strategies for future faculty positions they will hold." At a national conference held each fall, students also meet with other scholars and mentoring faculty across the country, opening up a vast network for them.

"This is perhaps the most valuable aspect of the program," Jones says. "SREB scholars are able to make valuable and worthwhile connections across the United States. Since I believe the goal of all universities should be to strive for a diverse, globally oriented learning environment, a challenge for us is to attract different perspectives, talents, and experiences of competence. Even today, many minority students sometimes find themselves in an environment where they seem to be on the outside. This program offers them the opportunity to work with others who understand this."

Four students at UK have received scholarships through the SREB Doctoral Scholars Program this year. Tomas Wayne Edison will complete work on his dissertation in Spanish. Angela F. Cooke-Johnson will now be able to attend UK full-time to work on her degree in communications, Artress Bethany White, who will study English, will be able to come to UK for the first time, and Cameron T. Alsup will study statistics.

Edison says the scholarship will enable him to concentrate on his first love—research. His current research focuses on Afro-Caribbean literature.

"For my dissertation, I am looking at the presence of the African worldview in four writers of the Caribbean," he says. "This is a fascinating topic and one which a lot of people don't know much about." When his dissertation is complete, the Louisville native wants to teach at a research institution such as UK. Edison clearly understands the importance of being able to meet others with similar goals. "This scholarship gives me a chance to meet my peers and connect with them," he says. "It also gives me a supportive environment where I feel I have the freedom to totally pursue my research."

This is precisely what Deneese Jones knew she needed almost a decade ago at Texas A&M. "It is really important to continue the effort to diversify university faculty," Jones says. "This program helps keep that struggle in the forefront. We need the talents of all our citizens if we are to become a hallmark of excellence."

Ethnic minority students who are U.S. citizens, including Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and African Americans, who hold or will receive a bachelor's or master's degree from a regionally accredited college or university can apply. Because minorities have been particularly under-represented in science, mathematics, math or science education, and engineering, the program particularly encourages applicants seeking a Ph.D. in these fields.

The program is part of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) and is affiliated with similar programs through the Compact for Faculty Diversity. It is funded in part with support from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Ford Foundation. The University of Kentucky also supports this program as does the Kentucky Council of Postsecondary Education.