From The Profession column of the December 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

Recruiting Minority Graduate Students: The UNC Model

W. Fitzhugh Brundage, December 2009

Because of the small number of minority applicants to our graduate program, the history department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) has adopted various strategies to increase our likelihood of successfully recruiting qualified applicants. These strategies build on broader university-wide initiatives to recruit minority students to our campus. The graduate school has been very supportive of efforts to increase the number of minority students in our and other programs. However, the state’s current dire fiscal situation has eroded our capacity to compete for graduate students, including minority students. But these circumstances are beyond the control of campus administrators and they have, to the extent that their limited resources make possible, continued to support initiatives to promote minority recruitment.

Before outlining some of our methods, it is important to emphasize that UNC has ongoing programs to introduce minority undergraduate students to graduate education. For example, every summer UNC brings minority undergraduates in diverse disciplines to the campus to engage in advanced research, with an eye toward encouraging these students to consider pursuing graduate degrees. While these students are on campus, a history faculty member, usually the director of graduate studies (DGS), meets with students who express an interest in pursuing advanced degrees in history. These early meetings offer an opportunity to alert minority applicants to the various steps involved in applying to graduate programs as well as the resources that will be available to them at UNC. Over the years we have recruited several students from among the participants in this program.

Most of our minority applicants are, however, from among those who have not participated in these summer programs. We first become aware of these applicants when we receive their application materials. Because we may have only 20 minority applicants in any given year we view it as imperative to secure as many completed files from these applicants as possible. We are especially attentive to the files of minority applicants even before the closing date for applications because we have observed that many qualified applicants, for whatever reason, pay the application fee but fail to submit the remainder of their materials. Consequently, we begin surveying the files of minority applicants before the closing date to identify promising files. As the closing date approaches, we contact those minority applicants whose files remain incomplete and urge them to submit the remaining materials necessary to complete their files.

Once the applications are completed we flag the most promising minority applicants. The DGS alerts the faculty in the various subfields of any promising minority applicants in their respective areas. After the faculty in the subfields settle on viable candidates in whom they are interested, we notify the graduate school that we would like to bring these applicants to campus. Through a combination of departmental funds and subsidies from the graduate school we fund campus visits by most minority applicants who are interested in visiting. These visits are arranged to occur during a weekend recruiting program designed by the graduate school specifically for minority applicants. Our role during these visits includes providing contact with faculty members and addressing any questions that applicants may have about our program.

A major consideration in our recruitment of minority students is funding. We can no longer offer funding targeted specifically to minority students unless they are residents of North Carolina. Because of these constraints we are especially active in recruiting qualified North Carolina minority applicants. For non-North Carolina applicants, we have access to limited additional funding from the graduate school to supplement the funding that the department offers.

Minority applicants offered admission to the graduate program are encouraged—in the same way that all others admitted are—to accept the offers. Our faculty contact the admitted students by phone and e-mail and encourage them to visit our campus again, at the department’s expense, along with the other admitted applicants. These visits provide another opportunity for admitted applicants to familiarize themselves with the faculty and campus as well as to meet their cohort. We also encourage them to meet with current graduate students, including minority students, to learn about the graduate program from the perspective of their peers.

Because of our strength in fields that attract minority applicants—Latin American and African American history—we are able to maintain a small but steady cohort of minority students. We are at a clear disadvantage when we compete with better endowed private universities; we simply do not have the financial resources that they have. And when we recruit out-of-state students we operate under constraints that our private competitors do not face. In some years we have been unsuccessful recruiting more than one or two minority applicants; in other years we have recruited as many as six or seven out of an incoming class of twenty-five.

We have concluded that attentive recruiting is the key to whatever success we have had in attracting minority students to our program. Many minority applicants are first-generation college students for whom graduate school is, at best, a vague concept. In addition, many minority applicants are undergraduates at institutions that may not provide extensive advising with regard to graduate programs. For these reasons, it behooves graduate admissions officers and faculties to be especially attentive to minority student applicants at each step of the admissions process.

Once minority students are enrolled, we mentor them in the same fashion as the rest of their cohort. Our program has adopted what might be described as pervasive mentoring. Entering students, for example, have to enroll in a sequence of required classes. Although students seldom take these courses with their mentors all of the work that the students submit to the professors of record in these courses is also submitted to their designated mentors. Similarly, when students enroll in research seminars they submit their written work to their mentors as well as the professors of record in the seminars. This system of mentoring continues until the students complete all other requirements and are ready to write their dissertation. Subsequently, all students are required to present dissertation prospectuses to their dissertation committees and then, 18 months later, to discuss at least one dissertation chapter and their progress to date with their committees. This model of mentoring has proven satisfactory for minority students as well as other students. At the same time, the graduate school provides additional mentoring resources for minority students that they can take advantage of at their discretion. Finally, older students informally mentor newer recruits to the program. Because peer mentoring is so important to the success of any graduate program, we recognize the importance of ensuring that the population of minority graduate students is sufficiently large and diverse so as to sustain a robust and ongoing minority presence in the program.

Taken together, these recruiting and mentoring strategies almost certainly have enabled UNC to attract and retain minority students. The actual resources devoted to recruiting and retaining minority students in our program are necessarily modest, but the benefits are significant, both for our graduate program and for the history profession more broadly. We can only hope that current financial exigencies will not erode the institutional support that has made these programs possible.

—Fitzhugh Brundage is the William B. Umstead Professor of History at the Unversity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has written on lynching, utopian socialism, and black and white historical memory in the American South. He is currently researching the history of torture in teh United States. He served as the UNC history department’s director of graduate studies and is currently the interim chair.