Monday, February 2, 2015

That Penn State Experiment in the English Department

In the late 1990s, someone made a proposal in Penn State’s English department to really elevate the number of black students pursing advanced degrees. Prior to that, the program had enrolled a really small number of African American graduate students.

So in the spring of 1998, the department recruited and then admitted (with funding) 2 black MAs and 2 black Ph.D. students in the fall. The department repeated the recruiting process in spring 1999, and in the fall of 1999, they admitted 2 more black MA students (I was one of those students). The next year, 2 black Ph.D. students and one black MA student (or maybe two) arrived. The next year, they admitted two more black MA students.

Thus, between 1998 and 2002 alone, the English department admitted approximately 10 black graduate students in English. In January 2004 shortly after I completed my Ph.D. requirements, the English department's graduate office administrator, who was filing the paperwork for my dissertation, said to me,  “I’ve done perhaps something no other English department secretary in the whole country has done: In 12 months, I’ve filled out paperwork for 4 black men earning Ph.Ds.”

She was referring to Adam Banks, who was headed to Syracuse; Les Knotts, headed to West Point; Cedrick May, headed to Auburn University, and me, headed to SIUE. Over the next year or two, Vorris Nunley, Timothy Robinson, Aesha Adams, and Chaunda McDavis earned their Ph.Ds.

So we’re talking 8 black folks earning Ph.D.s and landing solid jobs in 3 years from a single English department. Believe it or not, that's an unusually high number. I refer to it as an “experiment” because the whole thing was so unusual, almost like a test to see if it was even possible. 

Susan Harris was an unsung hero in the process. She was grad director during the first surge of black grad students; she did the groundwork recruiting several of us. In fact, it was a general inquiry letter that she sent to one or two professors at my undergraduate institution, Tougaloo College, that led me to add Penn State to my list of potential grad schools. Later, at the end of my visit to Penn State in the spring of 1999, I told Professor Harris that I would think about whether I would accept their offer. She said, "ok, take some time." The next morning, she called me at 7:30 am, and asked, "Have you thought about it?" Ha.  

Keith Gilyard deserves a lot of credit as well. He arrived in 1999, and he served as the lead committee member and job placement connection for 5 of those 8 African Americans who earned advanced degrees. Just as important, he made it possible for his office to serve as a central meeting place for a large number of us. Over the years, my office at SIUE has occasionally served as a gathering place for students. I borrowed that practice from Professor Gilyard.

Of course, Professor Harris and Professor Gilyard weren't alone. A wide range of contributors, including peers, professors, and office administrators, made the whole endeavor possible. Lately, I've been thinking about the Penn State experiment because I want to increase African American graduate enrollment in our program. I also want more schools to move beyond the one-at-a-time or token approach to enrolling African Americans. 

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