Ds Scholarship

Lessons From a Career Spent Recruiting Graduate Students of Color

Just before the world shut down, at the end of February 2020, I traveled to a conference at Duke University celebrating the teaching and writing of the historian Julius S. Scott. Back when I worked at Oxford University Press in 1987, I had given Julius a contract for his unrevised dissertation; for a lot of complicated reasons, The Common Wind didn’t get published until 2018 and then to great acclaim. Those of us who came to Duke to give Scott and his work the attention it deserved included a group of his former graduate students who had gone on to successful academic careers. But Scott himself, who died this past Decemberwas always quick to acknowledge a crucial, behind-the-scenes contributor to their success: Jacqueline Looney.

Hired in 1987 as assistant dean for graduate recruitment at Duke, she was tasked with attracting and retaining students from historically underrepresented minority groups. Working with Scott and other faculty members, she played a key role in helping the history department produce Ph.Ds who are among today’s best-known Black scholars — including Herman Bennett (CUNY Grad Center), Vincent Brown (Harvard), Matthew Countryman ( Michigan), Tomiko Brown-Nagin (Harvard), and Jennifer Morgan (NYU).

In June, Looney will retire as senior associate dean for graduate programs at Duke and associate vice provost for academic diversity. Her career has been mostly invisible to those outside of graduate education, though anyone who has come in contact with her is quick to sing her praises. A lot of work remains to be done at Duke and elsewhere across higher education to recruit a pool of graduate students that better reflects US demographics. But the lessons and strategies that Looney helped devise on how to recruit and retain Black graduate students still resonate. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Can you tell me a little about how you first got involved in the effort to increase the number of Black students in Duke’s graduate programs?

Looney: In 1986, when Malcom Gillis officiated his first doctoral commencement ceremony as dean of affairs Duke’s graduate school and vice provost for academic, he was stunned to see no Black students graduating. He later learned that the total number of Black students enrolled in Duke’s Ph.D. programs at the time was 25 (or about 1.3 percent of the total graduate-school enrollment of 1,904; today, 4.8 percent of the university’s 2,479 total graduate students are Black; or, not counting international students, 7.9 percent of its 1,510 domestic graduate students are Black). Gillis decided he needed a staff member whose primary role would be to increase the number of Black students who applied and were admitted to Duke’s Ph.D. programs.

How did you go about recruiting Black students?

Looney: Well, I had just completed my doctoral study at Vanderbilt University two years earlier and that was the extent of my experience. So Dean Gillis took a huge chance hiring me. It was an incredible challenge for me to enter a new arena in university administration and to create an initiative from scratch.

Gillis hired me to target Black students. He secured financial resources to fund graduate fellowships, commitments from senior leadership, and personally introduced me to key faculty members who could support my work and make connections with faculty across Duke and at other institutions — especially historically Black colleges and universities. We also had strong support from some university trustees.

I connected with the leadership of every graduate department at Duke to learn about recruiting. Essentially, to identify potential graduate students back then, faculty members used to just reach out to colleagues they knew at other universities and colleges. It’s not hard to guess what those students typically looked like. Very few departments had solid ties to HBCUs, though there were a number in the area.

While the team didn’t find a lot of resistance, we did have obstacles. Some professors and chairs expressed concerns whether there were “qualified” candidates in their fields, or questioned whether Duke had the resources or knowledge to find “quality” Black students. Others expressed fears that recruiting these students would mean they couldn’t bring in other students they wanted.

We gradually eased many of these concerns. We developed a road show in which Duke faculty members accompanied me to colleges, especially HBCUs, around the country. These faculty members were the best promoters of graduate education at Duke.

So faculty were essential?

Looney: Faculty involvement was — and still is — the single most important part of this strategy. Most of my first few years on the job were spent meeting with, and listening to, faculty members across departments to learn what they looked for in prospective students.

We also held symposia at Duke with faculty members from HBCUs. People at those events had candid conversations — about things like what the prerequisites were for certain fields, what was expected in applications, how best to prepare students for interviews. We also established a Graduate School Visitation Day and invited students of color from HBCUs and other liberal-arts colleges to spend a day meeting faculty members and students who could talk about graduate study at Duke.

What helped these students stay on track and graduate?

Looney: We made sure students of color across departments met each other in formal and informal gatherings. We promoted good mentoring and practices resources for faculty and staff members who worked with the minority graduate students. Those early days of recruiting students of color led to Duke’s creation of the graduate student affairs office. A lot of what we learned about how to develop and promote the growth of all graduate students came from those early years of focusing on the recruitment and retention of Black students:

  • We met one-on-one with students. There is no substitute for a high-touch, hands-on approach.
  • We also intervened with faculty members and others when students had specific concerns.
  • We supported organizations like the Black Graduate and Professional Student Association.
  • We involved current Black graduate students in the recruitment of prospective students — especially those from their own undergraduate colleges.
  • We made sure Black graduate students had access to the full range of institutional resources, and especially encouraged students of color to take on leadership roles. We nominated them for key leadership awards available to students.

At this point, we have to do more to deal with the growing needs of students. We must help them find better child-care access, support medical and financial hardship emergencies, and place greater emphasis on student well-being.

Do you have advice for individual faculty members who want to increase diversity but may not have widespread institutional support when it comes to recruiting?

Looney: It takes time and patience to build a program with a steady flow of applicants who get admitted, supported, and complete the program. Duke has a diversity and inclusion model but these four factors are most important:

  • Leadership matters. Solicit the support of department chairs and other senior professors to build a cohort of faculty champions committed to seeing more student diversity. When prospective students receive phone calls from graduate departments they’ve applied to, it carries a lot of weight in their decision to join the program.
  • Data matters. Review applications, admissions, and matriculations for students of color over the last three years in your department to see where the strong and weak spots are. Look at the admissions-review process and, instead of focusing primarily on the metrics (GRE, GPA), which are important indicators of academic success, consider a holistic approach that focuses on research experience, the student’s personal story, intellectual fit, and diversity contributions that the student could make. Have in-depth conversations with potential students and talk with their undergraduate faculty mentors. If you are offering admission to a sizable number of students of color but not landing them, what’s the story? If a low number of students apply to the program, reach out to colleges and universities, especially HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions. Professors can reach out to graduates of their own programs to seek help in identifying students of color who are considering graduate study in the field.
  • Community matters. Build connections between graduate-student cohorts across disciplines. Collaborate with graduate-school staff and other campus colleagues who provide counseling, career advice, and other student services. Promote strong mentoring. An important question to ask any graduate student is simply, “How are you doing?”
  • Planning for — and playing — the long game matters. To sustain this, it’s important to get multiple faculty colleagues involved, especially if the person who started this work moves on to another university — which happens. That’s why institutional support for this work is so important.

What do you hope faculty members will understand about the current challenges for graduate students in general and, in particular, students of color?

Looney: In my 30 years of work in graduate education, I have learned that, as difficult as it is, the easy part is getting into the graduate program you wanted. The hard part is sticking with it and getting out.

Graduate school is really, really hard. It is an isolating experience that weighs on students. Colleges and universities should move away from thinking that attention and resources for mental health and well-being are only in places such as counseling centers or wellness buildings. These services are often understaffed and under-resourced and may not be perceived as culturally appropriate to students of all backgrounds.

We need to openly acknowledge that graduate study is stressful for a variety of reasons — the long process of writing a Ph.D. dissertation, the compact timetable of a master’s program, the difficulties of adjusting to a new culture as an international student, and the challenges of being the only person of color, the only female, or the only person who identifies as LGBTQ in your department.

More specifically, we need to recognize that the needs and concerns of students will vary because of their background, culture, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, work, and life experiences.

Anxiety, depression, and isolation will cross all groups but students’ backgrounds can amplify those pressures. We need to rethink how we talk about wellness. It’s not just mental health. Our focus should be the well-being of the whole student — emotional, mental, physical, intellectual, social and cultural identity, sexual, spiritual, financial, and vocational.

When students enter graduate school, they should be given all the support they need to be successful, and those of us who work in the graduate-education enterprise should do all we can provide the proper services. This video series on persistence is one way we acknowledge the hurdles our graduate students face.

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