How is Mellon Working to Boost Minority Representation Across Academia?

Despite great strides, minority groups continue to be underrepresented in academia across American universitiesand the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is doing something about it.

Mellon recently gave a $500,000 grant to the University of Texas at Austin to support the establishment of a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program in the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies (MALS), a new department established last summer in the College of Liberal Arts.

But before look at how this grant aims to address the root causes of minority underrepresentation, let's first take a closer look a the problem itself.

In many ways, universities are microcosms of certain segments of society, and while the U.S. becomes more diverse, places like academia fail to keep paceparticularly when it comes to its grad students and faculty., Minorities became the majority of the UT student population way back in 2011 and 52 percent of the Class of 2014 was nonwhite.

UT has made significant progress in recent years. According to the university's January 2015 Accountability Report, compared to five peer institutions, UT Austin awarded "considerably more degrees to Hispanic students."

The challenge remains at the graduate level. As of 2014, UT awarded 425 doctorates to white students, compared to 36 for African-American and 55 for Hispanic students. This discrepancy is evident at the faculty level as well. As for Fall 2013, UT had 1,008 professors. Eighty-three percent (841) were white, while 29 were African American and 44 Hispanic.

We venture to guess UT isn't alone here. Furthermore, this discrepancy can be partially attributed to trends faced by universities all across the country, regardless of their ethnic compositions, most notably a relative scarcity of full-time, professor-level positions.

All of which makes Mellon's grant, and UT's recognition of this challenge, all the more important. Why don't minority students pursue careers in academia? For starters, it's a question of supply and demand. Universities lack abundant research opportunities. And so the undergraduate fellowship program will get students in on the ground level by offering critical early research opportunities. By doing so, the grant inspires undergraduates to think, "Hey, maybe an academic career is feasible after all."

Better yet, participating undergraduates will have the wind at their backs. Since its founding, the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, which began in 1988, has produced more than 500 Ph.Ds from institutions such as Yale, Stanford, Harvard and Rice.

Followers of Mellon's recent funding decisions won't be surprised by any of this. Boosting minority representation across all segments of American society is a huge goal for the foundation. Click here for our analysis on Mellon's recent efforts to boost minority representation at American museums.