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Growing diversity with a fast track to tenure

Jessica Perea describes her experience as a fellow.

Social scientist James Battle had neither role models nor family experience to guide him as he climbed the academic ladder.

James Battl
The PPFP program has helped UC Santa Cruz fellow James Battle build professional connections and gain greater visibility for his research.
Credit: Harry Mok

“Growing up in a single parent home, I knew from an early age that I was fortunate to read and to learn,” Battle said.  “I did not have to cut sugarcane for 25 cents per ton in the burning South Louisiana sun as my mother had."

Battle was the first in his family to complete high school. He went on to attend college and then graduate school, but he lacked “culturally inherited traditions of scholarly pursuit to draw upon.”  And, as an African-American, he found himself in an ever-smaller minority the higher he climbed in academia.

Battle has since connected with academic colleagues who share a similar background through his participation in the President's Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, which aims to increase UC's faculty diversity.

The UC Santa Cruz researcher also has gained experience and credentials vital to advancing his career. He has presented his work at conferences, received publishing offers, built professional connections, and had wide latitude to pursue his research.

“The reputation of this program precedes any of us,” Battle said. “That has opened doors to all kinds of conversations and networks that might not otherwise have been available.”

University of California President Janet Napolitano on Friday (Oct. 10) will join more than 200 current and former fellows, along with UC leaders from across the system, to recognize the fellowship program’s 30th anniversary.

The highly successful program was established in 1984 with the aim of increasing the number of women and minority students pursuing academic careers. It has since become a model for programs at a dozen other colleges and universities, including Harvard, MIT, University of Pennsylvania and other top-tier public institutions.

Today, there are 170 PPFP scientists and scholars among UC faculty. Roughly 75 percent of all participants have gone on to tenure track positions at a college or university, with more than half joining a UC campus.

The rest “go on to high-power positions in industry, in government, and at national labs," said program director Caroline Kane. “These folks are good. The attention they get, to professional development as well as scholarly work, is invaluable.”

Fellows may be of any race or gender, but must demonstrate work that contributes to diversity and equal opportunity at UC. The program draws highly-qualified candidates in a range of disciplines from across the country.

Noting its success, UC has expanded the program significantly in recent years. Five years ago, UC offered 15 to 20 fellowships a year. In the 2014-15 academic year, it will support almost 50. Even so, it has remained highly competitive, accepting roughly 5 percent of applicants a year. 

“These fellows represent a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives that we want and need at the University of California,” Napolitano said. “More important, they bring an outstanding caliber of academic talent.”

In one of her first acts as president of the UC system last year, Napolitano committed $5 million to grow the program. The funds will be used, in part, to defray salary and lab start-up costs for fellows who are hired by UC as faculty.

"We want these fine scholars and scientists coming to our campuses to stay and join our faculty,” Napolitano said.

Creating a more representative faculty

Brian Johnson
Now a professor at UC Davis, former fellow Brian Johnson says the program allowed him to strike out in new directions with his research.
Credit: Elena Zhukova

UC, like other universities around the country, has faced challenges in developing a faculty that is more representative of the students — and the state — that it serves.

The university has been more successful in recent years in hiring new faculty from under-represented groups. But minorities and women still make up a smaller percentage of new hires at UC than they do among the pool of Ph.D. students nationally.

PPFP is working to change those statistics. The aim: Attract researchers from around the country who demonstrate they are UC faculty material, then provide them with the training and opportunities that will help them compete for highly selective tenure track positions.

“This program is very effective at getting top candidates to choose UC over other options like Ivy League schools,” said Brian Johnson, a PPFP fellow who is now an entomology professor at UC Davis. 

Johnson studies the maturation cycles of bees, and how that relates to their assigned roles within the colony. 

As a PPFP fellow, Johnson says he was able to strike out in a very different direction with his research than what he had studied in graduate school. “I had more freedom to explore avenues that interested me than I would have, had I been working as a research assistant in someone’s lab," Johnson said.

The fellowship also provides an avenue for participants to make connections critical to advancing their academic career. 

Gibor Basri, an astronomy professor who was a fellow with a precursor to the program in 1979, has been involved in the fellowship since its beginning and mentored dozens of young researchers. One of two African-American faculty members in the astronomy department, Basri is actively engaged in diversity issues, and serves as Berkeley’s vice chancellor for equity and inclusion.

“The faculty who participate in this program are not really mentors so much as sponsors,” Basri said.  They take an interest in fellows’ research and careers, connect them with opportunities and resources, and help them navigate the cultural nuances particular to each department and each campus. 

A leg up in the job market

Even with those advantages, researchers face a highly competitive job market.

“What you need to get hired in your first academic job today are credentials that would have made you eligible for tenure 20 years ago,” said Johnson. “If you are a good scientist, there’s still a chance you’re not going to get anything close to the job you want.”

To create a more diverse faculty, UC leaders say, the program must go beyond simply creating a more diverse pool of candidates. It also needs to help campuses fund academic positions, a need targeted by President Napolitano's $5 million initiative.

The program in 2003 added a hiring incentive to make it easier for departments to bring fellows on board as tenure track faculty. The incentive has more than quadrupled the number of fellows launching careers as UC professors.

The incentive covers a portion of salary and lab start-up costs for up to 12 newly-hired fellows each year. Napolitano's funding has now expanded that support for up to five additional hires a year.

“A lot of departments are very restricted by funds and don’t necessarily have the ability to hire everyone they want to hire,” said Phillip Romero, a second-year fellow at UCSF in bioengineering. “This helps them do that.”

When Romero began the fellowship, colleagues told him he likely would be recruited for faculty positions. But, he said, “Academia is so competitive, I didn’t believe them.” A few months ago, the chair of the chemical engineering department at UCLA contacted Romero and suggested he apply for a position. He got the job offer. “It was the only position I applied to,” he said.

Battle calls the hiring incentive the “Holy Grail” for scholars looking to pursue a career in the humanities and social sciences.
He will complete his postdoctoral studies in 2015 and will soon begin applying for faculty jobs. “I’ve received so much support from senior faculty at UC,” he said, “it has really given me the impression that my work belongs here.”