‘They see value’: Postdoctoral program supports professors of color


Assistant Professor of American Studies Ben Frey said her grandmother was fluent in Cherokee. But her mother only remembered one phrase in the language – the words for “come here now!”

Cherokee is an endangered language native to North Carolina, Frey said. As a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Frey became interested in language revitalization and change, particularly around the Cherokee, when he realized his gift for languages ​​in high school.

Several years later, he was able to use this interest and research to lay the foundation for the Cherokee language program at UNC during his postdoctoral stay. Her fellowship was through Caroline’s Postdoctoral Faculty Diversity Program.

“Giving the Cherokee culture and language a chance to breathe on the university campus was a big deal,” he said.

History and mission of the program

Originally called the Carolina Black Scholars Program, the Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity began in 1983 as a way to introduce scholars from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups for possible tenure-track appointments at UNC. or other research institutes.

Postdoctoral fellows are selected for two-year appointments where they can focus on their research and participate in programming – which includes opportunities such as meeting university leaders and getting feedback on their research projects – tailored to prepare them for become full-time teacher members.

“I think that’s one of the biggest benefits of postdoctoral work, and specific to the Carolina postdoctoral program,” said Kayla Fike, currently a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Education. “You’re really encouraged to expand your networks and follow your interests and passions, and leverage them to be able to do your job even better.”

The program started with a single fellow, but has since grown into a cohort of 10 fellows at a time.

Sarah Mills, who completed the program in 2021 and is now an assistant professor in the Department of Health Behaviors at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, said the cohort aspect was one of the biggest benefits she noticed during his time in the program.

“Being a postdoc, if you’re not part of a cohort or a group, can be a bit lonely,” Mills said. “And it’s really nice to be able to rub shoulders with other faculties of color and talk with them to hear about what they’re going through and get advice and recommendations.”

Forty of the program’s fellows are currently on UNC faculty, according to UNC Media Relations. Half of these faculty members completed their postdoctoral fellowship in 2015 or later.

Of the 204 current scholars or graduates since the start of the program, 69 have been hired into tenure-track faculty positions.

Part of the program’s features involves interactions with those former postdocs who are still at the university, said Julian Rucker, currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.

“Seeing the possibilities of your future self is something that as a scholar of color, as a scholar of black, you cherish those patterns,” Rucker said. “You cherish these mentors, because you don’t meet as many of them as you should, to be quite frank.”

Support color faculty

Of the 4,111 faculty members employed at UNC as of fall 2021, 234 were black or African American, 414 were Asian, 202 were Hispanic, and 15 were Native American or Alaska Native, according to data from the Office of institutional research and evaluation of UNC. About 70% – nearly 3,000 faculty members – were white.

The University has historically been criticized for undervaluing its Black, Indigenous, and other people of color faculty and failing to recruit and retain them. This issue was at the heart of community conversations surrounding the UNC board’s initial failure to grant tenure to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones over the summer.

Frey said the postdoctoral program appears to be the only university-funded way to recruit black, Indigenous and other people of color faculty.

“Even though we have a new Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, it really doesn’t seem to provide the kinds of support structures that would be really conducive for BIPOC faculty to continue to do quality work and to have a good life here,” Frey mentioned.

Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Chris Clemens said in a statement that recruiting, retaining and promoting historically underrepresented faculty is a University priority.

“We are proud of the nearly 40-year track record of the Carolina Postgraduate Faculty Diversity Program as a national model for such efforts,” the statement said. “But our work is not finished. We want to build a culture that attracts and supports a diverse and talented faculty; that advances them as future academic leaders; and it fosters a sense of belonging.

Looking forward

Ganga Bey, currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Gillings School’s department of epidemiology, said she believes the program addresses many of the issues that may prevent color faculty from continuing in academia and at UNC.

“I feel like there’s such support, not just for me as a black woman and acknowledging that I have unique challenges in academia, but people are genuinely interested in the work that I do,” Bey said of her colleagues in the epidemiology department. “They see value in it.”

Rucker said it’s hard to deny the program’s successes as a model for integrating color faculty and creating an interdisciplinary community of color scholars.

Fike echoed that sentiment, saying the program helps diversify what’s taught in classrooms and what’s emphasized for students.

“It’s not just about bringing in diverse people, it’s about diversifying the perspectives that are there, diversifying the methods and approaches, the way people do their jobs,” Fike said.

But Mills said programs like Caroline’s postgraduate faculty diversity program can’t be the only solution.

“These types of programs are really essential for there to be a change in the appearance of university faculty,” she said. “And I don’t think these programs are enough on their own.”



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