Higher Education

HBCU Insights: A social justice toolkit for university administrators

A column by Dr. Larry Walker

Throughout their history historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have been incubators for social change. Alumni, faculty and students including John Lewis and Rosa Parks left an indomitable footprint, which continues to inspire political leaders and activists. During the Civil Rights Movement students from North Carolina A & T, Shaw University and other HBCUs took stances on important issues to fight economic, political and social disparities. While students at HBCUs rallied to change conditions in the United States students at predominantly White institutions (PWIs) also fought against racial and gender discrimination during turbulent times. Unfortunately, incidents including the deaths of students from South Carolina State University, Jackson State and Kent State University represent a cautionary tale for college administrators.

Each tragic event highlights the delicate balance between individual rights, social activism and government intervention. The Neo-Civil Rights Movement spurned by issues including #BlackLivesMatter, immigrant, transgender and women’s rights are reshaping the political landscape. HBCU administrators have to be prepared to address a variety of issues without alienating subgroups. Maintaining a collegial environment that respects the rights of faculty and students to organize and protest is paramount. Members of the university community may support a platform, which is inconsistent with the institution’s policies. Determining how to handle socially delicate topics during politically challenging times is difficult yet some HBCUs have succeeded.  

Over the last few months HBCUs including Coppin State University, Harris-Stowe University and Morgan State University stood steadfast despite the events following the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. For example, Harris-Stowe facilitated a dialogue among faculty and students, Coppin State helped to clean up West Baltimore and Morgan State University recently convened a task force “Gray Days, Better Tomorrow” to address systemic issues in Baltimore. In each case administrators heeded the call to help transform communities with limited political capital.

Although some HBCUs have taken steps to eliminate economic and social inequities administrators have to continue to work closely with faculty members, students and alumni committed to important causes. Adopting proactive policies that are community centered can mediate philosophical differences between student and administrative leaders. To prevent short and long term problems post-secondary institutions should consider the following:

  1. Cultivating relations with student leaders- Ensuring administrators, faculty and students have an open line of communication is critical. School administrators have to take time to seek out campus leaders before an on or off campus event negatively impacts the campus community. Students recognize when school leaders are ignoring their concerns. Hosting campus wide meetings that allow individuals to discuss pertinent issues creates a sense of trust.
  2. Utilizing social media- Recently students at Howard University took steps via social media to address systemic issues including financial aid, school infrastructure and customer service. #TakeBackHU was a trending topic on Twitter and led Howard University President Frederick to address concerns from students. Dr. Frederick assured members of the Howard community that he was committed to addressing issues, which began before his appointment. The efforts by campus leaders to fight for change highlight the power of social media. Topics on Facebook, Periscope, etc. can generate discussion that shapes local, national and international concerns. HBCU administrators including Dr. Walter Kimbrough, (the Hip Hop) President of Dillard University has an active presence on Twitter and communicates with alumni, faculty and students. Dr. Kimbrough embraces social media during a time when more administrators recognize its importance. It is critical that HBCU presidents follow Dr. Kimbrough’s example and continue to communicate with the campus community to avert issues that could disrupt learning.
  3. Maintaining an active presence on campus- HBCU presidents have to take time to interact with alumni, faculty, staff and students. Developing strong relationships can build social capital, which administrators can use at critical junctures. Meeting with members of the campus community during homecoming, graduation and other events is not enough. Students, faculty and national leaders respect administrators including Dr. William Harvey, President of Hampton University, because of his ability to build coalitions. Throughout his tenure Dr. Harvey has worked collaboratively with faculty to increase funding for research, lower student attrition rates and work with the local community. Administrators should use Dr. Harvey as a template to ensure they develop relationships that can survive turbulent times.
  4. Recognize emerging trends- Administrators including former Xavier President Dr. Norman Francis recognized that there was a need for more African-American doctors. Currently, Xavier leads the nation in producing African-Americans students that are admitted and graduate from Medical School. The statistic is noteworthy because Xavier does not have a large endowment or educate students from predominantly affluent families. School leaders have to anticipate how national and international issues will impact the campus community. Students may support efforts including #BlackLivesMatter which seek to address police misconduct. Taking a proactive approach could prevent problems between students and administrators from engulfing the campus community.

HBCU administrators have to work with the local community, faculty and student leaders to create a healthy environment that supports efforts to address economic, political and social issues. Ensuring university leaders are active on social media would allow students to interact with officials in real time. The events at Howard University highlight the importance of communicating with students to address legitimate concerns. Cultivating relationships with students can prevent important social issues from negatively affecting the campus community.

Read all of our posts about HBCUs by clicking here.


Dr. Larry J. Walker is an educational consultant focused on supporting historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). His research examines the impact environmental factors have on the academic performance and social emotional functioning of students from HBCUs.

Diverse Conversations: Current Issues in Higher Education

With each passing decade, colleges and universities are faced with the task of responding to the spirit of the times. Those that deal with these trends and issues proactively often receive great rewards. However, those that do not keep up with the times face an uncertain future and in extreme cases, failure. Recently, I spoke with Dr. Helen F. Giles-Gee to discuss some of the current issues in higher education and how colleges and universities should respond to them.

Dr. Helen F. Giles-Gee began her tenure as the 22nd president of University of the Sciences on July 16, 2012. A well-respected and nationally-known scholar, educator, and administrator, she brings more than 30 years of experience in higher education to the campus.

Q: What are the major challenges facing American colleges and universities?

A: American colleges and universities are facing many challenges. I’ll name just 10: (1) Diversifying revenue streams to adjust to government divestment in higher education; (2) Enrolling a more diverse college bound population, some of whom may be ill prepared for college-level work; (3) Informing the Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which impacts federal student aid (student affordability), fundraising opportunities because of expiring tax provisions and more; (4) Greater accountability at state and federal levels for student learning outcomes such as increasing retention and graduation rates and student academic achievement; (5) Increased competition with other colleges that are becoming entrepreneurial in their academic program development and/or are utilizing new ways to assess students’ prior learning now paid for using federal financial aid; (6) Addressing the new credentialing of competencies that may make the “credit hour” irrelevant; (7) Forecasting capital plant needs with a changing delivery market for higher education; (8) Maintaining good community relations when balancing the desire by some cities and towns for tax revenues from nonprofits; (9) Addressing risk and compliance issues associated with needs for additional security, greater internationalism and resulting visa needs, greater sensitivity to complaints of sexual harassment, whistleblowers, and other possible personnel issues; and (10) Supporting the K through 12 pipeline regarding student academic achievement by strengthening teacher education programs and their outcomes.

Q: In what areas do American colleges and universities need the most help?

A: With decreasing college bound populations, greater competition from an increased number of colleges and universities, and fewer government subsidies for financial aid, having tuition and fees as the predominant source of revenue is a recipe for disaster. Colleges with fewer than 4,000 students are especially fiscally vulnerable as they need the same core operations as larger colleges unless they possess very great endowments with payouts that contribute high percentages to operations. Small institutions that still try to “go it alone” without considering joining consortia or merging with another institution may see their coffers empty sooner rather than later. Some institutions may need assistance in considering appropriate strategies to diversify their revenues and contain costs.

Q: What is the current enrollment of University of the Sciences? What is a realistic projection of enrollment over the next five years?

A: University of the Sciences’ current enrollment is about 2,800 students. With a mission of educating students for healthcare professions, sciences and mathematics, and management and health policy, USciences aims to stay small in size and focused in its program offerings. The majority of our programs are in fields that are highly desirable by employers with 94% of students graduating in 2012 having jobs or admitted into graduate programs within six months of graduation. We currently provide three online full programs in biomedical writing, and expect to see enrollment growth occurring in new specialized online programs that are in sync with our mission.

Q: What is the approach to recruiting new students? What challenges do you face in attracting students to the school?

A: We are increasingly informing new students about our value and distinctiveness. Our strengths include: a small faculty to student ratio; an urban location amidst other great universities; collaborations with great universities and research institutes on research and academic programs; student/faculty research opportunities that result in presentations and/or publications; great possibility for graduate work; clinical practice in sites across the country; faculty who are esteemed in their fields; reputation for innovation and entrepreneurship as documented by graduates like Eli Lilly, Robert L. McNeil Jr., and others.

We are also increasing our articulations with surrounding schools and community colleges. As Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, we were the first college of pharmacy in North America. When academic programs expanded to include degrees in science as well as professional doctorates in occupational therapy and physical therapy, our name changed to Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Sciences and later to University of the Sciences. Name recognition has been a challenge that we are overcoming with greater media exposure and publicizing the positive outcomes of a USciences education.

Q: What is the graduation rate at the University of the Sciences now?

A: The six year graduation rate for the 2006 cohort is 74%. We are instituting new retention efforts and expect to see this percentage increase.

Q: Do you have any parting messages for our readers, many of whom are our current and future presidents?

A: This era calls for presidents who can lead institutions to develop tactics that effectively address new problems and who can educate boards to a changing higher education landscape. We will need to develop collaborative models within our institutions as well as with external partners. I am both humbled and challenged by the many new issues we face while knowing that when we succeed at improving higher education our students and our world will be the better for it.

Well, that concludes my interview with President Giles-Gee. I would like to thank her for taking time out of her busy schedule to speak with me.


Do LGBTQ students feel safe on college campuses?

According to AmericanProgress.org, over 70 percent of LGBTQ students “reported experiencing sexual harassment, compared with 61 percent of non-LGBT students.”

To compound the issue, many college campuses are still in the slow process of growing to become more inclusive regarding the needs of students who identify as LGBTQ.

The report featured on AmericanProgress.org also suggests that some college campuses “may not include certain sexual acts in their definitions of rape” because “the perpetrator is of the same gender as the survivor.”

What an awful feeling knowing that the college that one attends is insensitive to the needs of its students, specifically those within the LGBTQ community.

It’s vital that students have a sense of safety while on campus. It’s supposed to be a place of freedom, a space for creativity, and an educational asylum. When those protections are removed or never placed at all, students are left vulnerable.

LGBTQ students looking for colleges to attend that make safety paramount should look to AffordableCollegesOnline.org‘s new guide, “LGBTQ Resource for College Students.”

The guide features an array of resources for students to utilize, but also offers a way for students to find supportive campuses that are “more welcoming and supportive.”

There are two diversity experts featured in the guide and both are interviewed on the subject of student safety, recommendations for LGBTQ students, and much more.

In essence, it is a total resource of comfort for LGBTQ students to utilize when looking for the school that closely fits their wants and needs.

For more information on the LGBTQ Resource for College Students,” please visit www.AffordableCollegesOnline.org.

Do LGBTQ students feel safe on college campuses?

According to AmericanProgress.org, over 70 percent of LGBTQ students “reported experiencing sexual harassment, compared with 61 percent of non-LGBT students.”

To compound the issue, many college campuses are still in the slow process of growing to become more inclusive regarding the needs of students who identify as LGBTQ.

The report featured on AmericanProgress.org also suggests that some college campuses “may not include certain sexual acts in their definitions of rape” because “the perpetrator is of the same gender as the survivor.”

What an awful feeling knowing that the college that one attends is insensitive to the needs of its students, specifically those within the LGBTQ community.

It’s vital that students have a sense of safety while on campus. It’s supposed to be a place of freedom, a space for creativity, and an educational asylum. When those protections are removed or never placed at all, students are left vulnerable.

LGBTQ students looking for colleges to attend that make safety paramount should look to AffordableCollegesOnline.org‘s new guide, “LGBTQ Resource for College Students.”

The guide features an array of resources for students to utilize, but also offers a way for students to find supportive campuses that are “more welcoming and supportive.”

There are two diversity experts featured in the guide and both are interviewed on the subject of student safety, recommendations for LGBTQ students, and much more.

In essence, it is a total resource of comfort for LGBTQ students to utilize when looking for the school that closely fits their wants and needs.

For more information on the LGBTQ Resource for College Students,” please visit www.AffordableCollegesOnline.org.

Study: Black professors must be "entertaining"

A new study published by Vanderbilt University underpins the theory of racial bias in higher education.

According to the study, black faculty members are not only wanted for intellectual purposes but to entertain as well. Apparently being an expert in a field is not enough; these professors must step it up to pass the general public’s test for being a “good” teacher.

“Black faculty members are expected to be “entertaining” when presenting academic research to mostly white peers, according to a new Vanderbilt study.”

The survey shows that black academics are expected to tell jokes and keep their presentations loaded with levity.

It gets worse for black women who are academics.

“Black females additionally noted being subject to their colleagues’ preoccupation with their clothing choices and hairstyle, and reported being admonished to play down their “passion” and “smile more.”

A common theme that many black men and women face in the workplace is compounded in higher education. Not to mention that the number of black faculty working in higher education is just nine percent, many academics have likely faced this issue many times before.

One of the authors of the study, Ebony McGee, is hopeful that the study will be used as a way to potentially train others in accepting workplace diversity.

“Our hope is that this study will offer novel and useful insights to those who organize presentations and those who give them, so they will be able to understand, appreciate and provide an improved experience for black and other minoritized scholars.”

Past, Present, and Future of Sustainable Leadership

Sustainable leadership builds on the past in an effort to create a better future for schools. This is against most educational change theories, which do not find a place for the past, since the “arrow of change” is thought to move only in a forward direction. Past problems are generally either ignored, or overcome in a rush to get to future improvement.

For those leaders attracted or addicted to change, the past is seen as a monument of backward thinking and irrational resistance for those whom they consider to favor the status quo, or those emotionally incapable of letting go of old habits and beliefs. These leaders consider the past to be a dark era of weak or poor leadership practices that leave negative legacies, models of schooling, or “uninformed” professional judgment in classroom instruction. All of these are negatives are seen as barriers to modernization.

Reform based only on the present or future becomes the opposite of sustainability. Sustainable development has the distinction of respecting, protecting, preserving, and renewing all the valuable elements of the past and learning from those elements to build a better future. One way of getting in touch with the past is to see teacher resistance and nostalgia among members of the profession not as obstacles to change, but as sources of wisdom. Teachers’ years of classroom experience should not be discounted.

Change theory must strive to create proposals that are built upon past legacies, instead of trying to ignore or destroy them. While contemplating changes, sustainable leadership calls on leaders to look to the past for precedents that might be reinvented or refined. Events of the past may also be used as evidence of policies that have succeeded or failed before.

However, the above proposal does not mean that leaders live in the past, but value and learn from it. We have to end “creative destruction,” where leaders see the need to wipe out the past in order to create a future. Creative destruction usually leads to endless back-and-forth movements, increased employee burnout, and the unnecessary waste of expertise and memory that has been accumulated over time. Instead, a creative recombination of the best parts of the past in a resourceful and renewing way should be used.

Through sustainable leadership, leaders should find new structures, technology, and people by finding, redistributing, reusing, and recombining mismatched parts that have been lying around in the school’s organizational “basement.” Sustainable leadership and improvement is concerned with both the future and the past. It refuses to treat people’s knowledge, careers, and experience as disposable waste, because, in reality, they are valuable and renewable resources. In conclusion, sustainable leadership does not blindly endorse the past, but respects and learns from it.


Diverse Conversations: School Diversity Program Mirrors Workplace

Business schools around the country are thinking about ways to implement programs that increase school diversity on campus. Steve Reinemund, Dean of the Wake Forest University School of Business, instituted the Corporate Fellowship program shortly after he arrived at the school in 2008, which helped the Master of Arts (MA) in Management program achieve the same kind of diversity found in today’s workplace.

Q: What prompted you/the university to institute the Corporate Fellowship program?

A: We had several objectives: We wanted to create a program that would attract liberal arts graduates, with no prior work experience, and offer both the educational background and the vocational discernment to prepare them for successful careers in business. It’s important to know how to lead in a multicultural environment; so one priority of this program was to recruit a student body that mirrors the global marketplace in, as a start, its racial and gender makeup. Graduate business education does not typically have the representation in these two areas that the marketplace demands, so we set out to attract a diverse student population. We asked corporations to fund and sponsor students in our MA program, offering both financial and developmental support. Ten percent of the class receives a Corporate Fellows scholarship each year.

Q: What has been the impact of the program, thus far?

A: For the institution, it has helped us reach a broader network of corporations. We think that people knew about the Wake Forest School of Business, but this fellowship allowed us to tell companies more about our MA program and how it allows them to interact directly with our students.

We believe students receive a richer, fuller education and are better prepared for the challenges and sensitivities of the workplace when they are exposed to many different backgrounds and points of view, and are educated in an environment that that reflects the diversity found in the marketplace.

Q: What lessons can corporate sponsors teach these students (from underrepresented groups) that cannot be otherwise learned in a classroom?

A: The sponsors bring a real-life perspective to students and help them understand the types of situations they’re going to face in the marketplace, situations those students may not have otherwise considered. It’s an opportunity for companies to mentor these students before they enter the marketplace. I know from personal experience the benefits of having interns and establishing mentoring relationships with students: it builds a stronger bond with the students, they become more loyal, more knowledgeable and, potentially, more successful.

Q: How does this program foster networking opportunities, then further develop those professional relationships?

A: Throughout the MA program, we encourage formal and informal relationships, ranging from mock interviews to mentoring sessions, so students are prepared not only with book knowledge, but with practical knowledge about relationship-building. This varied interaction is particularly important, because many of these students have not had prior work experience.

By working with their mentors, students learn where their interests lie, how to make informed choices about where they can excel, and feel prepared to succeed when they are hired into those jobs. We address the challenges and sensitivities found in the workplace, so students are comfortable in social situations, such as business lunches, that are important to success and can leave candidates at a disadvantage if they’re underprepared.

Q: What are your application/award goals for the program?

A: In the 2009-10 academic year, we had 80 students participate in our MA in Management program. We set a goal of creating Corporate Fellowships for 10 percent of the class, and kept that steady as our MA program grew exponentially. In 2013-14 the class has increased to 140 students, 12 of whom are Corporate Fellows. Our goal for next year is 180 students; at least 18 of whom (10 percent) will be Corporate Fellows.

Q: What benefits exist for the corporate mentor, as well as his or her company, by participating in this program?

A: The mentors are investing in, and contributing to, an educational environment where the class represents the marketplace, a program we hope to see modeled elsewhere. The companies and organizations are gaining exposure to talented graduates who understand how to lead in a multicultural environment, and they’re learning about diversity and inclusion on a broader scale that applies, in many cases, to the workplace. It’s a laboratory for them.

Q: What suggestions might you have for other schools looking to create such a program?

A: We do our students a disservice if they are educated in classrooms that aren’t representative of society and the marketplace in which they’re going to lead and make a difference. The way you structure the program has to make practical sense to all participants, so there’s not one formula that would fit every program; the vision may be similar, but the execution may differ. We’ve done it with full tuition scholarships and stipends.

Every student and participating employer benefits in a program that teaches leadership in a multicultural environment. And the school clearly benefits, because this program has an impact on every other program in the School of Business. For example, in the 2013-2014 academic year, we have 12 Corporate Fellows in an MA class of 140 students. Thirty-five percent of the MA student body is African-American/Hispanic/Native American, so there are three times as many underrepresented students who are not on scholarship as those who are, and about half of our MA students are women. This is a byproduct of creating an environment that is welcoming and inclusive to all constituents.

The diversity effort is absolutely integral to the culture and success of our business program, and the student experience is dramatically richer because of it.

Well, that concludes my interview with Dean Reinemund. I would like to thank him for taking time out of him busy schedule to speak with us.


Will Obama end ban on prisoners receiving Pell Grants?

President Obama continues to forge ahead with education initiatives that are sure to get people talking. As reported by the Washington Post, the Obama Administration will try to end a 22-year ban on prisoners ability to attain Pell Grants for college. I can already hear the arguments that “deserving” citizens should receive this money – not those society has deemed unfit for outside life. That’s just the reason these inmates need the Pell Grant chance, though.

During a visit to the Maryland Correctional Facility in Jessup, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch talked about the need to provide education opportunities for inmates as a way to reduce the recidivism rate.

“In their visit to Jessup, Duncan and Lynch announced that some inmates of state and federal prisons will be eligible soon for federal Pell grants through an experiment called the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program. The experiment, to be launched by fall 2016, would provide an exception to a ban enacted in 1994 that made prisoners ineligible for Pell grants,” the Post reports.

While the ban has to be lifted by Congress, the President has the ability to experiment by offering Pell Grants to a limited number of prisoners who are within five years of release.

The president is likely to receive push-back from Congressional Republicans when he decides to work around the ban, but allowing prisoners access to higher education prior to the end of their sentences would eventually save the federal government millions of dollars. It would mean better lives for these former prisoners too, making it an all-around good initiative.

Will Free Community College Help Minorities Succeed?

By Matthew Lynch

During his sixth State of the Union address, President Barack Obama spelled out a proposal that would offer two years of a free community college education to any student that wanted to take advantage of it. Once enrolled, these students would need to maintain a 2.5 grade-point average, stay enrolled at least half time and be on track to graduate on time to keep receiving the tuition-free access.

This program would, essentially, make the first two years of a college education a basic American right – aligning it with universal access to a K-12 (and even pre-K in some states) education. Of course there would be some requirements for having access to that right and it would not be mandatory, but the basic premise would be the same: free higher education for any American student.

Arguably this plan helps everyone in the long run. More Americans with access to a college education means a stronger economy and less college debt means more money in the pockets of college graduates that they can then pump back into that economy. Proponents of the plan say that it will particularly help minorities when it comes to college attendance because it removes the cost barrier that tends to discourage these groups from enrolling.

I say that access to free community college will not actually help minorities – at least not on its own.

We know that there is an achievement gap in P-12 learning and that black students drop out of high school at a rate that is twice as high as white students (for Hispanic students is over three times as high). This happens despite these minorities having access to the same opportunities (in theory) as their white counterparts. A public education is free to these students, yet minority students still drop out of high school at rates that are simply too high. So the assumption that offering free college classes and credits will be a better situation for minorities is flawed, based on what we know about educational access and its influence on achievement in younger grades.

We need more than free access to community college to help minorities succeed in higher education settings. Starting in our K-12 schools, we need better targeting of struggling students and remedial interventions that take effect immediately, not after a standardized assessment points out that a student is already failing. We need mentorship programs, both at the high school and community college level, where minority students can connect with the success stories of people who look like they do and came from similar backgrounds. We need more people of color who enter the teaching profession – particularly black males – so that minority students see themselves somewhere in the education process and so more attention is paid to the cultural differences that influence learning environments.

When these minority students enroll in community college, we need orientation programs that last an entire semester or year that keep students on track and accountable and ward off any issues that may cause them to quit too soon. We need a job-based focus that funnels students into the right classes at the right times and keeps them on target for their end goals. We need better guidance processes, mentorship programs, job placement results and awareness of the distinct issues minority students face when they arrive in college classrooms. If all of these things work in conjunction with the free access to community college classes then we may just be on to something.

Money is not the only barrier that keeps minorities from enrolling in and finishing college classes. Removing that obstacle is certainly a step in the right direction but needs other supporting initiatives to really achieve its aim: a diverse highly-educated American public.

Click here to read all our posts concerning the Achievement Gap.

The transferrable skills from a doctoral degree in the sciences

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

A guest post by Anwar Dunbar

July 8, 2015 marked the ten year anniversary of the earning of my Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy degree) in Pharmacology from the University of Michigan.  It was a tremendous accomplishment educationally and scientifically for a kid from Buffalo’s eastside.  Coming from my community, it would have both far reaching effects, and social implications that I didn’t understand at the time.

On June 2, 2015, the University of Michigan’s Department of Pharmacology hosted its annual Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics Career Day.  The event was designed to expose the department’s current students, to the multiple career options available to them following their doctoral and masters level trainings.  As a key component of the day, select alumni (myself included) were invited back and asked to discuss their careers and share their experiences.

Going back to Ann Arbor is always like going home.  Six of the most of the most meaningful years of my life were spent there learning about science and life.  My graduate advisor for example taught me lasting lessons not only about pharmacological research, but also how to be a professional and how to survive in this world.  In some ways, he was like a second father who was hard on me, and pushed me (and everyone else in the lab) to the brink to make us grow and succeed.

While I experienced tremendous growth during graduate school earning my degree, some of the most meaningful lessons about my doctoral degree itself took place after leaving Ann Arbor.  College towns like Ann Arbor are unique in that the University is a major part of the town’s culture, and as such there is an unusually high concentration of highly educated individuals there.  Needless to say every place isn’t like that, and you don’t realize it until you leave.

Once I left, I discovered that my degree touched people in many different ways.  I actually wrote a ten part series for the Examiner titled “Pursing a Ph.D.” (http://www.examiner.com/article/pursuing-a-ph-d-part-one-what-a-ph-d-is-and-what-it-means), and in it I touched on this.  In one of the installments I shared  some of my biological father’s words of wisdom regarding my degree.

“I wouldn’t tell people that you’re a doctor when you first meet them.  They’re going to expect you to have certain things and look a certain way.”  Upon moving to Albany, NY for my Postdoctoral fellowship, my father gave me this stern recommendation.  I didn’t understand why he was encouraging me to keep my great accomplishment a secret, but to make a long story short, he was afraid of other people’s expectations, and there was validity to his fears.

Our society associates the title of doctor with wealth, no matter what kind of doctor the person is.  The late Dr. Thomas Stanley, author of the Millionaire Next Door series discussed in his books that being a high income professional, and the accumulation of wealth don’t directly correlate.  Wealth building involves; sound money management skills, financial literacy, and in some cases delayed gratification, components that not all doctors have.

“I wasn’t aware of Dr. Dunbar’s level of education when I met him so I was unable to address him by his proper title,” said a teacher at a Career Day at a local Maryland elementary school in late May.  I casually revealed to the class that I earned a Ph.D. but didn’t introduce myself as “Dr. Dunbar.”  As best I could, I tried to humbly explain to her class of sixth graders that success, in this case earning a doctorate, is a door that swings both ways.  That is, some people will instinctually be happy for you, celebrate your success and look at you with reverence, while others will unfortunately feel threatened and insecure about it and behave as such.  This can be relatives, friends, significant others, coworkers, etc.  There are numerous stories I could tell about this both good and bad, but there isn’t enough room in this piece.

In any case let’s circle back to the University of Michigan’s Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics Career Day.  What does having a doctorate really mean?  What does it actually empower one to do particularly in the sciences?

As the lone government Regulatory scientist at the Career Day, I interestingly drew the first time slot for the morning speakers.  I had no idea what my peers were going to say, but surprisingly most of our talks had similar core themes.  Each of us in our own way, communicated that in addition to becoming experts of our thesis projects, in my case the “Ubiquitination and Proteasomal Degradation of Neuronal Nitric Oxide Synthase,” there were a host of skills that we had all learned that were applicable to our current careers in the Public and Private sectors, and in other areas.  Among them were:

  • Critical thinking/Problem solving skills
  • The ability to multi-task, organize and coordinate multiple projects
  • The ability to write clearly
  • The ability to speak and present clearly
  • The ability to work on teams
  • The ability to adapt and understand new systems

My classmates had all gone on to do some very impressive things.  Each of us worked on research projects in the areas of; Cardiovascular Pharmacology, Receptor Pharmacology, and Drug Metabolism, just to name a few.  However after graduation, not everyone had taken the traditional path of becoming tenure-track academic professors/researchers.  Some had gone on to; work in the pharmaceutical industry, start their own companies, become consultants, become academic professors or administrators (at small teaching colleges), or science advocates.  Our varying careers spoke in part to our department’s openness to prepare its students for the potential for other careers, in addition to the versatility of the skills that we had acquired.

In summary, earning any doctorate whether it be in the sciences or the humanities is a tremendous accomplishment.  That being said, it’s what one does with the skills they’ve acquired during their thesis research that makes them great, not the degree itself.  In the sciences, in addition to mastery of one’s area of expertise there a core set of skills learned.  And it is these skills that make that person exceptional no matter which field they go into.


Anwar Y. Dunbar is a Regulatory Scientist in the Federal Government where he registers and regulates Pesticides.  He earned his Ph.D. in Pharmacology from the University of Michigan and his Bachelor’s Degree in General Biology from Johnson C. Smith University.  In addition to publishing numerous research articles in competitive scientific journals,  he has also published over one hundred articles for the Examiner (www.examiner.com) on numerous education and literacy related topics in the areas of; Current Events and Culture, Higher Education, Financial Literacy, and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).  He actively mentors youth and works to spread awareness of STEM careers to minority students.  He also tutors in the subjects of Biology, Chemistry and Physics.  He is a native of Buffalo, NY.  He can be contacted via email at [email protected], and can be followed on Twitter @anwaryusef.