On “Qualified Women and Minorities”

On “Qualified Women and Minorities”

This week I was so inspired.  I am a descendant of African-American slaves.  One of my ancestors is my great grandmother – Rose Hubbard Thirkill – from the Thirkill Plantation in Alabama. 

This is a picture of her with her three year old daughter — my grandmother — Eula.

Enslaved Africans in America were prohibited and often even punished for reading.   The seeking of knowledge, the aspiration to know more, to understand the world, to challenge the norms, the interrogate power, to question existing structures of oppression could result in death and punishment.  Today, the lack of access to knowledge and education perpetuates existing inequalities and severs opportunities and symbolically “kills” dreams, ambitions, hopes, aspirations, and desires.

My life’s work is resurrecting dreams, ambitions, hopes, aspirations, and desires; supporting the actualization of talent, no matter how it is embodied; and creating environments, systems, and structures, within higher education (the “academy,”) that enable the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and to transform the world.

I am grateful because I am able to work at an institution that enables me to pursue my life’s work.  There are moments in my work that give me deep satisfaction and this week was one of those week.  At Virginia Tech, we just finished hosting 43 amazing scholars for the Future Faculty Development Program. The scholars – post-doctoral fellows and graduate students — came from a range of institutions, and were in disciplines representing every college at Virginia Tech — from engineering, to business, to agriculture and life sciences, to natural resources and the environment, to veterinary medicine, to medicine, to liberal arts and human sciences, to architecture and urban studies, to science.


  This year, we had 450 applications for this 3 day faculty development program.  The program has three main goals:

  1. Enhance the faculty pipeline by establishing and developing significant meaningful relationships with prospects, especially scholars traditionally underrepresented in their fields.
  2. Provide the opportunity for participants to gain a greater awareness of Virginia Tech, which will enhance their ability to envision themselves as members of our community.
  3. Develop a network of new scholars in the academy.

This program, created 11 years ago, was designed to help support the call of the “academy,”  higher education institutions, to help diversify the professoriate.  Of course, the call was that we needed more “qualified” women and minorities.  There were myths that we were challenging: 

  1. They are not out there. 
  2. They are not qualified.
  3. They won’t come to our institution.
  4. We don’t have any lines or opportunities for them.

These frequently recited myths across the academy were that there were no “qualified” women and minorities and out of the very few “out there,”  “none” of them would ever want to come to “our” higher education institution – our university — in the “middle of nowhere.”  

The rhetoric: “minorities and women can go anywhere; they won’t come to our town; our small college town; our Big Ten, our Pac12, our ACC, our liberal arts, our large public, our small public, our urban school, our rural school.  They don’t want to come here.  They won’t come here.  Why try?  Let’s just throw our hands up.”

Many institutions have done so – thrown their hands up.  

I have heard the same language – for 25 years – around “qualified minority students.”  I’ve heard it from admissions officers for undergraduate programs, from graduate deans, program directors, and admission officers, from deans of professional programs.  It is the same rhetoric:

  1. They are not out there. 
  2. They are not qualified.
  3.  They won’t come to our institution.
  4. We don’t have any scholarships or fellowships for them.

The well-rehearsed lines: “There are so few “qualified” minority students.  They won’t come to our town; our small college town; our Big Ten, our Pac12, our ACC, our liberal arts, our large public, our small public, our urban school, our rural school.  They don’t want to come here.  They won’t come here. Why try?  Let’s just throw our hands up.”

And, they have, we have, the academy has. Thrown its hands up.

The academy, in throwing up its hands, has thrown away talent.  Enmeshed and immersed in our stereotypes about quality, we fail to recognize that many unqualified candidates get jobs.  In fact, I would like to suggest that most candidates for positions are unqualified.  Why?  Most haven’t done that particular position before.  We create vague job descriptions – often for positions that we ourselves have not done, and for which we ourselves do not have the skills, hoping that we have created the right combination of words that reflect vague soft and/or hard skills.   Our understanding and sense of what it means to be qualified is hardly robust. 

In fact, many graduate students are barely qualified to be faculty members.  They have perfected the art of being graduate students.  Taking classes and writing papers and making presentations.  The few that are actually qualified have been blessed with extraordinary mentors – mentors who have helped them to get published; mentors who have included them on grants; mentors who have created connections with other scholars and created collaborations; and mentors who have this; and mentors who have that.  Most graduate students are not blessed to have these mentors.  In fact, many faculty do not even know how to be great mentors.  There is a culture of “hazing” in the academy.  A “hazing” of find your way in the corn maze when you can barely see above the stalks of corn;  a hazing of figure out the unwritten rules of tenure and promotion when the written rules are vague and confusing; a hazing of figuring out how to be part of “important” committees with minimal service; a hazing of figuring out how to negotiate the “priceless” time needed to create the productivity required to be successful; a hazing of this; and a hazing of that.

Likewise, most high school students are not prepared to be college students.  They are “unqualified” to be college students – unless they are part of that small percent of economically privileged students who are able to be in school districts – either through residence and zip code or through financial resources sufficient to support private and elite access – for AP classes, dual enrollment courses, teachers with strong preparation, training, experience, and passion, who are excited to share knowledge – every day – with young, vulnerable minds.

What I have realized is that the adjective of “qualified” — usually attached only to women and minorities – is a subtle and invisible barrier that precludes access to the sacred sanctity of the academy for particular identities.   And because our racism and sexism in society rarely allows us to highlight “success” stories that do not conform to our myths, we often only have “success” stories that affirm our myths.  Alternatively, when a “success” stories defies the myth, we psychologically “repackage” the story to sit just outside of the myth. “Wow, you woman, you person of color, you are different, are unique, are “not really Black,” are “articulate,” – literally are not human!  And, the myth lives on, and those who have defied the myth are characterized as “oddities” and almost non-existent, and thus, invisible.

Let us also not overlook the reality that women often means White women, and minorities often means men of color. Women of color often, then, are invisible, excluded, ignored, marginalized…and thus, my dissertation — Where are the Black Girls? The Marginalization of Black Girls in the Single-Sex School Debate in Detroit (published with Palgrave as Critical Race, Feminism, and Education: A Social Justice Model),

As institutions move to holistic review of applications, some are recognizing that there are a range of factors besides standardized test scores that can predict success. They are trying to identify “grit” – this almost invisible quality of determination, persistence, zest and zeal for an area of study. They are acknowledging that there are many life barriers that exist that have to be overcome by those of particular identities.  Despite this push, there is still the almost unrelenting pull to look for students, often from privileged economic backgrounds, who can afford test prep programs, to admit to our institutions with ACT and SAT scores in the 90th percentile.  We seek the students with GPAs that exceed 4.0.  And then, we occasionally lament that our institutions are not diverse, economically, ethnically, or racially, or geographically.  We affirm, the rhetoric – that we cannot find them; they are not out there; they are not qualified; and even if they were, they would not come to our institution.

And then, the companies and corporations come along…..

They, too, have their rhetoric: “We have to diversify our workforce. We know diversity adds value; increases returns; increases profits; produces innovation.  Higher education institution:  Where is your diversity?”

And institutions panic…Oh goodness…Where is our diversity? Leadership stares in astonishment at each other.  And, then, they turn to the lonely and forlorn Chief Diversity Officer (often a woman or person of color), and they say:

“Go find diversity.  Go find those `qualified minorities and women’ we could never find, that we never looked for, that we never invested in, that we never developed pipeline programs for, that we never looked in our own communities for.  Go find them…Quickly, Chief Diversity Officer.  Isn’t that what you do? Isn’t that why we hired you?” 

It matters not that many Chief Diversity Officers are in offices of one or two, with little to no resources, with little to no political, economic, or social capital, in largely staff positions, and not line positions.   It matters not that Chief Diversity Officers are not admissions officers, are not department heads, and are not deans – that they do not hire faculty, they do not admit students, and often do not have the resources to do outreach.  We are often individuals of color or women or social justice allies, challenged with climbing steep mountains, made of the powerful legacy of institutional racism and sexism, entrenched through a systemic and historical structure in the United States that has legitimized and sanctioned exclusion based on particular identities.

Yet, there are a few of us, in special institutions, where we have been given a miracle, a wonderful gift.  We have been blessed with leadership from the top that is truly committed to diversity, that has provided resources to support the work; that champions and promotes diversity; and that seeks to understand others who are very different than themselves.

In that environment, a little seed of diversity can be watered, given sunlight, given care and attention, nurtured, and sustained.  This is what is happening at Virginia Tech in the past four years.  And, what I have learned and seen and tried to prove is that the myths are just myths.

  1. “They” are out there.
  2. “They” are qualified.
  3. “They” will come to our institutions.
  4.  We can create lines, scholarships, fellowships, and opportunities at our institutions for “them.”

When we first started the Black College Institute several years ago as a one week residential summer program for high achieving, intellectually curious rising juniors and seniors at Virginia Tech, we struggled to attract students interested in exploring the African-American experience.  Our first year, we had about 80 students apply and about 50 show up on the first day.  Our reality affirmed the myth.  It seemed that there were no qualified Black students and students interested in the African-American experience, and the few that existed were certainly not interested in Virginia Tech — a rural location, located across the state in the western side– far from the more diverse populations on the east coast.  After shifting our recruitment with a culturally sensitive lens, bringing in diverse leadership,  and focusing on Black churches, community centers, and segregated schools (that still exist in America), last year – our third year — we had almost 600 applications. We now host over 450 students over three weeks in the summer.  And we are having measurable success: almost 100% of those students applied; close to 70% were admitted; and over 50% chose to attend Virginia Tech as freshmen.

Black College Institute Cohort at Virginia Tech 2019

My point here is that until we did the work of “outreach” and “recruitment” differently, our results affirmed the myth and we perpetuated the myth.  Once we stopped being lazy and passive, and actually put in the work and elbow grease, we found that yes, indeed, there were “qualified” minority students who were interested in our “rural” institution across the state.  

The same was true for the Future Faculty Development Program.  Initially a small program, the program shifted when a new director was hired to lead the program.  She had knowledge about the resources that could be brought to bear to recruit women and minority graduate students and postdocs. This year, we received 450 applications (compared to about a hundred previously) from graduate students and post-doctoral fellows for an all-expense paid 3 day recruitment and professional development experience.

My point here is that as an institution, many of us have believed that there were no qualified students and/or scholars that could be attracted to Virginia Tech. And until we did the work, we sadly affirmed the myth.  And, the work of identifying underrepresented minority talent is just that – work.

This week, many of these scholars learned about the incredible community that exists at Virginia Tech, and they realized that Virginia Tech can be a destination for them to develop their potential. And, our community at Virginia Tech, realized that the myths are myths – that “qualified” women and minority scholars are “out there,” that they will come to our institutions, and that we need to be creative and visionary, and forward thinking to create the “lines” that are needed to convert candidates to hires. 

And, this program requires our allies and leadership – department heads and deans – often White men and women – to buy in, to participate, to host candidates, to think about how to mentor others who are different from themselves. And, they did. And I am grateful to be at an institution where we are working together to make a difference. The same is true for the Black College Institute – every college, every dean – is engaged and involved in supporting the summer experience.  Diversity transformation cannot happen without White allies, supporters, advocates, and mentors. 

I am reflecting on this hiring process and admissions process as my own children are in transitional phases in their own lives.  My daughter – a graduate from the University of Michigan with a perfect 4.0 with her master’s degree in sports management – is now at home, applying for jobs. It is a slow process, requiring persistence and patience.  She has worked for past 5 years in sports, and is hoping that she is viewed as “qualified.”  She worked her way through school — working 2-3 jobs — supporting student athletes, working at the tennis center, mentoring students. We are having fun together, and I’m glad she’s home for a moment. I know she’ll find her place in the world. For now, she’s perfecting her basketball skills at 5:30 am workouts with me!


My son, likewise, a painter, with a B.S. degree, is applying for graduate schools – hoping to be also seen as “qualified.”

Like my children, no one is recruiting them, no one has “handouts” reserved for them.   When they get hired or admitted, it will be based solely on their own merit.    Like many women and minorities, they more than likely need to not only be “qualified,” but will be overqualified. They are, like many others, putting all they have out there in the universe, and hoping for the best.   And, in our society, dominated by the process of references and referrals, connections and contacts, they can only hope that they get a fair look.

Art by Emmnauel Pratt-Clarke @emmanuelaopc

For those of us applying to faculty positions and graduate schools, we know that letters of recommendation are key.  And while the reference writing process is tedious, research reviewing over 300 letters of recommendations has shown that letters for women are shorter, less robust, less detailed, less supportive than those of males.

The headlines and research is clear:

Commentary: What’s a ‘qualified woman or minority’? https://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/05/14/martin.qualified/index.html

“(More) Bias in Science Hiring” “A new study finds discrimination against women and racial minorities in hiring in the sciences. The study’s about postdocs, but it has important implications for all of academe.” https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/06/07/new-study-finds-discrimination-against-women-and-racial-minorities-hiring-sciences

“There Aren’t Qualified Minority Candidates” Is a Myth

“The exponential growth in PhD’s from underrepresented groups in the last 30 years has not been matched by comparable growth in hiring them” https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/there-aren-t-qualified-minority-candidates-is-a-myth/ by Viviane Callier on November 22, 2016

We can only assume the same for people of color.  And yet, we are dependent on the “good word,” of others – others who often do not know us well, never took the time to get to know us, and often didn’t even see or notice us, and to whom we are often invisible. We must acknowledge that there are structures and systems in the world that are barriers to particular identities, and as institutions, we have to be proactive in identifying them and seeking to eliminate them.  As our director admissions once said, “we sought to identify and eliminate every barrier that existed that could discourage underrepresented and underserved students applying and choosing Virginia Tech.”

Those of us in the academy have to share the hidden secrets of success – the unwritten rules of navigating the secret society of the academy.  This week secrets were shared – how to negotiate, how to do a 5 minute research elevator speech, how to prepare for an academic interview.  Our work must involve “secret sharing”:  how to apply to college; how to get scholarships and financial aid; how to chose a major; how to study for tests and exams; how to use the career services office; how to apply for jobs.  If those who know do not share the “secrets,” we will continue to lose talent, to have low graduation rates, and to have a non-diverse professoriate.

So, the take away for me from Future Faculty Development Program this week: 

Virginia Tech only hosted 10% of these scholars.  90% of those who applied may still be “out there.”  No one institution can have a monopoly on talent.  We all need talent and there is plenty out there for all of us in the academy.

Talent is out there.  It comes in all forms.  It includes women in STEM, women in math, women in engineering, women in science.  It includes people of different economic, racial, ethnic, religious, and ability backgrounds.  Genius and intelligence is not allocated based on identity.  What has often been allocated based on identity has been opportunity. 

Emmanuel Pratt-Clarke at work

The needs of society are so great; the responsibility of the academy are even greater.  We must learn how to shake off the shackles from our minds that have constrained our thinking about who is qualified and/or deserving, of opportunities to have access to knowledge.  

But, we have to soldier on, putting one foot in front of the other, one portfolio after another together, one application after another, one program after another. We have to push for equity and opportunity for ourselves and our communities and our generation and our world – for the world can only be saved – if all of us bring all of us to the world.

The academy and America can and must do better. The world is demanding it of us.

4 thoughts on “On “Qualified Women and Minorities””

  1. Thanks, Menah Pratt-Clarke; for keeping that ” old dirt road” active, with new information and ideas for the younger generation of women of color. Be encouraged.

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