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'They see value': Postdoctoral program supports faculty members of color

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The Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity poses for a portrait. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Pruitt.

American studies assistant professor Ben Frey said his grandmother spoke fluent Cherokee. But his mom only remembered one phrase in the language — the words for “come here right now!”

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

Several years later, he was able to use that interest and research to lay the foundation for the Cherokee language program at UNC during his time as a postdoctoral fellow. His fellowship was through the Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity.

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

Program history and mission

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

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

“I think that that's one of the major benefits of the postdoc, and specific to the Carolina Postdoc Program,” Kayla Fike, a current postdoctoral fellow in the School of Education, said. “You're really encouraged to expand your networks and follow your interests and your passions, and to leverage them to be in a position to do your work even better.”

The program started with just one fellow but has since grown to a cohort of 10 scholars at a time.

Sarah Mills, who completed the program in 2019 and is now an assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior of the Gillings School of Global Public Health, said the cohort aspect was one of the biggest advantages she noticed during her time in the program.

“Being a postdoc, if you're not a part of a cohort or group, can be a little lonely,” Mills said. “And it's really nice being able to be around other faculty of color and talk with them to hear about what they're going through and get tips and recommendations.”

Forty of the fellows from the program are on the current faculty at UNC, according to UNC Media Relations. Half of those faculty members finished their postdoctoral fellowships in 2015 or later.

Of the 204 current or graduated fellows since the program's start, 69 were hired into tenure-track faculty positions. 

Part of the program’s features involve interactions with these former postdocs who are still at the University, Julian Rucker, a current postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, said.

“To see the possibilities for your future self is something that, as a scholar of color, as a Black scholar, you cherish those models,” Rucker said. “You cherish those mentors, because you don't come across as many as you should, to be quite frank.”

Supporting faculty of color

Of the 4,111 faculty members employed at UNC in fall 2021, 234 were Black or African American, 414 were Asian, 202 were Hispanic and 15 were American Indian or Alaskan Native, according to data from the UNC Office of Institutional Research & Assessment. About 70 percent — almost 3,000 faculty members — were white.

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

Frey said the postdoctoral program seems like the only funded way the University is willing to recruit Black, Indigenous and other faculty of color.

“Even though we have a new dean for diversity, equity and inclusion, that really doesn't seem to be yielding the kinds of support structures that would really be conducive to BIPOC faculty continuing to do quality work and have good lives here,” Frey said.

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

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“We are proud of the Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity’s nearly 40-year track record as a national model for these 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 that fosters a sense of belonging.”

Looking forward

Ganga Bey, a current postdoctoral fellow in the Gillings School's Department of Epidemiology, said she thinks the program addresses many of the issues that may keep faculty of color from continuing in academia and at UNC.

“I feel like there's such a support, not only for me as a Black woman and recognizing that I have unique challenges in academia, but that people are genuinely interested in the work that I'm doing,” Bey said of her colleagues in the epidemiology department. “They see value in it.”

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

Fike echoed this sentiment, saying that the program helps diversify what is being taught in classrooms and what is emphasized to students.

“It's not only bringing in people who are diverse, but it's diversifying the perspectives that are present, diversifying the methods and the approaches, the way that people do their work,” Fike said.

But Mills said programs like the Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity can’t be the only solution.

“These types of programs are really critical to there being change in what faculty at universities look like,” she said. “And I don't think just these programs alone are enough.”


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the year that Sarah Mills completed the Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity. She finished in 2019. The Daily Tar Heel apologies for this error. 

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