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Talk held on merit and diversity in graduate admissions

(Benno Kraehe/ Daily Collegian)

Julie Posselt, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education, came to the University of Massachusetts on Wednesday to discuss institutionalized inequalities in higher education and efforts aimed at encouraging diversity.

About 60 students and faculty members attended the lecture titled “Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity and Faculty Gatekeeping” at 4 p.m. in the Bernie Dallas Room of Goodell Hall.

Posselt began by providing statistics from her research, which indicated that people of color are significantly underrepresented when obtaining their PhDs relative to the entire United States population. She said that now most institutions “will go to a lot of effort to ensure that their institutions appear diverse, even if they are not quite where they want to be.”

She provided the example of when University of Wisconsin officials used photoshop to insert the image of an African-American student into a crowd of all-white football fans to make the crowd appear more diverse.

“The university went through thousands and thousands of photos and were not able to find a single one that portrayed a racially diverse crowd,” she said. “This suggests that there is a value behind being racially diverse, because they clearly want to be that.”

Three of the strongest predictors of who is admitted to graduate school are grades, GRE scores and attending a selective undergraduate institution.

Through her research, she noticed that during the “initial screening,” the first step in the admissions process, most faculty members focus mainly on conventional achievers who have low “perceived risk of attrition.”

The important criteria they look at are “numbers” in the context of GRE scores and school curriculum rigor. Posselt says that the standard of merit is in tension with the racial and gender diversity aims since “it’s really just based on who has the opportunity to go to a prestigious school and who is earning the higher [GRE] score.”

Posselt then discussed how admissions work is delegated. There are committees that mediate the individuals and collective will of the faculty by downplaying internal conflict and protecting program interests. She mentions that at times, committee chairs bring in outside reviewers with research or country-specific expertise to help with the process.

Posselt said in order to strengthen the admissions process, there has to be organizational learning and friendly debate with “trust and candor.”

She ended her talk by providing three ways to increase diversity in graduate education. The first was for the admission to get rid of implicit bias. The second was to attend to wellbeing when it comes to climate and retention. The last was to provide fellowships and have outreach when recruiting.

Barbara Krauthamer, dean of the UMass graduate school and a professor in the history department, says she was inspired to bring Posselt because of her profound research.

“I think she has very powerful research that is in fact in line with the chancellor’s vision for the University and my vision for the graduate school in particular in terms of really thinking seriously about how to advance diversity and inclusion and equity at every level,” she said.

Kay Fenlason, a staff member in the chemistry department, said, “I came here to learn about the campus climate and what other departments were doing in terms of admission to see how we stood up to it…I think we have a good system in place for reviewing applications.”

Fenlason added that when the UMass chemistry department started requiring the GRE three years ago, the number of applicants decreased from 400 to nearly 200.

Christie Ellis, a fourth year chemistry PhD student, said that the repeated mention of GRE scores stood out to her. “The GRE has so many strings attached to it…I don’t know why it is still being used so heavily,” she said.

Afnan Nehela can be reached at anehela@umass.edu.

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