Wake-Up Call: Coburn Amendment and the Minority Pipeline in Political Science

by Erik Voeten on April 8, 2013 · 4 comments

in Blogs,Education,Political science

We are delighted to welcome back Karthick Ramakrishnan.

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As is widely known in the political science community, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) failed to get the Senate to eliminate NSF funding in political science, but succeeded in placing severe limits to its use, limiting funding only to projects that “promote national security or the economic interests of the United States.”  In the days following the passage of the amendment, many began to wonder how it would affect existing programs, with some speculating the waiver might be interpreted broadly and would leave most funding efforts intact.

Now, we seem to have a clearer answer, and the implications for political science are troubling in ways that were not even appreciated or foreseen in the run-up to the Coburn amendment.

One of the first major casualties of the Coburn amendment, perhaps even the first known casualty of any size, is the cancellation of APSA’s Ralph Bunche Summer Institute (hereafter RBSI), “an annual five-week program designed to introduce minority students to the world of graduate study and to encourage application to Ph.D. programs.”

This development is deeply concerning, and will hurt the future of political science in a country that is moving inexorably towards majority-minority status by 2050.  In October 2011, APSA released a report on racial and gender diversity among political science faculty and graduate students.   While some may disagree with the diagnosis of the pipeline problem, the magnitude of the problem is indisputable, as African American, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans currently account for only 11% of the professoriate in political science (see page 40 of the report), and the primary beneficiaries of RBSI (African Americans and Latinos) account for only 14% of recent Ph.D.’s in political science (see page 65 of the report).

By forcing the elimination of the Ralph Bunche Summer Institute, the Coburn amendment has made the dire situation of a minority scholar pipeline even worse.  The RBSI is one of the few disciplinary efforts in political science to diversify the pipeline of Ph.D.’s in political science.  As some of the RBSI alumni testimonials indicate (and many of us know from our mentoring experiences), many of our brightest students opt for law school, business school, or consulting instead of exploring a future in political science.  This problem seems particularly acute for African American and Latino students, who are less likely than others to have a parent graduating from college, let alone to know any family member who has a social science Ph.D. or is a political science professor. 

RBSI imparts these students with some critical research skills, gives them a taste for graduate school, and connects them to faculty members from across the country.  Importantly, the program also networks students in ways to help ensure that they stay on the long, winding path through the Ph.D. and an academic career.  Finally, to the extent that racial diversity matters for institutional legitimacy, RBSI also helps political science in general, making the discipline and its practitioners seem less disconnected from the identities and experiences of an increasingly diverse student population and electorate.

Now, it is possible that uproar over the elimination of the Ralph Bunche Summer Institute will spur minority scholars and countless others who support the program to act.  A broad coalition of APSA members could even link efforts with the various minority caucuses in Congress (the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and the Congressional Native American Caucus).  There is good reason to believe that these caucuses can play a helpful role, not only from the (admittedly scant) scholarship on the subject, but also from recent memories of mobilization of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus over Congressional reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006.

Indeed, it is a shame that the RBSI was not one of the central talking points put forward by groups like the APSA and the MPSA, and there does not seem to have been any effort on the part of these associations to link up with these and other legislative caucuses in Congress when there was trouble on the horizon as far back as 2009.  Mentions of the RBSI or the relevance of NSF funding to improving the pipeline problem do not appear in APSA’s 2013 letter to Congress, its “action alerts” to members and departments, or in its talking points.

Looking forward, I am hopeful that APSA and various other political science associations can find ways to conduct meaningful and sustained outreach to these Congressional caucuses.  To do this successfully, however, political science needs to a far better job in how it supports and empowers minority scholars in the discipline.

Ironically, the Ralph Bunche Summer Institute was one of the few existing disciplinary efforts to improve the dire problem of an inadequate pipeline of minority Ph.D.’s in political science.  Now, thanks to the Coburn amendment, even this effort has been eliminated.

Hopefully this elimination is a wake-up call that prompts a deep re-examination within APSA and the discipline more generally—to make the necessary ambitious institutional changes needed to make sure that political scientists begin to more truly reflect the extant and growing racial diversity in the United States.  A topic for another blog post, and deeper analyses—hopefully from many parties interested in the future of our discipline.

 

Karthick Ramakrishnan is associate professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside and a former co-President of the Race, Ethnicity, and Politics section of the APSA.

{ 4 comments }

RobC April 8, 2013 at 10:56 am

After outlining the need for the RBSI, Professor Ramakrishnan expresses his hope that the political science community can find ways to conduct meaningful and sustained outreach to Congressional Black, Hispanic, Asian Pacific American and Native American caucuses. May I respectfully suggest, however, that if the object of this exercise is to fund the RBSI rather than to use it as a talking point to obtain NSF funding for a broad spectrum of political science programs, attention be paid to substituting other sources of financial support for the approximately $150,000 per year the NSF was providing to RBSI. There are foundations, there are businesses, there are wealthy individuals, there are the 15,000 members of the APSA. We’re not talking about a ton of money here. The notion that only government can provide the funding for RBSI is regrettable both in what it says about how much political scientists truly value the contribution of RBSI and in what it says about the limited perspectives of many in the profession.

Karthick R April 8, 2013 at 11:14 am

Agreed. I believe that APSA pitches in a significant amount for RBSI, and I believe that Duke University does too. We can find out about these things, and then do an emergency fundraising drive for this year’s institute.

My larger point is that RBSI was one of the few bright spots for a discipline in terms of its track record in diversifying faculty ranks. Given the overall funding climate, it might sound a little quixotic to ask for many more efforts, but I’m hoping that the ‘wake-up call’ is not just to restore RBSI, but to have a “deep re-examination” as I put it. I’m hoping that our discipline can come up with many good ideas on this. Some will involve resources, others will involve changes in norms and practices.

AaronD April 8, 2013 at 6:46 pm

I want to live in RobC’s world where businesses, wealthy individuals, and the foundations they create are not currently spending billions of dollars lobbying both state and the federal government in order to use them to benefit themselves.

The notion that only government can provide for these businesses and wealthy individuals is regrettable.

x April 11, 2013 at 10:24 am

Um, am I reading this right? For the past 50 years the discipline could not figure out how to attract and retain any real numbers of minority students, but now we can blame the Coburn amendment? The post essentially blames APSA for not blaming the government enough. Seriously, shouldn’t you guys ever blame yourselves for your own prejudices?
Perhaps if the discipline was seen as a forum for all people, from conservatives to minorities instead of a bunch of white men who talk about race, there would be no Coburn amendment.

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