Morgan dean urging 'buy black American'

March 22, 1992|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

When it comes to Ph.D.s, Frank L. Morris Sr. wants universities to buy American -- especially black American.

The scarcity of black American Ph.D.s has long troubled educators. And the number of foreign doctoral students at U.S. universities has been growing for years.

Now Dr. Frank L. Morris Sr., dean of graduate studies at Morgan State University, has stirred up the nation's higher-education establishment by suggesting that the two facts are directly related.

U.S. universities often pay the way of foreign doctoral students and leave Americans, especially minorities, to fend for themselves, Dr. Morris argues.

He says the result is that foreign competition stifles the development of home-grown black scholars.

"The unspoken norm, almost not questioned, is that somehow international diversity is more to be valued than local diversity," Dr. Morris says. "As society becomes much more technological, we [blacks] as a people are being shut out.

"Only in America would it seem you'd have to raise the point that in an increasingly competitive world, if you don't educate your own, you're at a disadvantage," he says.

"Most doctoral programs really don't believe blacks have what it takes to cut it."

The Morris thesis, which recently attracted nationwide attention in the Chronicle of Higher Education, has plenty of critics.

"His arguments don't make any sense to me," said Sandra C. Greer, chemistry department chairwoman at the University of Maryland College Park. "The idea that somehow money that would go to put blacks in graduate schools is going to foreign students is mistaken.

"I feel sort of slapped in the face about it," added Dr. Greer, whose graduate students are about 15 percent black. "We've been busting a gut to help black graduate students."

Jules B. LaPidus, president of the Washington-based Council of Graduate Schools, said the booming pool of foreign doctoral students and the stagnant number of black American Ph.D. candidates are not "two sides of the same coin."

"American universities aren't using foreign students to replace minority students," he said.

Everyone agrees on one thing: Blacks are woefully underrepresented among Americans with doctoral degrees. While nearly a third of all U.S. Ph.D.s in 1990 were awarded to foreign students, only 3.4 percent went to black Americans, according to National Research Council data used by Dr. Morris.

Blacks make up 12 percent of the U.S. population.

In the 1980s, as the number of foreigners receiving U.S. doctorates nearly doubled, American Ph.D. recipients actually declined -- and black American Ph.D.s dropped by nearly 20 percent.

For black American men in particular, the drop has been precipitous: Fewer than half as many received Ph.D.s in 1990 (320 nationwide) as did in 1975.

Black Ph.D.s are especially rare in math and science, where foreigners dominate some fields. In mathematics, for example, 413 foreigners receivedPh.D.s in 1990 while only four U.S.-born blacks did. In many scientific fields, not one black American earned a doctorate.

Worse yet, the Morgan dean said, American universities were the main source of financial support for nearly 70 percent of foreign doctoral students, but for fewer than 25 percent of black Americans. Universities pay a bigger share of foreigners' freight even in fields such as education and the humanities.

Individual professors generally control research funds, and they often turn to foreigners partly because "having a student from China affords greater status and prestige than having a student from West Baltimore or Harlem," he contended. "American students go into debt while guests are given the grants."

Dr. LaPidus said the Morgan dean is comparing apples and oranges. Seven of 10 foreign students go into fields where research funds are plentiful -- science and engineering. Only one in seven black American Ph.D. candidates is in those fields. (Foreigners score significantly higher overall than Americans on the math portion of the Graduate Record Examinations, but U.S. students do better on the verbal and analytical tests.)

More than half the black students pursue doctorates in education, where little research money is available and where Americans often study part time while working.

As a result, Dr. LaPidus said, foreigners inevitably get more university help (especially because they often aren't eligible for other aid such as federal grants or loans).

The bulk of Maryland's Ph.D.s obtain their degrees at the University of Maryland College Park and at the Johns Hopkins University.

Of College Park's 1,310 Ph.D.s over the past three years, 351 were foreigners and 74 were black Americans. At Hopkins the numbers were even more stark: of 754 Ph.D.s, there were 202 foreigners and nine black Americans.

Professors at the two universities say money isn't the problem. They blame the educational pipeline. Beginning in the early grades, it delivers precious few blacks qualified for doctoral study in math, science or engineering, they say.

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