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Carolina Postdoctoral Program Celebrates 30th Anniversary

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by Jamal Eric Watson

Dr. Sibby Anderson Thompkins is the director of The Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

Dr. Sibby Anderson Thompkins is the director of The Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

CHAPEL HILL, NC— Hailed as one of the nation’s most successful initiatives in helping recent minority Ph.D.s gain tenure-track teaching jobs, The Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

Faced with a shortage of minority faculty during the 1980s, administrators at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill founded CPPFD in 1984 with the goal of providing minority doctoral holders the space to research, write and teach as they matured into seasoned scholars and teachers.

Today, CPPFD has become one of the most recognized and competitive postdoctoral programs in the country, with about 700 applicants vying each year for four to five coveted spots. In addition, the program’s alumni have included a number of well-known academics, including University of Maryland Eastern Shore’s president, Dr. Juliette B. Bell, who was a Postdoc Fellow from 1987 to 1989; historian Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley who was a fellow from 1988 to 1989; and political scientist Dr. Karin Stanford who was a fellow from 1992 to 1994.

“This program actually changed the trajectory of my life,” said Dr. Joan Barber, who was the program’s first Postdoc Fellow. “It took me out of the world I was in and introduced me to endless possibilities.”

Barber, who retired earlier this year as Vice Chancellor for Student Life at the North Carolina School of Science and Math, was one of several dozen alumni who returned to campus for a two-day summit to strategize on ways to continue to grow the program. They were joined by current fellows.

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“It had a major impact on my life,” said Barber, who arrived at the UNC School of Medicine in 1984 as something of an anomaly. As an undergraduate, she entered Alcorn State University at the age of 15, graduating four years later with a degree in biology and went on to teach high school before earning her Ph.D. in zoology, with a specialization in renal physiology from Howard University. Her academic training, coupled with the mentorship that she received during her years as a Postdoc Fellow, solidified her interest in training students to enter the STEM fields.

During a panel discussion at the summit titled “Advancing Diversity and Fostering Success,” Postdoc alums reflected on their experience in the program and how the fellowship, which initially was supported with funds from the North Carolina state legislature, has helped to diversify the faculty at UNC, as many of the fellows have gone on to be hired into tenure-track teaching jobs at the flagship North Carolina institution.

“This program is a diversity officer’s dream and I am grateful for it,” said Dr. Taffye Clayton, who is the Associate Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Multicultural Affairs and Chief Diversity Officer at UNC. “It is an incredible faculty acquisition tool,” she said, adding that the fellows program, coupled with other targeted opportunity hiring programs, has increased minority faculty at UNC.

The lack of minority faculty has been a daunting challenge, not just at UNC, but at most institutions, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

“I have the same problem at my HBCU,” said Bell, who took the helm of UMES in 2012, after serving successful stints at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Fayetteville State University, Winston-Salem State, and Central State University. “We are constantly trying to find more minority faculty to teach our students.”

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Many of the fellows said that the two years provided them with uninterrupted space to develop as emerging scholars and helped them to navigate their way through the terrain of the academy.

“It gave me time to become a better writer and to develop my writing skills,” said Dr. Keith Whitfield, who is currently the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at Duke University. The success of the fellows program is that it has provided racial and ethnic minorities with the opportunity to “be a voice in the room.”

Dr. Sibby Anderson Thompkins, director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at UNC, said she hopes that other universities might consider studying and replicating the UNC program.

“We’ve had such a successful model; we have to share it with others,” she said. “This is just the beginning. We have a real commitment to taking the ideas gathered here and move forward.”

Jamal Watson can be reached at [email protected] You can follow him on twitter @jamalericwatson

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