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February 2001 Column by the President

Purdue challenges all universities to invest in minority Ph.D.s

Martin C. Jischke

President, Purdue University

The future of the world often turns on the actions of just one person. Winston Churchill. Lech Walesa. Mother Theresa. Martin Luther King Jr.

Their leadership inspires us to greatness.

One such person was Dr. George Washington Carver. He was educated at Iowa State University, where he was that university’s first African-American student and first African-American faculty member. I became a student of his legacy during the nine years I spent there as president before coming to Purdue University this August.

Carver dedicated himself to the science of farming, worked to improve the health and agricultural output of southern farmers and developed hundreds of uses for their crops, most notably the peanut.

And, he was a gifted teacher. For example, his tutoring of young Henry A. Wallace – who later became vice president of the United States – led to Wallace's lifelong interest in plant genetics and the founding of the largest seed corn company in the world – Pioneer Hybrid.

Dr. Carver was wooed away from Iowa State by Booker T. Washington to join the faculty at Tuskegee University – despite the fact that Iowa State tried to get him to stay by offering him a raise. What persuaded him to leave?

In his letter accepting Tuskegee's offer, Carver wrote this ringing sentence: "It has always been the one great ideal of my life to be of the greatest good to the greatest number of people possible, and to this end I have been preparing my life for these many years, feeling as I do that this line of education is the key to unlock the golden doors of freedom to our people."

Born a slave, Carver remains today a symbol of hope and the promise of education.

As important as knowledge was to Dr. Carver, one thing was even more important: creating the opportunity for others to obtain knowledge. He understood the power of education.

That is our challenge: to continue the legacy of opportunity embodied by George Washington Carver – someone whose remarkable contributions to our nation and our world became possible because someone gave him an opportunity to learn as a young man – an opportunity that a generation before, would not have been there.

Think of the difference this one opportunity made. Imagine the difference it would make to our nation if every American – rich or poor, of every background – walked through the golden door that education opens.

How do we meet this challenge? First, we need a sincere commitment to expand opportunities for young people to attend our institutions. Nationally, the Gates Foundation is investing $1 billion to expand opportunities for minority students, and other foundations can follow this lead. So can our colleges and universities.

But we cannot stop with undergraduates. We need to expand graduate study opportunities as well. Our institutions need more gifted professors like Carver. Universities today are facing a shortage of faculty. Our graduate programs also need more top quality domestic students. And our nation needs more persons of color on our faculties if we are to create the educational environment all of our students need.

We are working on this at Purdue. The university's Historically Black Institution Visitation Program invites outstanding undergraduate minority students interested in pursuing graduate studies to visit Purdue. They meet with faculty, administrators and students, tour facilities and consider the opportunities.

It is working. There are currently 62 students from Historically Black Institutions enrolled in graduate programs at Purdue, and 129 have graduated in the past 12 years.

But we must go beyond this. That is why Purdue has just created a new fellowship to fund advanced education for any qualified graduate of a minority higher education institution whose aspiration is to become a faculty member.

And Purdue has challenged other higher education institutions to do the same.

One Purdue fellowship costs $15,000 per year for about four years, so the total cost for that one fellowship would be $60,000. A new fellowship will be launched every year. If most of the state colleges and universities in this nation did the same – and focus it in areas such as science, engineering and mathematics where persons of color are underrepresented – we could easily double the number of Ph.D.s awarded annually in these disciplines to persons of color.

Think of the impact! Every year we would graduate more than 200 men and women with the potential to become 21st century Carvers.

It's a small price to pay for the key that will unlock the future.

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