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Equity Efforts as Boundary Work: How Symbolic and Social Boundaries Shape Access and Inclusion in Graduate Education


by Julie Renee Posselt, Kimberly A. Reyes, Kelly E. Slay, Aurora Kamimura & Kamaria B. Porter — 2017

Background/Context: Education scholars have examined how state policy and informal practice can widen or reproduce racial and gender inequalities in graduate education. Just one empirical study, which focused on psychology programs, has identified organizational practice that supports recruitment and retention of graduate students of color.

Focus of study:To identify organizational conditions and specific activities that support diversity in STEM graduate programs, the authors conducted a yearlong case study of a physics program that, for the last decade, has trained about 10% of the Black Ph.D.’s in physics, nationally. They identified and described concrete efforts to enhance access and inclusion, and sought to understand how this program distinguished itself from a traditional physics department.

Participants: Study participants consisted of 16 faculty, administrators, administrative staff, and students affiliated with the Applied Physics program at the University of Michigan.

Research Design: Data for this qualitative case study was collected through eighteen interviews, two student focus groups, observations of everyday life and special events in the program, and a large amount of documentary data. Guided by the constant comparative method, the analysis assessed convergence and divergence across types of data and across faculty, administrator, staff, and student perspectives. Major findings represent four areas of consensus across participant roles.

Findings/Results: Four themes explain how Applied Physics has increased access to and inclusion in a field known for its inequality. The program institutionalized a flexible, interdisciplinary intellectual paradigm; they reconceputalized their vision of the ideal student and reformed admissions accordingly; they empowered administrative staff to serve as cultural translators across racial and faculty-student boundaries; and they worked to create a family-like climate that gave them a competitive advantage over other physics programs.

Conclusions/Recommendations: We interpret the findings from the perspective of Charles Tilly’s boundary change mechanisms, and conclude that the common thread among the four themes was the program’s willingness to erase, relocate, and/or deactivate boundaries that had implicitly created barriers to access and inclusion for underrepresented students. The paper recommends specific steps that graduate programs can take to analyze the symbolic boundaries operating in their own programs, and invites scholars to utilize the boundaries perspective in future research on educational inequality.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 119 Number 10, 2017, p. 1-38
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21903, Date Accessed: 10/20/2017 3:56:47 PM

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About the Author
  • Julie Posselt
    University of Southern California
    E-mail Author
    JULIE POSSELT is an assistant professor of higher education in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. Her work uses organizational and sociocultural theory to understand and address disparities in access to and wellbeing in higher education. She holds particular interests in graduate education and the disciplines. In addition to publications in a variety of peer-reviewed journals and edited volumes, Posselt is author of the book Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gatekeeping, which examines faculty decision making in ten highly selective doctoral programs.
  • Kimberly Reyes
    University of Michigan
    E-mail Author
    KIMBERLY A. REYES is a doctoral candidate in Higher Education at the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education (CSHPE). Her dissertation research, both historical and sociological in nature, examines how the scholarly training of African American students in prestigious academic departments contributed to an intellectual movement that discredited biologistic ideas of racial inferiority in the first half of the 20th century. Other than her interest in intellectual change, her faculty-led projects have examined the culture of STEM departments that are deeply engaged in diversity efforts, as well as the creation of institutional policies that affect educational access for undocumented immigrant students.
  • Kelly Slay
    University of Michigan
    E-mail Author
    KELLY E. SLAY is a Ph.D. candidate studying higher education and public policy at the University of Michigan School of Education. Her interdisciplinary research focuses on race, diversity, and equity issues in K-12 and higher education, including the implications of institutional environments and organizational policies for the experiences of students of color in post-affirmative action contexts. Kelly's recent work on enrollment management policies in California community colleges has been published in Educational Policy. Her research on education reform policy in Detroit schools will appear in the book series, Research on African American Education.
  • Aurora Kamimura
    University of Michigan
    E-mail Author
    AURORA KAMIMURA is a research assistant in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan. Her current research identifies promising practices for enhancing structural diversity in the professoriate, with a focus on search and hiring practices, in STEM disciplines. She recently co-authored two book chapters: “The benefits of diversity for innovation in academic research” in Positive Organizing in a Global Society: Understanding and Engaging Differences for Capacity Building and Inclusion, and “Examining the financial resilience of Hispanic-Serving Institutions as they prepare to serve the next generation of Latino students” in Hispanic Serving Institutions: Advancing Research and Transformative Practice.
  • Kamaria Porter
    University of Michigan
    E-mail Author
    KAMARIA B. PORTER is a PhD student in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan. Her research interests include university response to sexual violence and graduate education. With co-authors, she recently published “Faculty teaching diversity through difficult dialogues: Stories of challenges and success” in the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice.
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