Data on Minority Doctorates Suppressed

Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Education, April 24, 2008

If you are conducting a faculty search, or trying to diversify the professoriate, or want to see whether various programs to do so have succeeded, the Survey of Earned Doctorates has always been a key source of information. They survey will tell you, for example, how many Latinos earned doctorates in chemistry (23 for the last year available), or how many black people earned doctorates in political science (34). If you watch the trends from year to year, and also pay attention to the total number of doctorates awarded (1,170 in chemistry to U.S. citizens, and 506 in political science), you have an instant sense of the changing or stagnant demographics of your pool.

Or at least you used to.

Citing privacy concerns, the National Science Foundation—which sponsors the survey—has ordered that data on subgroups beneath a certain size be blocked from release. So subgroups for which the numbers are small will no longer be available. So while we know that in 2005, six black people earned doctorates in earth, atmospheric and marine sciences, the NSF won’t reveal how many earned the degrees in 2006 (covered by the most recent report). Information about the number of Latinos earning degrees in some engineering fields is gone, as are data about a number of categories for black Ph.D.’s. For Native Americans, where the base is smaller, the impact of the new policy is especially dramatic. The report was stripped of information on how many doctorates were awarded to all but 6 of the 35 subfields for which data were collected.

Because most people who focus on the study are drawn to the overall trends, where data about various minority groups is preserved because of the larger sample sizes, the issue of the missing information is only now starting to receive attention. But advocates for increased diversity in graduate education and the professoriate are frustrated by the changes. They note that educational experts of many political perspectives agree that it’s hard to know how to tackle educational challenges without information about the performance of subgroups—that’s even one of the principles underpinning President Bush’s favorite education law, No Child Left Behind. So removing this information, advocates say, makes no sense. They add that debates about public policy would be informed by seeing these numbers in detail—and that the fact that the numbers are small is part of why they are important to consider.

“This hides information. It removes information,” said Andreen Neukranz-Butler, human rights compliance officer for the University of Idaho and a member of the board of the American Association for Affirmative Action. If a subgroup goes from two to four doctorates a year (or falls similarly), that’s important information, she said, and those working on these issues need to know it.

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Neukranz-Butler and several others familiar with the survey said that they were surprised by the concerns about confidentiality. While the survey has contained small numbers in some cells up until now, it has never named the individuals or institutions. So there has never been information on a particular person covered by any of the categories.

“The report never told you who the people were,” said Neukranz-Butler. “Why are we being hampered on getting very important information?”

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