Priming the Academic Pipeline

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Tuesday, June 1, 2021
By Michael L. Barnett, Ishva Minefee
Photo by iStock/SDI Productions
The McNair Program sets underrepresented students on the path to academic careers. But the program is an overlooked resource.

At U.S. business schools, underrepresented minorities account for only a small number of faculty. According to AACSB’s 2020 Business School Data Guide, 3.9 percent of full-time business faculty are Black, 2.8 percent are Hispanic, and .3 percent are Native American. If the business school community wants to improve this persistently low percentage, then we must find ways to encourage more underrepresented students to enter the academic pipeline. One initiative that helps fulfill this goal is the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program.

Established in 1989 by the United States Department of Education, the McNair Program is one of eight Federal TRIO Programs aimed at providing services to individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. The McNair Program awards grants to universities to fund projects that encourage first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented minority undergraduates to attain PhD degrees. As both of us know firsthand, it works!

Nearly 200 universities receive McNair grants, which total more than 50 million USD annually. Universities use the grants to provide select undergraduates with funded summer or yearlong intensive research experiences that culminate in research papers and presentations. Students conduct these research activities under the close guidance of faculty mentors. McNair Scholars also complete coursework related to the research process, attend academic conferences, and receive assistance as they prepare for graduate school entrance exams and craft application materials for doctoral programs. At many institutions, students also are eligible for fee application waivers and graduate fellowships.

Even though business is one of the most popular majors at U.S. universities, business students rarely become McNair Scholars. To estimate what percent of recent McNair graduates were business students, we analyzed the 2021 Council for Opportunity in Education’s McNair Scholars Database. While raw numbers are inconsistent from year to year, we found that of 814 students who graduated from the program between spring 2018 and fall 2020, only 15 had majored in business fields. That’s just under 2 percent.

What a lost opportunity! But there are several steps business schools can take to reverse this trend and make the most of all that the McNair Program offers.

The ABCs of the Gap

Why do so few business students participate in the McNair Program? To answer this question, we recalled our own experiences as McNair Scholars and business school faculty, and then we sought additional input. We had email exchanges and Zoom meetings with fellow McNair alumni, McNair Program directors, and business school deans and faculty. We also conducted a survey of recent McNair graduates. Based on this input, we have identified three broad barriers: awareness, bridges, and connections.

Awareness. Undergraduate students—especially those from first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented groups—often are unaware that an academic career path in business is an option. The MBA is a well-known graduate business degree, but the PhD is not. Business faculty rarely discuss with their students how they obtained their academic positions. Thus, few undergraduates understand the nature of a doctoral degree in business or how it connects to a career as a business school professor.

Moreover, McNair Program directors tend to be more familiar with academic career paths in the arts and sciences than in business. In addition, business school leaders might not even realize that their institutions have McNair Programs.

Undergraduate students—especially those from first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented groups—often are unaware that an academic career path in business is an option.

Bridges. Grant renewals for McNair Programs are driven by a school’s success in immediately placing McNair Scholars into graduate programs. However, graduate programs in business favor candidates with managerial experience over those who have recently obtained undergraduate degrees. Thus, it is risky for McNair Program directors to engage with business schools, because the gaps between undergraduate completion and graduate enrollment jeopardize key performance measures. Program directors also might find it difficult to gain the attention and cooperation of business school deans and faculty, for reasons outlined below. The result is a wide, unbridged chasm between too many university McNair Program offices and their business schools.

Connections. Even at universities where students are aware of the program and business schools cooperate with their McNair offices, faculty participation can fall short. The types of projects suitable for undergraduate research might not match the research interests of the available business professors. Moreover, not all McNair programs provide funding to compensate faculty for becoming mentors. Unless schools offer stipends, business professors might not be eager to take on the intensive mentoring role.

A Network of Scholars

To find ways around these barriers and encourage more McNair Scholars to become business school professors, we created the McNair Business Scholars Network (MBSN) in 2020. So far, we have taken a number of actions to further three main goals:

Altering awareness. We set up social media accounts, created a website, and established a webinar series to help students understand the academic pathway to becoming a business professor. We run these webinars annually and have posted archives of past webinars on our website. We also post videos from McNair alumni, and we provide other supporting materials that build awareness of what business faculty do and how they find their positions.

Building bridges. We contacted the McNair Program director and business school leader at every current grantee institution that has a business school or program. Our broad aim was simply to get these individuals in touch with each other—and it worked. We rekindled many dormant relationships between business school deans and McNair offices and built relationships where none had previously been established.

Further, we asked each business school to appoint a McNair liaison. We use these liaisons as our points of contact and ask them to facilitate interactions between their business faculty and McNair-eligible students.

A financial incentive signals that the school is committed to the McNair Program and wants faculty to engage with students from underrepresented backgrounds.

Coordinating connections. We built an external, global network of 150 mentors who have expertise across the full range of business topics. Each external mentor, who comes from outside a McNair Scholar’s home institution, can provide informal advice, extend a student’s academic reach, and write letters of recommendation.

External mentors do not substitute for or interfere with the formal faculty mentoring relationships at students’ home institutions; they augment those relationships. External mentors are expected to meet with their scholars at least three times during the McNair period—and when possible, those meetings are conducted jointly with the students’ faculty mentors. During these interactions, the mentors discuss milestones such as project selection, interim status, and steps after project completion.

What Remains to be Done

Though the MBSN is still quite new, we feel we have taken significant steps toward improving the pathway from the McNair program to the business school professoriate. But there is still a great deal to do, much of it outside the scope of our network. It is up to individual schools to find ways to engage more students and professors. We suggest that administrators take the following actions:

Model research. Host regular faculty research seminars in collaboration with student organizations, especially those affiliated with underrepresented groups. This exposes McNair-eligible students to the types of research that faculty members conduct, while making faculty members more accessible and their work less mysterious. Experiment with formats to allow multiple faculty members to give presentations about their work and to encourage faculty-student engagement. For instance, consider trying the Pecha Kucha style, in which presenters tell a story by talking about 20 slides for 20 seconds each. Once the pandemic is over, throw in some pizza to add to the enjoyment of the event.

Build infrastructure. In collaboration with the McNair Program office on campus, hold workshops that provide underrepresented students with insights into the lives they would lead as doctoral students and business faculty. Wharton’s Introduction to Diversity in Doctoral Education and Scholars (IDDEAS) initiative serves as a model.

Reward faculty mentors. Some McNair Programs give faculty mentors a small stipend, which business schools could match or exceed. For many schools, this stipend could be less expensive than other options for providing faculty with research support. The financial incentive signals that the school is committed to the McNair Program and wants faculty to engage with students from underrepresented backgrounds.

Network beyond McNair. The McNair Program typically ends with the undergraduate experience, but other funded programs pick up where it leaves off. By connecting to these programs, schools can minimize leaks in the lengthy pipeline to the professoriate. For example, PREDOC provides research experience and methods training to underrepresented students after they have finished their undergraduate degrees. The PhD Project focuses on ensuring that members of underrepresented groups successfully pursue doctoral PhD degrees and earn tenure as faculty members in business.

Sometimes great resources get overlooked. The McNair Program has been around for more than 30 years and offers tremendous opportunities for deserving and talented business students, who can then become talented and deserving business faculty. It’s time to take full advantage of this hidden gem.

Michael L. Barnett
Professor of Management and Global Business, Rutgers Business School
Ishva Minefee
Assistant Professor of Business Administration, University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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