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The Ford Foundation is ending its longtime fellowship program for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers from diverse backgrounds.
The foundation says the decision is part of a longer-term pivot away from funding education—which ranks high among philanthropic causes—to supporting traditionally underfunded work in social and racial justice.
Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, said in an announcement, “This was a painful sacrifice, but a necessary one. We understand and respect that some may disagree with our judgment. To be clear, no one is declaring victory for diversity and equity in higher education—not in the United States, not around the world. The academy neither fairly reflects the former nor fully embodies the latter. Clearly, we must hold higher-education institutions accountable for the persistent lack of diversity in tenured and leadership positions, despite a robust pipeline of diverse, talented scholars.”
Yet thanks “in large part to our extraordinary community of Ford Fellows—through their scholarship and mentorship—we see the seeds of change taking root, and a new ecosystem of support emerging around them,” Walker continued. “For us, therefore, the time has come to adapt and evolve—to recenter our support for a new generation of individuals, ideas, and institutions that are leading the way forward from inequality to justice.”
The Ford fellowships date back to the 1960s, when the foundation underwrote a version of the National Merit Scholarship Program for underrepresented students seeking graduate education and postdoctoral training. Fellowships are meant for scholars who wish to teach at the postsecondary level. “Positive factors” for selection (as opposed to eligibility requirements) include superior academic achievement, personal engagement with underrepresented groups and membership in an underrepresented racial group.
Predoctoral fellowships generally last three years, while dissertation and postdoctoral fellowships last one year. A one-year senior fellowship is available for faculty members who were previously Ford fellows.
Long administered by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, Ford fellowships have helped some 6,000 scholars attend graduate school, complete their dissertations and do research upon earning their doctorates. Beyond covering students’ tuition, where applicable, and offering stipends comparable to what institutions pay graduate workers and trainees, the program hosts annual conferences for fellows. These provide important networking and professionalization opportunities, past attendees say.
Concerns About the Future
Reactions to Ford’s decision to end the program have been mixed to critical. Ford fellowships have been described at times as favoring scholars from prestigious institutions, where opportunities for funding and networking may be plentiful relative to other institutions. At the same time, the fellowships have long been a significant part of the funding landscape for would-be academics from diverse backgrounds.
Unlike many other sources of external funding, Ford fellowships are available to scholars across all research-based disciplines. They’re available to Dreamers, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, who were brought to the U.S. without authorization as children, and are excluded from many other programs. And while numerous institutions have recently committed millions of their own dollars to recruiting and retaining diverse trainees and faculty members, it’s too soon to tell what kind of impact these initiatives will have, or if they’ll be lasting.
As other scholars have pointed out, the Ford Foundation’s decision to end fellowships coincides with the end of some similar programs funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: the International Dissertation Research Fellowship Competition, which supports 60 fellows annually by the Social Science Research Council, and the American Council of Learned Societies’ dissertation completion fellowships. (A Mellon spokesperson did not offer comment on these developments when asked Monday.)
Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, said in an interview that while she’d known the Ford Fellowship program was at risk, its ultimate cancellation was “a blow to the group here at the National Academy who have been really devoted to this program.”
However, McNutt said, “it’s not possible to assess the impact right now, because we don’t know what else the Ford Foundation is going to do with that funding.”
She continued, “The academy has been involved for 42 years with the Ford Fellows program. There have been more than 4,000 students [since that time] who have been impacted by it—a diverse group of students that form a great network, and they’ve been very successful. So it’s easy to look at the glass being emptied because of this program going away. But we haven’t heard yet what the Ford Foundation intends to replace it with. I know that the foundation is very devoted to equity and diversity and balancing injustice in this country. And perhaps they have come up with a new plan that will be just as effective but will scale to many more than 4,000 students over a 42-year period. It’s just impossible to say right now.”
The foundation’s press office did not respond to follow-up questions about the announcement Monday.
The Ford Foundation’s net assets approached $16 billion in 2020, according to FoundationMark, which tracks endowments. Ford historically awards $500 to $600 million in grants annually. Walker said in his announcement that the foundation has invested nearly $1 billion in higher education, including in diversifying leadership. This includes a $100 million pledge in 2012 to the National Academies to continue the Ford fellowships for an additional 10 years.
“Of course,” Walker said, “during the last decade, the world has changed in dramatic ways and the Ford Foundation has changed with it, specifically to address the scourge of inequality, the defining crisis of our time.”
It’s unclear just what direction the foundation will take now. One demonstrated area of interest is the U.S. South: last year, Ford committed $75 million in new funding to nonprofit and advocacy organizations across the region.
As for the fellowships, a new round will be awarded in 2023, and a limited number of awards will be made in 2024. The program ends after that. Support for all current fellows is unaffected.
Jake Grumbach, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington and a past Ford dissertation fellow, said that the fellowship allowed him to concentrate on finishing his doctorate and on a grueling tenure-track job search instead of on finding funding.
“Funding for that year allowed me to do a huge amount and really contributed to me getting an academic job and getting in this career, which I really, really love,” he said. “It was a crucial moment where I was down bad, and this was the only sort of external funding I had.”
Not Just a Private Good
Pointing to the decline of public funding for higher education since the 1970s, Grumbach said that private foundations have helped hold up higher education in many ways. So he said he worries that “now that seems to be unraveling, as well.”
Anima Adjepong, assistant professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Cincinnati and a past Ford predoctoral fellow, said, “I wouldn’t say that the Ford fellowship made my career, but I would say that it offered me a great community of other scholars. And I think I got a lot of professionalization out of it. That’s really important.”
As for the fellowship ending, Adjepong said that Walker’s explanation about devoting more resources to social movements seemed to “pit” scholars against activists to some degree, even as “amongst the Ford fellows that I know, and based on the conferences I’ve been at, folks are doing a lot of advocacy and activist work in different ways.”
Adjepong said that over all, the decision “reminds us of how philanthropy is really not the answer to our social ills. The Ford Fellowship did something great. I’m happy that I didn’t have to struggle for graduate school, and I’m happy that all of us who are fellows were able to kind of take advantage of this resource. But we were a select few, and that matters.”
Asked about the broader context of Ford’s decision, Kim Weeden, Jan Rock Zubrow ’77 Professor of Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Inequality at Cornell University, said that the Ford Fellowships helped address two persistent problems throughout higher education: that graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are mission-critical workers for whom it’s hard to find funding, and that scholars from historically marginalized communities remain woefully underrepresented.
While there is now more funding dedicated to scholars from historically marginalized groups now than when the Ford Fellowships started, Weeden said, “there still aren’t very many of these fellowships,” which are expensive for universities and which must to some degree compete with other campus needs. The foundation’s decision to sunset the program will therefore “certainly be felt, perhaps especially in the social sciences and humanities, where external grants that fully cover the costs of graduate student training are harder to come by.”
Weeden also said that the Ford Fellowships are a “private good in the sense that the individual recipients benefit enormously from the monetary funding of the fellowships, the mentoring program and the community of Ford fellows.” But they also contribute to the “public good by increasing the diversity of the Ph.D.-level workforce and the professoriate. This isn’t just a matter of redressing past wrongs or of mitigating racial injustice. Having a more diverse Ph.D.-level workforce brings in new ideas and perspectives, pushes research in directions it wouldn’t otherwise go, and, in universities, improves the quality of education for undergraduates.”