The Ford Foundation’s fellowship program, a half century–old effort to bring racial and ethnic diversity to US academic institutions by supporting select scholars, is ending, according to a statement issued earlier this month. The foundation will still award a full round of fellowships in 2023, but will award fewer in 2024 and will officially conclude the program in 2028. Sunsetting the renowned program, which provides annual stipends for trainees in areas such as psychology, engineering, history, and natural sciences, prompted expressions of concern from alumni and others in academia.
“I mourn the loss of this safe space for the generations of scholars of color who will no longer have the support of the Ford Foundation,” program alumnus Adriana Briscoe, a molecular biologist at the University of California, Irvine, writes in an email to The Scientist.
Since its inception in 1967, the initiative has supported 6,000 predoctoral, dissertation, and postdoctoral scholars, according to the foundation’s statement. The awards support scholars of color as they build careers within an academic system that has historically excluded them. The Ford Foundation attributed the decision to end its program to “the need to invest more deeply in movement-building work” but did not provide many specifics. In response to questions from The Scientist, Ford Foundation spokesperson Abby Glime sent another statement that reads in part, “We are shifting that funding to our core programs, which are outlined on our website. We believe we can have a greater impact if we focus on fewer issues but in a deeper, more meaningful way. . . . We understand and respect that some may disagree with our judgment.”
A key source of support
For Briscoe, the Ford Foundation’s fellowship offered a lifeline that allowed her to keep conducting her research when few other funding options were available.
After earning her PhD from Harvard nearly 25 years ago, Briscoe found herself in a precarious position. Her research involved searching for the molecular basis of vision in butterflies, something she says that no other scientist in the US was investigating at the time. After a presentation on her dissertation to a group of scientists, Briscoe recalls one of the audience members—a representative from the National Institutes of Health’s National Eye Institute—saying, “Your work is so cool, [but] we so do not fund that kind of work.”
Given what she describes as a “very reasonable” reluctance for some senior scientists to accept postdocs researching areas in which they themselves lack funding, Briscoe says she realized that her access to funding from National Institutes of Health—a big piece of the available pie when it comes to support for biological research—would be limited. The situation was clear: “I needed to find my own funding to continue this work.”
And she did. She applied for and, in 2000, received one of the Ford Foundation’s postdoctoral fellowships. Briscoe says that earning the fellowship allowed her to keep pursuing her work because it helped convince the head of a lab at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center to accept her as a postdoc. “The work I started as a PhD student that I took with me to this lab—funded by the Ford Foundation—is the absolute basis of my entire scientific career and my achievements as a faculty member,” she says.
The work . . . funded by the Ford Foundation—is the absolute basis of my entire scientific career and my achievements as a faculty member.
—Adriana Briscoe, University of California, Irvine
When Drea Darby, an entomologist at Cornell University, submitted her application for a predoctoral Ford Fellowship in 2019, she says she didn’t think she’d get it. In the spring of the following year, when she learned she would receive one, it meant so much to her that “I literally felt the blood drain from my body,” she says. The ability to focus on her research without having to take on a teaching-assistant role was great, of course, but she says that the network that came with the fellowship has been critical.
“I went through my whole K through 12 and then undergraduate education without having instructors who came from similar racial identities or lived experiences like myself, and this network has been so integral for me,” says Darby, who is biracial, adding that the fellowship’s network enabled her to connect with other Black and Filipino scholars.
The foundation holds annual conferences for fellows, which it says will continue until the program ends. Although Darby has only ever been able to attend remote versions of these events because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she says the experience was validating because for the first time, she heard faculty members discussing topics such as how academic institutions were not built with people like her in mind and addressing questions such as “How can we continue to not only survive but thrive in spaces that are actively hostile at times?”
Darby says such discussions are particularly important for people like her, who attend institutions with predominantly white faculty. She says that while she does receive good mentorship from white professors, they can’t relate to some of her experiences. Once, for example, a white faculty member at Cornell stopped Darby at the front door of the research building where they both work and asked to see her school ID, not recognizing her as a colleague. Recounting the incident, tears well in her eyes, and she says that the people in her Ford Fellowship network served as a beacon of shared experience. She says she’s concerned that the foundation’s decision will abandon a generation of scholars of color. “I guess I worry for future students who are coming into places that don’t have clear structures of support. How are they going to continue to be retained and get doctoral degrees?”
Darby says that she also worries about the message it might send to other grant-funding entities that the Ford Foundation has decided to end what she calls “the premier diversity fellowships.” Even though the foundation’s statement acknowledged that racial inequities in academia persist, she says she wonders whether the foundation’s decision could have a cascading effect, especially combined with an upcoming Supreme Court decision that could roll back affirmative action. “Will this be a signal to institutions that may offer diversity fellowships to also rescind theirs?”
In its email to The Scientist, the Ford Foundation says, “We very much hope that other philanthropies and philanthropic individuals may consider supporting such programs, and that the Ford Fellowships program can serve as a model for others interested in advancing racial equity” in academia.
A hazy future for diversity funding
Whether other funders will take up the reins remains to be seen. Marcia McNutt—president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which has managed the Ford Fellowship program for the past four decades—writes in an email to The Scientist that “We are grateful for 42 years of support for the Ford Foundation fellowships and have been honored to administer this impactful program.” McNutt reaffirms the NAS’s support for improving diverse representation at colleges and universities, but didn’t mention specific plans to continue an analogous program without Ford’s support: “Although this fellowship program is winding down, we remain committed to increasing ethnic and racial diversity in academia and will continue to explore ways to provide opportunities to advance the careers of promising researchers to achieve this important goal.”
Anna Haskins, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame who studies racial disparities in educational outcomes and why they persist, says that the work to improve diversity in American institutions is not done. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that, as of 2020, nearly three-quarters of full-time faculty positions in the US were held by white people, in contrast to 4 percent held by Black women, 3 percent by Black men, and another 3 percent each for Hispanic men and women.
“The Ford Fellowship in its existence has done an amazing job of opening up that pipeline” into academia for scholars of color, Haskins says, but “I think there continues to need to be purposeful efforts to address racial inequality in the American schooling system from elementary school to higher education.”
A Ford Fellowship recipient herself, Haskins says that the foundation’s goal to shift focus to movement-building is a worthy goal. But, she says, “I’m a ‘both-and’ person. In these days, we need all boots on the ground.”
As with the other Ford Foundation fellows The Scientist spoke with, Haskins highlights the importance of the network it has built over the decades. “It’s not just sociologists, it’s humanists, it’s biologists, chemists—so it’s this large, interdisciplinary group of people you’re interacting with,” she says, adding that she’s continued to receive mentorship from the group in the decade since she earned her fellowship.
As the fellowship program ends, “the networks will not continue to be built. There [will be] no more inductees into that network,” Haskins says. “It’s quite devastating.”