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Wake-Up Call: Coburn Amendment and the Minority Pipeline in Political Science

- April 8, 2013

We are delighted to welcome back Karthick Ramakrishnan.


As is widely known in the political science community, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) failed to get the Senate to eliminate NSF funding in political science, but succeeded in placing severe limits to its use, limiting funding only to projects that “promote national security or the economic interests of the United States.”  In the days following the passage of the amendment, many began to wonder how it would affect existing programs, with some speculating the waiver might be interpreted broadly and would leave most funding efforts intact.

Now, we seem to have a clearer answer, and the implications for political science are troubling in ways that were not even appreciated or foreseen in the run-up to the Coburn amendment.

One of the first major casualties of the Coburn amendment, perhaps even the first known casualty of any size, is the cancellation of APSA’s Ralph Bunche Summer Institute (hereafter RBSI), “an annual five-week program designed to introduce minority students to the world of graduate study and to encourage application to Ph.D. programs.”

This development is deeply concerning, and will hurt the future of political science in a country that is moving inexorably towards majority-minority status by 2050.  In October 2011, APSA released a report on racial and gender diversity among political science faculty and graduate students.   While some may disagree with the diagnosis of the pipeline problem, the magnitude of the problem is indisputable, as African American, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans currently account for only 11% of the professoriate in political science (see page 40 of the report), and the primary beneficiaries of RBSI (African Americans and Latinos) account for only 14% of recent Ph.D.’s in political science (see page 65 of the report).

By forcing the elimination of the Ralph Bunche Summer Institute, the Coburn amendment has made the dire situation of a minority scholar pipeline even worse.  The RBSI is one of the few disciplinary efforts in political science to diversify the pipeline of Ph.D.’s in political science.  As some of the RBSI alumni testimonials indicate (and many of us know from our mentoring experiences), many of our brightest students opt for law school, business school, or consulting instead of exploring a future in political science.  This problem seems particularly acute for African American and Latino students, who are less likely than others to have a parent graduating from college, let alone to know any family member who has a social science Ph.D. or is a political science professor. 

RBSI imparts these students with some critical research skills, gives them a taste for graduate school, and connects them to faculty members from across the country.  Importantly, the program also networks students in ways to help ensure that they stay on the long, winding path through the Ph.D. and an academic career.  Finally, to the extent that racial diversity matters for institutional legitimacy, RBSI also helps political science in general, making the discipline and its practitioners seem less disconnected from the identities and experiences of an increasingly diverse student population and electorate.

Now, it is possible that uproar over the elimination of the Ralph Bunche Summer Institute will spur minority scholars and countless others who support the program to act.  A broad coalition of APSA members could even link efforts with the various minority caucuses in Congress (the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and the Congressional Native American Caucus).  There is good reason to believe that these caucuses can play a helpful role, not only from the (admittedly scant) scholarship on the subject, but also from recent memories of mobilization of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus over Congressional reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006.

Indeed, it is a shame that the RBSI was not one of the central talking points put forward by groups like the APSA and the MPSA, and there does not seem to have been any effort on the part of these associations to link up with these and other legislative caucuses in Congress when there was trouble on the horizon as far back as 2009.  Mentions of the RBSI or the relevance of NSF funding to improving the pipeline problem do not appear in APSA’s 2013 letter to Congress, its “action alerts” to members and departments, or in its talking points.

Looking forward, I am hopeful that APSA and various other political science associations can find ways to conduct meaningful and sustained outreach to these Congressional caucuses.  To do this successfully, however, political science needs to a far better job in how it supports and empowers minority scholars in the discipline.

Ironically, the Ralph Bunche Summer Institute was one of the few existing disciplinary efforts to improve the dire problem of an inadequate pipeline of minority Ph.D.’s in political science.  Now, thanks to the Coburn amendment, even this effort has been eliminated.

Hopefully this elimination is a wake-up call that prompts a deep re-examination within APSA and the discipline more generally—to make the necessary ambitious institutional changes needed to make sure that political scientists begin to more truly reflect the extant and growing racial diversity in the United States.  A topic for another blog post, and deeper analyses—hopefully from many parties interested in the future of our discipline.


Karthick Ramakrishnan is associate professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside and a former co-President of the Race, Ethnicity, and Politics section of the APSA.