Equity efforts as boundary work: How symbolic and social boundaries shape access and inclusion in graduate education

Julie Posselt, Kimberly A. Reyes, Kelly E. Slay, Aurora Kamimura, Kamaria B. Porter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Background/Context: Education scholars have examined how state policy and informal practice can widen or reproduce racial and gender inequalities in graduate education. Just one empirical study, which focused on psychology programs, has identified organizational practice that supports recruitment and retention of graduate students of color. Focus of Study: To identify organizational conditions and specific activities that support diversity in STEM graduate programs, the authors conducted a yearlong case study of a physics program that, for the last decade, has trained about 10% of the Black Ph. D.s in physics, nationally. They identified and described concrete efforts to enhance access and inclusion, and sought to understand how this program distinguished itself from a traditional physics department. Participants: Study participants consisted of 16 faculty, administrators, administrative staff, and students affiliated with the Applied Physics program at the University of Michigan. Research Design: Data for this qualitative case study was collected through eighteen interviews, two student focus groups, observations of everyday life and special events in the program, and a large amount of documentary data. Guided by the constant comparative method, the analysis assessed convergence and divergence across types of data and across faculty, administrator, staff, and student perspectives. Major findings represent four areas of consensus across participant roles. Findings/Results: Four themes explain how Applied Physics has increased access to and inclusion in a field known for its inequality. The program institutionalized a flexible, interdisciplinary intellectual paradigm; they reconceputalized their vision of the ideal student and reformed admissions accordingly; they empowered administrative staffto serve as cultural translators across racial and faculty-student boundaries; and they worked to create a familylike climate that gave them a competitive advantage over other physics programs. Conclusions/Recommendations: We interpret the findings from the perspective of Charles Tilly's boundary change mechanisms, and conclude that the common thread among the four themes was the program's willingness to erase, relocate, and/or deactivate boundaries that had implicitly created barriers to access and inclusion for underrepresented students. The paper recommends specific steps that graduate programs can take to analyze the symbolic boundaries operating in their own programs, and invites scholars to utilize the boundaries perspective in future research on educational inequality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number100307
JournalTeachers College Record
Issue number10
StatePublished - 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Education


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