Graduate education

Academe as Meritocracy

Maybe The Economist and other critics of Ph.D. programs that admit more students than can expect to find good academic jobs are missing the benefits of the system, writes Joshua A. Tucker.

The Part-Time Grad Student

Departments need to recognize this cohort, and provide help that will lead to jobs later, writes Cory Owen.

Advice for Grad Students

Stephen C. Stearns offers advice on taking charge of a doctoral program.

Advice for Grad Students -- II

Stephen C. Stearns outlines writing issues facing those in doctoral programs.

Worth Fighting For

On August 4, three weeks before its historic first contract with the Graduate Student Organizing Committee was set to expire, New York University announced that it would no longer recognize its teaching assistants’ union. The decision was not a surprise -- NYU has been campaigning against the union since last fall. So why wait so long to make this official announcement? NYU’s plans are not popular on our campus, and it preferred to reveal its intentions over summer break, when the university is nearly empty.

In 2001, NYU became the first private university in the nation to recognize a union of its grad student employees, who perform essential teaching, administrative, and research jobs on campus.  (Graduate unions have existed for decades at many public institutions nationwide.) NYU’s graduate students elected to affiliate with UAW local 2110, a union that represents office and professional workers (our local includes workers at the Museum of Modern Art and The Village Voice).

Students negotiated a contract with the university that increased wages by an average of 40 percent and, for the first time ever, guaranteed full health coverage and office space for some of the primary teachers of NYU undergraduates. The contract also set maximum weekly work hours, which helped keep classes small and prevented the university from overburdening individual TA's to cut costs. My older brother, now a doctoral candidate in cinema studies and one of the first members of GSOC, earned $10,000 per year and had no health insurance as a TA. He had to take on as many as two extra jobs while he taught in order to pay rent in New York City, which can easily exceed $10,000 per year. The improvements in graduate student life only came about because students organized a union to demand them. I have no reason to expect that NYU will, as some in the administration have put it, "take care of us" without one.

In April, a majority of graduate students signed a petition to NYU President John Sexton asking for new contract negotiations, and more than 200 full-time faculty have since done the same. Despite this broad support, NYU insists on opposing GSOC for only one major reason: it argues that a union will interfere with "academic decision-making" -- decisions, for example, about who will teach which class and what they will put on the syllabus. The fact that NYU can cite no convincing examples that any such union meddling has ever happened over the course of the contract has not stopped its lawyers from repeatedly raising these issues in the anti-union emails with which they regularly bombard the entire campus. Often authored by university lawyers Terry Nolan and Cheryl Mills, these long-winded odes to the life of the mind argue quaintly that union representation is incompatible with the "academic values" of a university.

According to this view, the university is a sanctuary from the workaday world -- fair negotiations over wages, benefits, and terms of employment are the kind of vulgarities that belong at a lumberyard, not the sacrosanct university campus. In April, Mills and Nolan wrote that unions are "familiar with industrial work environments; they are not familiar with academic decision-making within universities.”  This is a foolish claim that should surprise any member of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents over 130,000 professors and academic professionals across the country, including those in New York City’s public university system -- not to mention our UAW colleagues at the Universities of California, Massachusetts, and Washington.

NYU’s charges  of UAW interference in "academic decision-making" focus on the grievance procedure that students negotiated in our contract. This is a standard provision of any union pact, including teaching unions, because it allows employees (and employers) to enforce their contracts. Currently, disputes not settled at these earlier stages will be decided by an independent arbitrator. NYU has now proposed a grievance procedure in which all grievances not settled at the not resolved at the departmental or school level would be "fully and finally" decided by the provost, which would effectively give the university the last word on all the terms of our employment.

GSOC has filed grievances when grad students have come to the union with real problems with employment issues. For example, a graduate student I know taught a class for which she was never paid. The dispute was settled only after she filed a grievance for back pay. The grievance procedure exists precisely to resolve cases like this, not to protest unpopular teaching assignments or rearrange course syllabi. Of course, GSOC members do not win every case; nor does the university. Even so, when NYU insisted that our grievances were the main obstacle to negotiating a second union contract, GSOC offered to withdraw any grievance the university found problematic. NYU rejected this offer at compromise, and then announced its decision not to negotiate with the union.

So what makes graduate assistant unions so important for college education today? For one thing, they are one bulwark against the streamlining of undergraduate education -- a business model of cost-cutting that is eroding the quality of a college education precisely when it is growing more expensive — over $31,000 a year at NYU. Most undergraduates at big universities today will only occasionally encounter a tenured faculty member during their studies. According to David Kirp, author of Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line, at NYU today at least 70 percent of undergraduate classes are taught by overworked and undervalued, yet talented and dedicated, graduate assistants and part-time or adjunct faculty, simply because this is the cheapest way to shuttle students through their degree programs. This is one reason why NYU objects to our union.

The university has hidden behind last year's partisan 3-2 decision by the Republican-majority National Labor Relations Board, which overturned its own precedent that graduate assistants were employees legally entitled to join a union. NYU contends that this decision validates its counterintuitive claim that paid teaching assistants are students, and not employees. We are, quite obviously, both. Yet the votes of three political appointees in Washington should not outweigh those of hundreds of graduate students at NYU.

The university's decision-making process on unionization has in this way been taken completely out of students’ and faculty’s hands. Administrators made their decision over the summer, and only asked for “comments” from the university community afterwards. A campus "town hall meeting" with President Sexton was scheduled for a mid-July Tuesday afternoon, nearly a month after the university had already announced preliminary plans to oppose the TA union.

NYU did solicit professors’ opinions on GSOC -- but again, only after the decision had already been made public. In response, Faculty Democracy, a newly-formed group of over 100 professors from a variety of disciplines, wrote President Sexton an angry letter calling NYU’s deliberations on GSOC "a mockery of process."

When one gets down to the bare facts, NYU has simply behaved like any big company fighting its employees. Yet graduate students are not the only ones that stand to lose if NYU succeeds in eliminating a union that many students and professors agree has benefited both graduate and undergraduate education here. If NYU’s undergraduates really are a priority of this university anymore, it is crucial that their primary teachers have a manageable teaching load, job security, and the respect of their employers. Once again, it has fallen to teaching assistants and their adjunct colleagues to remind NYU administrators of the real "academic values" of the university: to teach students.

Author/s: 
J.P. Leary
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

J.P. Leary is a Ph.D. student in comparative literature at New York University and a member of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, UAW Local 2110.

Graduate Students Are Students

The nature of graduate assistants – students or "workers" -- has been at the heart of the graduate assistant unionization effort at a number of private universities. New York University’s unwavering position has been that graduate assistants are students, not employees, and their assistantships are financial aid to support their academic program. This has been our position even when the National Labor Relations Board ruled otherwise for a brief period before returning to its long-held position last summer.  In deciding whether to negotiate a new contract with the United Auto Workers, this principle would had to have been maintained in any outcome the university embraced.  

NYU’s decision not to renegotiate a new contract with the UAW cannot be separated from the history of its experience with the UAW over the course of the original contract. In 2001 when NYU signed an agreement with the United Auto Workers and gave up its right to take the matter to court, the university took a leap of faith: We relied on an understanding with the UAW about the need to protect core academic decision-making from collective-bargaining process. This understanding was recorded both in contract language and an accompanying letter from the UAW. These assurances formed the foundation of our agreement and were indispensable to our decision to forgo our rights to appeal the decision at that time. 

However, contrary to their commitment, the UAW sought to obtain authority through the grievance process over academic matters that they had specifically agreed were not within their purview. These grievances were not simple issues over back pay, as the union publicly proclaims. They are challenges to the kind of key academic decisions no university would subject to collective bargaining: who is appointed to teach a class, how many years graduate students can take to complete their studies, or who is a graduate assistant.  The fact that the union’s grievance attempts on these issues failed and that arbitrators strongly rejected their claims does not change the peril the grievances posed. Had an arbitrator decided against NYU, even wrongly, the decision would have had the force of law.  Moreover, these grievances reflected a fundamental lack of good faith that is compounded by the union’s efforts to recast them in their public utterances.

So, as NYU contemplated whether to enter voluntarily into a new contract, these matters weighed heavily.  The university engaged in a robust and thorough dialogue on the matter, involving many forums. Two committees -- one of faculty and the other elected University Senators -- both advised against negotiating a new contract, citing the grievances in particular, and 160 faculty members signed a letter urging the University not to sign a new contract, saying:

“For a graduate student union to be appropriate, the predominant or primary relationship between the University and its graduate students must be that of employer to employee. But that is clearly not the case...

"...[O]ur PhD students are chosen for their potential to become, after a period of intensive training lasting several years, important contributors to their academic disciplines. A part -- but not the main part -- of that training involves learning the craft of teaching, which in turn involves the often arduous tasks of grading, lecturing and interacting with students. But could anyone looking at this picture in the whole seriously maintain that the primary nature of the relationship between the University and its graduate students is that between an employer and its employees?"

Given that the UAW was already on our campus, and it was clear that many graduate assistants wanted the union to be their voice mechanism, the university took the unprecedented step of seeking to meet the UAW half-way in response to their public statements that it was willing to take the issue of grievances off the table.

Before NYU decided last week not to negotiate a new contract with the United Auto Workers as collective bargaining representatives for its graduate students, we fashioned an offer that would have sought a middle ground, striking an important balance and creating a new paradigm. The offer provides graduate assistants with union representation on economic issues, while protecting the integrity of the academic decision-making process that is essential to graduate assistants’ primary role as students. Grievances would be addressed within the academic processes of the university and conclude with the provost, thereby ensuring that academic decisions involving graduate students are made through academic processes and based on academic norms.   

In making this offer, NYU moved farther than any other private college or university to try to reach an agreement. We were willing to enter into an agreement that would have created this new paradigm; the UAW was not. NYU wanted academic decisions to be made in an academic process; the United Auto Workers wanted academic decisions to be made by outsiders.

And so, we will implement the proposals NYU offered in June, which built in part upon the lessons we learned from our experience with unionization: $1,000 per year increase in the base stipend (currently $18,000 annually) for each of the next three years for graduate students, payment of 100 percent of student health insurance premiums, full tuition remission, and the creation of new mechanisms for graduate student voice within the NYU community, as well as a $200,000 fund for medical emergencies (a suggestion that emerged as our proposals were being considered). This will permit our graduate students to pursue their studies in an environment guided by academic norms and oriented to supporting their academic success, with the support of stipends and benefits that are guaranteed.

Each university will necessarily make its own decision as it confronts calls for unionizing graduate assistants. NYU’s history will probably be instructive to many, and  the UAW’s rejection of our offer will likely come to be seen as a singular lost opportunity:  that a union could not bring itself to embrace a new paradigm, preferring instead to rely upon a traditional employer/employee labor model that has proven to be ill-suited for an academic environment.  

Author/s: 
John Beckman
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

John Beckman is vice president for public affairs at New York University. (An article by a member of the TA union at NYU, defending the United Auto Workers, appeared on Inside Higher Ed last week.)

10 Reasons

Back in the prelapsarian days of faculty unionization in the 1970s, when there were few laws on the books empowering and regulating collective bargaining in higher education, it was not uncommon for administrators to recognize a union simply because faculty had voted for it. It was an almost unspoken tenet of campus collegiality -- and a precursor to today's embattled concept of shared governance -- that institutions should honor the clear majority wishes of their faculty. That is essentially what happened recently to the graduate employee union drive at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After a decade's struggle, the enlightened chancellor -- who has since resigned -- simply recognized the union.

There was a difference, however; the graduate student vote had taken place years ago and been dismissed as legally nonbinding. What graduate student employees had to do to apply a bit of leverage was to occupy the administration building. Details of that story are in Office Hours: Activism and Change in the Academy (Routledge, 2004). There is a general lesson in the Illinois strategy: you can get a union if your employee group has majority support for it and if you are willing to go the distance, to disrupt daily life on campus by nonviolent civil disobedience. That may well be what will be required at New York University this fall.

Every unionization drive now includes an aggressive anti-union campaign organized and funded by the administration. Why? Why has the civility of an earlier (and far from utopian) era disappeared? Why do administrators fear graduate student employee unionization drives? I'd like to propose some answers to these questions:

1. The character of higher education administration is changing. I still prefer the model of an eloquent and progressive administrator whom one can admire. That is my notion of appropriate campus leadership. I encountered such people several times at my undergraduate college (Antioch) and have done so repeatedly at Illinois, but in the last decade I have increasingly witnessed administrators who make exploiting the campus workforce a primary aim. When an administrator prefers to deny campus employees decent health care, satisfactory retirement benefits, a living wage, safe working conditions, and effective grievance procedures, that administrator is an adversary. Unionization does not invent adversary relationships in such cases; instead it recognizes them and tries to negotiate them in a rational way.

2. Every administrator wants full control over the budget and maximum personal power. Unions alter the forces effecting budget allocation. They change campus priorities. Even the modest gains graduate employees have won represent a symbolic loss of centralized power. Administrators fear the symbolism as much as the real impact. But the message successful collective action sends about the potential to change campus power relations more generally is a potent one that worries administrators considerably.

3. Unionization threatens the increasing use of contingent labor. A legally binding union contract may be the only way to limit the growing reliance on contingent labor. A contract can potentially restrict the percentage of courses taught by part-time faculty and by graduate students. Administrators would prefer to decide the ratio of full-time to part-time employees themselves.

4. Union solidarity and negotiation threatens increasing administrative desire to control both appointments and the curriculum. I have encountered growing administrative discomfort with traditional faculty control over appointments and growing administrative resistance to faculty control over the curriculum. Some administrators want the power to shift appointments and curricula quickly to meet corporate needs. Others simply want to emphasize more profitable majors.

5. Union solidarity strengthens academic freedom. With tolerance for campus dissent decreasing, administrators should welcome union organized support for academic freedom. Yet some administrators would prefer to capitulate to outside political and corporate pressure. It is depressingly clear that some administrators at our most prestigious campuses have no fundamental understanding of or respect for academic freedom. For them unionization seems a threat, not a benefit.

6. Unions can seek a role in defining the institution's mission. Not only administrators but also governing boards have shown interest in redefining the basic mission of colleges and universities. Where faculty senates are weak and submissive, both faculty and graduate students need a vehicle to express their views of the institution's purposes and goals. Mission statements that faculty and students find abhorrent need to be resisted.

7. Union contracts counteract the dramatic differences in campus compensation. More and more are campus salaries mimicking the increasing gap between corporate managers' earnings and those on the shop floor. As the gap between administrators' salaries and the salaries of those who teach or perform other campus work widens, the sense of common purpose is undermined. Yet too many administrators are comfortable with this trend and fear union power to resist or reverse it.

8. The greatest worry is with for sciences. A union representing research assistants in the laboratory sciences is likely to have the power to initiate grievance procedures. The secret of how some such labs are run in science and engineering is not well known. Students are often privately warned they cannot expect positive evaluations or recommendations unless they work 80-120 hours a week in the lab. Even with beginning grad students, who do not yet have dissertation projects, the time above 40 hours is treated as the student's personal research. Often it is actually virtually all research for the faculty member in charge of the lab. Established grad employee unions have regularly won grievance complaints against such practices, and that has real budgetary implications for the labs at issue. Exploitive labs are often established around a core of foreign students, many of whom do not have family in the United States and all of whom increasingly risk being thrown out of the country or denied entrance in the first place. Once a core of lab employees accepts the requirement of an 80-120 hour work week it is then possible to integrate American citizens into the same culture. Some of the other rules such labs put in place are equally surprising. Grad employees may be denied standard university holidays unless they work overtime in advance to "pay" for them. They may be assigned breakage fees for the loss of ordinary glass equipment. All these abuses will be fought by a good union.

9. Relations with faculty will be poisoned. This is a false fear, because unions tend to displace potential student/faculty confrontations. Instead of grad employees in a lab having to protest unfair working conditions to their supervisors, union negotiators initiate far less emotional and confrontational grievance procedures. Having experienced union representatives negotiate grievances reduces rather than increases antagonism. That is true both for exploitive labs and for humanities or social science courses that overwork teaching assistants. It is not in fact unusual for humanities department faculty to endorse grad employee union drives. They do so because they want their students to be better paid and because they do not see themselves as employers in any case.

10. Unions promote new identities for faculty and students. The last decade has seen a growing tendency for members of a given union to reach out to other employee groups on campus and the community. After several decades in which the self-interested, entrepreneurial faculty member has seemed the major identity available in higher education, unions have begun to promote socially responsible, community oriented identities. Some American Association of University Professors unions have reached out to help their grad employee colleagues organize for collective bargaining. Grad students and faculty have joined city-wide living wage campaigns. Grad employee unions especially have joined other campus and off-campus unions in job actions. The new Ph.D.'s who come of age in these community oriented unions enter the profession ready to pursue not only their own careers but also the well being of the whole community in which they live. An enlightened administrator has nothing to fear in this development and every reason to welcome it. But administrators who worship corporatization, not community, are coming to fear the rise of a faculty class who identify with all workers.

The American Association of University Professors recognizes the right of all campus groups to decide for themselves whether they wish to negotiate their salaries and working conditions collectively. The organization takes no position on whether they should opt to unionize. It simply recognizes that the right inheres in each employee group. Increasingly, campus administrators seek to deny that right. Several campuses have spent more fighting these drives than they would be likely to spend paying for benefits won in contact negotiations. Perhaps the reasons above help explain that anomaly.

Author/s: 
Cary Nelson
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Cary Nelson is Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

We Need Humanities Labs

"Solitude vivifies; isolation kills."
--Joseph Roux, Meditations of a Parish Priest, 1886

I wonder how an English professor would feel spending a week in a physics lab. Not about the scientific work, but about the frequent, ongoing interaction between students and peers, post-docs and faculty. Scientists see each other in the lab, if not daily, then at least weekly. They have frequent lab meetings, colloquia and interaction with scholars at other universities around joint research. During my graduate training in psychology at McGill University, especially in the research lab at the Montreal Neurological Institute, I spent hours hanging around the post-docs. I learned at least as much from them as I did from my interactions with my professors. The expectation was that I would be at the lab 9 to 5 or more, every day. I saw my adviser every day.

My curiosity about this hypothetical English professor’s reaction began after a discussion with my father, a professor emeritus in physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara. As we chatted about my work as a dissertation and tenure coach, he expressed shock when I recounted how graduate students in English could go a month or more with no contact with their advisor. He estimated that his students usually saw him daily, and never went for more than a week without interaction with him, except when he was traveling. As he quizzed me more and more about the grad student experience in humanities departments, it became more and more clear to me that there is a deep divide.

In the humanities, outside of the classroom, this kind of easy and even semi-formal interaction is rare. The isolation for the grad student begins in earnest when the coursework is finished and the qualifying exams are completed. The fledgling ABD is nudged out of the nest, left to fly solo for long periods. The luckiest students have advisors who are mentors and insist on frequent meetings, which increase accountability and allow the student to learn how to think in a scholarly manner. The large majority, however, are left to flounder, some of them working as adjuncts far from the institution where they are trying to finish  a Ph.D.

The students whose advisers organize monthly dissertation meetings get some help with the isolation. These meetings usually involve prior submission of one’s work, with a presentation and then feedback from peers and one’s advisor during the meeting. The opportunity to present one’s own work may come up only once every few months. For many grad students, most writing is accomplished in the days preceding submission of their work. I believe that these meetings are too infrequent and too formal to make up for the absence of ongoing interaction with other scholars.

Beyond these dissertation meetings, scholarly dialogue with peers or advisers is sporadic in most departments outside the sciences. In many cases, the adviser's expectation is that the student will request a meeting when the student is ready. Thus begins one of the vicious cycles of graduate school. The student, working in a void, measures himself against what he imagines his peers are doing. Often he finds himself lacking, and feels ashamed. So he puts off the meeting with his adviser. This increases his isolation and sense of inadequacy. He feels that he is floundering and going in circles. Without encouragement and deadlines, such students can languish for months, and even years.

As a dissertation coach, I’ve worked with many such students. The luckier ones are early in the process and not yet consumed with self-loathing and shame. Others have been at it for years and feel terrible about themselves. It is noteworthy that 80-90 percent of the calls I receive for dissertation coaching are from students in the humanities, social sciences or education -- all fields less likely to have a lab environment. The rest are writing their dissertation away from their university and find it difficult to work in that void.

Conferences and conventions offer important opportunities for scholarly dialogue, as do online blogs.  However, there are limitations to conferences (too infrequent) and blogs. What I am advocating is injecting into the humanities department some of the freewheeling dialogue found in the halls outside the conference presentation or in some of the better scholarly blogs.

Why is there such a difference between the hard sciences and the humanities? An obvious reason is that science is best done in groups, due to the availability of expensive equipment and the need for collaboration to make elaborate projects work. Second, science is funded largely by grants, which contain within them the need for accountability. The person in charge of the grant will make darn sure that neither time nor money is being wasted, by frequently checking in with those doing the research and writing.

Barton Kunstler, who wrote  "The Hothouse Effect: Time Proven Strategies of History's Most Creative Groups,” in Futures Research Quarterly, argues that organizations can grow into "creative hothouses," much as Ancient Athens or Renaissance Florence. If humanities departments were to proceed as outlined by Kunstler, they would go beyond counting their peer-reviewed publications, and move into creating lasting legacies and nurturing breakthrough thinking. Kunstler identifies the attributes of organizations likely to spawn such changes, including the following: "workers immerse themselves in others’ ideas and work, absorbing creative influences," and "mentor relationships abound." Clearly, it would benefit all the members of such a department, not just the struggling graduate students, to create an atmosphere that "spawns 'geniuses'" and "stands at the center of a wider cultural movement."

How will such changes occur in actual practice?  Certainly there is not a need for more departmental meetings.  Kunstler suggests that you "reevaluate the basic assumptions and methods of your discipline," and "challenge your most treasured paradigms." Those at the higher levels can begin by modeling the behavior they would like to see in others -- proposing informal discussions, sharing work with colleagues, discussing publishing with faculty from other departments, and seeking out a grad student or two to bounce ideas off of. If every professor advising graduate students made it a point to have a substantive conversation with one of his or her ABD’s a day, the picture for many grad students would change radically.

I suggest that graduate students begin at the grassroots level. They should suggest weekly meetings to peers, with the only agenda being the discussion of work in progress at an informal level. If they are geographically scattered, they can meet by phone -- there are free conference lines available. In my coaching groups there is a high level of closeness and support, even though none of these people have met in person. People should be encouraged to attend with partly formed thoughts, poorly written paragraphs, or just an idea they want to develop. The idea is to think of all such scholarly dialogue as a laboratory. Ideas are cooked up, thrown in the test tube, and mixed with human interaction, creativity and motivation. These experiments will produce better written and less painfully produced dissertations or publications, and might engender a "creative humanities hothouse."

Author/s: 
Gina Hiatt
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Gina Hiatt is a clinical psychologist and dissertation and tenure coach. She is the founder of Academic Ladder. Her blog is AcademiBlog.

Classify Programs, Not Colleges

The new Carnegie classifications have emerged from gestation, showing a great deal of thought and energy, which is too bad. Once again we are classifying the boxes and not the fruit.

The education establishment works very hard to say that the classifications are not intended to represent a pecking order among institutions, but the rest of the world instantly uses it that way. The gold rush mentality causes perfectly respectable regional colleges (e.g., Western Oregon University, in my neck of the woods) to wriggle and stretch through all manner of political hoops to become “Universities,” even faux flagships such as the magically relabeled Missouri State University (another perfectly respectable regional college all tarted up with nowhere to go).  

There are other classification systems. Although the nation’s system of college accreditation and state approval is not exactly a college classification system, in some ways it functions as one. There are overlapping hierarchies of academic seraphim, cherubim and what Jack Aubrey, in one of Patrick O’Brien’s novels, calls “ordinary foremast angels.” Regional accreditors, national accreditors, state agencies and licensing boards all watch with proprietary care the shifting Cassini divisions between their roles and jurisdictions.

It is time to recognize that these boxes, too, are not that different in their basic descriptions except at the lowest levels, and that what matters is the quality of programs colleges contain as related to their mission.  

All college degree programs are not created equal, nor are they equal today. This may be obvious to my friends who hold senior faculty positions at the University of Oregon, Illinois, Northwestern and elsewhere in the upper strata of research institutions. These, after all, are major research universities, formally authorized to condescend by their role as the top layer in the Carnegie classification system. Likewise, my friends who hold positions at Washington & Jefferson, Reed, Davidson and other fine liberal arts colleges can nod politely from their elfin perch in the canopy layer, content to consort with fine young minds.  

The distinction is less obvious to those who work in and attend the great bulk of American colleges and universities, but it is nonetheless true. All colleges glaze the clay that they are given. The clay is largely formed by the time it reaches college, but the nature of both the formed clay and the available glaze differs widely, and society expects the resultant china to perform differently under different conditions. Let us recognize this reality and stop comparing unlike things.

Meandering through the pages of any college catalog looking at degree programs is much like walking the streets of an old western ghost town (or a movie set of one). All of the programs are excellent, leading their field and cutting edge -- apparently all the faculty trained at Lake Wobegon U. The main drag of programs consists of an impressive array of two-story buildings, all of similar appearance on the front. Some have two stories of solid building behind them, full of rooms and people. Others are mainly false fronts, behind which awaits what amounts to a conveyor belt: “this way to the Egress.”  

It is time to stop classifying colleges and start classifying degree programs. Today this is done on an occasional basis for certain doctoral programs by the National Research Council, but other programs are largely ignored except by specialized accreditors in certain fields. All college degrees issued in the United States should be formally classified according to the nature of the work necessary to obtain them. Classification should be mandatory and no college degree should be exempt from it. 

Such a classification scheme would allow students, employers and all other interested people to decide whether a particular college degree is what they want, either as a learning experience or in an employee, co-worker or colleague. There are other classification schemes already in existence, but they do not provide the right kind of information needed by most students, potential students and employers.

Each degree-granting program operating legally in the United States should be classified according to the strength of its program as determined by experts in its field.  This system should not be applied to colleges, only to degree programs individually, because there is so much variation among programs at each school except the very best and the abysmal.

Note that this system says nothing about admission standards, only about program quality. There is no reason for a program to adjust its quality and expectations based on who enrolls in it: programs should decide what level they should most sensibly be at and stay there. Students will, for the most part, self-select based on program type just as they do now. In this system, programs would be classified as follows, as determined by peers in the field, with U and G representing undergraduate and graduate programs:

Honors (U). The best undergraduate programs, maintaining the highest expectations of students, and using the most difficult and complex curricula. Intended to provide superlative undergraduate learning for its own value and, secondarily, to prepare students to study in Research programs.

Research (G). The highest level graduate programs, intended to train professional researchers and faculty for colleges and universities, exclusive of licensed professional fields.  There is no such thing as a “research institution,” there are only research-level programs, and it is time for the higher education establishment to admit this.

Professional (U, G). Programs that train students to practice in licensed professions.  Programs of this nature can most effectively be evaluated by professionals in the field, in part using professional licensure rates and reputational surveys within licensed professions. The Carnegie system already has a similar category.

Standard (U, G). Programs designed for a wide variety of students, but not as challenging as Honors programs, with less ambitious expectations. These programs are not designed to prepare students to obtain doctoral degrees in Research programs, although some top students may succeed in such programs.

Basic (U, G). Programs that meet the basic expectations of a college-level degree program but do not meet the requirements for a Standard designation owing to some academic deficiencies.

Nonstandard (U, G). Programs that do not meet the basic expectations of a college-level degree program, or which decline to be evaluated.

New. Designation of “New” can be applied to any program, only at its own request, during its first five years of operation, as a qualifier for any other classification.  Few programs show their true colors right out of the box.

In another of Patrick O’Brien’s novels, Stephen Maturin reminds us that “the kinds of happiness cannot be compared.”  In some ways, neither can the kinds of degrees. The first necessary step, however, is to recognize that differences exist and to acknowledge them, rather than pretending that all regionally accredited colleges produce the same kind of degree-earning experience, or that degrees issued for one purpose are comparable to those issued for another. This is fiction.

Let us stop using institutional classifications of dubious meaning and start classifying academic programs using a system that is honest, based on evaluation by faculty and helps people understand college degree programs, as well as pointing out which emperors are naked and which paupers wear cloth of gold.

Author/s: 
Alan L. Contreras
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Alan L. Contreras has been administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, since 1999. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission.

The Great Mismatch

Doctoral education in the United States has changed rapidly over the last 30 years, with increasing specialization and the emergence of new sub-fields for graduate study. Depending on the nature and size of a university, some of these fields and sub-disciplines fit into traditional academic departments, while others demand their own departments or even colleges. Examples of the former abound, such as post-colonial studies, which may often find a comfortable home in an English or comparative literature department. In the latter category are fields like criminal justice, public policy, social work and nano-scale science and engineering -- highly-developed fields that attract increasingly large numbers of students and significant government and foundation funding.

We live within an academic marketplace of ideas, and the best institutions respond to the emergence of new areas of inquiry with vigor. Indeed, research universities can be judged by their ability to recognize and institutionalize new areas and disciplines, supporting excellence within them and nurturing their growth. Scholars typically lead administrators in these efforts, writing books that outline possible boundaries of a new field, establishing journals to define the area, or gathering colleagues for forward-looking conferences intended to advance cutting-edge approaches and methods.

From our standpoint, the more fields and defined areas of doctoral study, the better:  Formal establishment of these areas is typically the result of tremendously high student and scholarly demand. New areas of study are also the result of significant investments by universities and, in the case of public institutions, taxpayer dollars. Not surprisingly state officials and the public are eager for an accounting of how their investments stack up against others. This issue becomes all the more important when, as is true with the National Research Council ratings project, participating public as well as private institutions must pay to be part of the study.

Given that pushing the research envelope is one of the central tenets of any great university, it seems ironic that a survey designed to evaluate the quality and breadth of research would leave so much of our nation’s research untouched. Despite the imagination, interdisciplinarity, and fluidity one finds across the academy in recognizing emerging fields, our most prominent rating system -- the NRC Assessment of Research-Doctorate Programs -- has not responded, and in fact has resisted the change we see around us.

This fall the NRC released its new taxonomy, listing the fields that would be assessed and those that would not be studied. The new taxonomy reflects our worst fears for the assessment of Ph.D. programs: It fails to recognize a large number of thriving and vitally important fields where some of the most talented researchers in the world can be found. Among these fields are criminal justice, public administration and policy, social work, information science, gender studies, education, and public health. We have expressed our strong objections about these exclusions to Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, and to Charlotte Kuh, study director for the NRC Assessment. We have received no response, and other academic leaders have been treated with the same disregard when they have challenged plans for the new assessment. Such behavior seems especially problematic given the importance of the NRC study for institutions and researchers.

Placing fields like gender studies and information studies in the new, nebulous "emerging fields" category -- fields that will not be rated -- does not solve the problem in the least, but simply steers important scholarly endeavors in a giant black box. The justification of the taxonomy boldly notes that "emerging areas of study may be transitory," hence it is risky to evaluate them with the same rigor used for other fields. From what we can discern at least, information science, the study of race, of ethnicity, of sexuality, and gender have already emerged, and have profoundly changed the academy for the better. We imagine that scholars in these fields are not transitory in the least: A large number of them hold endowed chairs, run centers, manage departments, edit journals, lead foundations and run major institutions.

To make matters even more painful for us, for our faculty, and for colleagues around the nation, the National Academies recently asked for our financial support for the project -- a contribution of $20,000 for larger research universities like our own. We felt compelled to pay the price, but we did so reluctantly and over the strong objections of leading scholars on our campus.

One can critique numerous aspects of the NRC rating system, and a variety of leaders in higher education have done so quite eloquently for more than a decade since the last report. The data collection takes years to compile, and these data quickly become outdated as faculty members move and institutions change. We understand that the new system will involve online questionnaires and include a database that can be updated annually, and we appreciate the National Academies’ efforts in this regard. Another difficulty with earlier NRC studies has been the inclusion of reputational surveys. The forthcoming NRC study has promised to eliminate the reputational rankings from its rating system, and this, too, is an improvement. Among the worst offences of the system has been the bias toward large programs; much of the variance in previous ratings can be explained elegantly by department size (The 600-pound gorilla of a department, even with many unproductive scholars, will come out ahead of the smaller and higher quality programs). Perhaps the questionnaires planned for institutions and admitted-to-candidacy doctoral students in selected fields will help add a new dimension to program quality that will compensate in some programs for differences in size.

But these revisions, while potentially significant, only make the intentional and unexplained omission of major fields of knowledge, critical to the development of the academy, more inexplicable. Methodological change is not much of an advance if one is not measuring the right population of fields and disciplines. A social science parallel, from public opinion research, is relevant here:  You can refine a survey instrument all you like, sweating over question wording, order effects, and non-response to the survey. But if you are asking respondents about banal issues of little political import, why bother?

There is an even more troubling irony in the current effort. The NRC has chosen not to include “those fields for which much research is directed toward the improvement of practice,” such as Ph.D. programs in “social work, public policy, nursing, public health, business, architecture, criminology, kinesiology, and education.” This approach, of course, flies in the face of a recently-released report on “The Responsive Ph.D.” by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. This report identifies the principle of “a cosmopolitan doctorate” as central to the future of the Ph.D. The report emphasizes that such a doctorate “will benefit enormously by a continuing interchange with the worlds beyond academia” and calls upon doctoral education to “open to the world and engage social challenges more generously.” The NRC assessment, by excluding so many well-established Ph.D. programs, will simply have the effect of reifying the status quo at research universities, instead of helping us respond boldly to the loud and chronic public call for an open and responsive academy.

The Taxonomy Committee argues that the task of evaluating research in these fields lies “beyond the capacity of the current or proposed methodology.” We do not accept this argument as valid, particularly given the proposed scope and expense of the projected NRC study. Further, the taxonomy displays no systematic logic with regard to which applied and interdisciplinary programs are included and which are excluded. Why include nutrition or pharmacology, clearly applied fields, but not criminal justice? Why is the study of sexuality not included while German linguistics and Latin American Literature both are? There is no decision rule in sight, and the taxonomy does not even come close to matching the current landscape of the academy. Perhaps if the NRC had retained the reputational measures, they might have been able to mount an argument about excluding particular fields. But, ironically, the new approach makes the taxonomy more distant from reality. It is removed from the marketplace of ideas, and excludes the voice of the scholarly community.

Apparently the NRC is not open to arguments like the ones above, and as a result, the ratings they will eventually produce will not reflect a great deal of the most important scholarship in higher education today. Not only will the final report have gaping holes, ignoring the work of thousands of scholars, but the NRC will also fail to recognize that interdisciplinary research with practical application matters immensely.

We predict that this next round of results will be received -- whenever it is complete -- as a dinosaur, an artifact of uneven logic and old-fashioned thinking about what constitutes true scholarly discovery. We are grateful that other assessment systems are appearing and regret that the NRC will spend over $5 million on a quickly outdated effort to assess graduate education. Thankfully, such short-sightedness will not stop our best scholars from developing new approaches, forging innovative fields, training hungry students, and changing the world for the better through their work. We call on the National Academies  – yet again -- to reconsider their taxonomy, so that leaders in higher education can demonstrate to our public officials that we are capable of evaluating the very research enterprise with which we have been entrusted.

Author/s: 
Kermit L. Hall and Susan Herbst
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Kermit L. Hall is the president and Susan Herbst is the provost of the State University of New York at Albany.

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