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Public Universities, State Politicians, and You

What happens to graduate students at public universities when the state reduces education funding?

March 20, 2016

DeWitt Scott is a doctoral candidate at Chicago State University.  You can follow him on Twitter at @dscotthighered.




In a number of states across the country, we are witnessing an economic attack on public higher education in the form of reduced funding, attempts to eradicate tenure, and the elimination of certain programs.  At the heart of this matter is a deep divide that is based primarily along political lines.  Republican leaders have become annoyed with what they see as the liberal domination of higher education and want universities to take on a more corporate demeanor.  Democrats believe Republicans are not concerned with developing a society of critical thinkers, but instead followers who are motivated purely by profit.  The result is a group of students at public institutions who come out on the losing end.


In my state (Illinois), things have become particularly ugly.  My university, the only predominantly Black university in the state, is in a fight for its life, literally.  Western Illinois, Northeastern Illinois, and University of Illinois-Chicago have also had rough times as of late.  In these situations, undergraduates, through a reduction of program offerings and financial aid, and faculty, through a decrease in tenure-track positions and job stability, are usually hit the hardest.  But not to be forgotten is the graduate student.  There are some very unique ways in which political infighting in the state capital can directly affect you as a graduate student.  If you are pursuing, or are thinking about pursuing, a Ph.D. at a public university in the current political climate, there are some things of which you must be aware.


1.  Program Funding.  If political leaders are unwilling to pass a fair budget, or in my case, a budget at all, be prepared for public doctoral programs to provide fewer fully funded slots for students.  With public universities scrambling for dollars, there will be fewer and fewer students who can receive adequate funding, and some current students whose funding may be cut.  Please be prepared for this.  Think seriously about considering a public university for a doctoral degree.  Research the funding and political climate of the state before getting wrapped up in the application process.  If you are already in a public university that is being affected by incompetent politicians, it may be time to focus on finishing as soon as possible.  Extending your tenure in graduate school for an extra year, or even semester, can be a problem in certain cases.


2.  Conferences and Travel.  An integral part of the doctoral experience is attending conferences and getting to know the culture and personnel in your respective field.  Normally, graduate programs will assist, and in many cases fully cover, fees and travel for graduate students to attend multiple conferences a year.  For many public institutions today, funding graduate travel and conference fees is a thing of the past.  As a result public university graduate students may not have the opportunities to network, meet, and learn from other scholars and graduate students from across the country.  If this scenario is your current reality, my best advice is to do all that you can to scrape up money to attend the major conference in your field. You may not be able to make it to all of the conferences that you would like, but try your damnedest not to miss the MLA, AHA, AERA, or whatever major conference is tied to your discipline.  Attending and taking full advantage of your leading conference can make up for not attending many of the conferences of your smaller professional associations.


3.  Untenured Advisor.  This point is for all students, but most specifically for public university students in Wisconsin.  Nothing is more frightful than having an advisor who may be denied tenure right while you are in the middle of your research.  The good rapport and working relationship you have built with her is now for nothing as she has been asked to leave because your state government doesn’t believe in tenure.  If the advisor whom you desire, or have chosen, is on the tenure-track, keep a backup, tenured advisor in mind in case things don’t pan out.  Also, consider the amount of time the professor has been in the department.  There is a significant difference in selecting an advisor who is in her second year versus one who is in her sixth.  Try to stay ahead of this curve if possible.


4.  Faculty Morale.  Naturally, if budgets are reduced, tenure is endangered, and political leaders are ignorant enough to question the work ethic of college professors, faculty morale will not be very high.  As a graduate student, an edgy, insecure faculty climate will mean that your scholarly development will come second to your professors’ financial and professional well-being.  Faculty who perceive that they lack job security can potentially disengage from their duties at their current institution as they search for positions elsewhere.  A negative department and institutional climate is the last thing you need while pursuing a doctoral degree.  Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about faculty morale, other than try to focus intently on your mission and tune out distractions.


5.  Musical (Department) Chairs.  Similar to point #4, when job security is threatened, people tend to look elsewhere for positions.  This applies to department chairs as well.  When department chairs change, department policy and culture tend to change also.  As a result, over the time that you are in your program, you may be forced deal what you perceive as moving targets.  The department chair who signed your acceptance letter may not be the chair that oversees your qualifying exam; who may not be the chair that reviews your proposal defense; who may not be the chair that may evaluate your final defense.  If the fiscal future looks bleak, department chairs may seek greener pastures.  This is even more likely if your chair is a talented, dynamic, prominent scholar.


The point of this article is not to scare doctoral students at public universities.  My only goal is to give those considering public institutions, as well as those who are there now, some things to think about.  Until the systematic divestment from public education ends, many institutions will be forced to walk a tightrope.  Just understand that in the current political climate—again, particularly in Illinois—there is no safety net to catch the institutions if they fall.


Are there current fiscal challenges that your doctoral program is facing?  What are some solutions we should consider?

[Image by Blue Diamond Gallery on Google Images and used under Creative Commons.]


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