Drew Rethinks Doctorates

N.J. university suspends admissions to English and history programs, raising questions about programs' future.
September 19, 2006

Last week, Drew University informed faculty members and graduate students in English and the department of modern history and literature that it planned a review of the two departments' Ph.D. programs. That announcement alone would not have been news: Such reviews are commonplace and, at a time of heightened scrutiny of doctoral education and the quality of higher education generally, would seem like sound policy.

But Drew's approach raised eyebrows and, in some circles, hackles, for several reasons. First, professors in the departments found out about the review only after the fact, in a meeting Wednesday with the provost and interim dean of graduate studies; administrators had neither sought advice nor allowed for discussion ahead of time, which several faculty members said was out of character on a campus in which consultation is, as one put it, a “hyper-norm.”

Second, administrators announced that while the review unfolds, Drew would suspend admissions to the two Ph.D. programs. When that news hit the campus in an e-mail message to graduate students in the programs Thursday, it created a sense of deep concern, raising doubts about the future viability of the doctoral programs.

“The way they’ve done this does indeed have consequences for our students' perceptions of the program and of themselves,” said Robert Ready, a member of Drew’s English faculty for 36 years. “It’s not the way I would have initiated this discussion,” he said, adding that “nobody disagrees with the idea of having a review.”

Administrators at Drew, a private liberal arts institution in Madison, N.J., have sought to diminish the concerns of students and faculty members alike.

Pamela Gunter-Smith, Drew’s provost and academic vice president, said in an interview Friday that she “understands that our students are very concerned about that, as I can imagine a student would be.” But she insisted that the decision to suspend admissions – to “take a break” – was a logical move in the “best interests of incoming students,” whom Drew would be recruiting as the university rethinks its offerings. “As we start to think about our offerings, and the place of our various programs, they might end up down the line looking very different from what [prospective students] had signed on for.”

Language like that might reinforce the fears of some students and professors that the review might bring about an end to the doctoral programs in English and modern history and language. But “I don't think this should be construed as having specific programs on the chopping block,” Gunter-Smith insisted. “The intent is to give us the flexibility to think very creatively, to give us the freedom to think in innovative ways.”

Drew's Small Doctoral Program

Primarily a liberal arts college with a strong theology school, Drew offers Ph.D.'s in just three fields within its Casperson School of Graduate Studies: English, modern history and literature, and religion (plus a Ph.D. concentration in women’s studies).

The English program, which throughout its 25 years of operation has focused on modern literature, has produced more than 80 doctorates, many of whom end up at teaching institutions such as community colleges and church-related private colleges. (Professors seem quite proud of what they see as the social mission Drew has undertaken in preparing faculty members to work in institutions that serve those traditionally underserved by higher education.) The number of applicants to the English and history programs combined grew from 43 in 2001 to 67 in 2005, with the number of students admitted falling between 30 and 40 and the number of matriculants averaging in the low 20s. The programs have produced an average of about 10 Ph.D.s a year this decade.

Drew is far from alone in grappling with the role of graduate education. Debates have raged in recent years about a perceived overproduction of doctoral recipients, particularly in humanities fields. Some experts have questioned whether the world needs as many doctoral programs as there are, and others have gone further and called on colleges and universities to eliminate programs or at least shrink their size. Critics have also increasingly argued that too few doctoral programs prepare their graduates for an evolving employment market in which more jobs are available at two-year colleges, regional public universities and other colleges that emphasize teaching.

One prominent voice in those discussions has been the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, whose 2005 report, “The Responsive Ph.D.,” raised many of these issues. The foundation’s longtime president, Robert Weisbuch, became Drew’s president in July 2005, and although he has repeatedly said that he wants the Casperson graduate school to become the intellectual center of the Drew campus, significant numbers of professors on the campus are suspicious of his motives. “There is a strong and illustrious tradition in our graduate school which is not shared by a new president,” said Merrill Skaggs, another longtime English professor.

Weisbuch could not be reached for comment for this article, but Gunter-Smith, the provost, said that “the president and all of us are very supportive of our graduate programs -- we’ve reiterated that over and over again.”

Professors are not quite sure what to think about where Drew might be heading with its doctoral programs. In their more optimistic moods, they believe the university might try to reshape them or sharpen their focus to some niche appropriate to Drew’s mission. They look for clues in statements like the one the interim dean of the graduate school, Edye Lawler, gave in her e-mail to the graduate students, which said Drew has “a unique opportunity to design programs that build on the foundation of interdisciplinarity and academic rigor that characterize graduate studies here at Drew.”

Less hopefully, they suspect that Drew might be heading toward abandoning doctoral education and focusing on master’s level work in these fields, noting that the university did not suspend admission to its master’s programs when it temporarily shuttered the doctoral ones. In the university’s message telling graduate students about the decision to suspend admission to the Ph.D. programs, administrators said the review would also “reconsider our institutional means to provide financial support for our graduate student cohort, means that are currently acknowledged to be inadequate.” (The letter sought to reassure current Ph.D. students that they would “continue to receive support at present levels or better as you make progress toward meeting your respective degree requirements.”)

Rather than spend much time crystal-ball gazing, however, professors and graduate students in the two programs say they mainly want to focus their energies on engaging administrators in a thoughtful conversation about what to do next. Their confidence has been shaken a bit by what many of them characterize as the less-than-forthright method Drew administrators used to start the process, but they’re trying not to dwell on that.

“It’s not the most felicitous way to begin a discussion, or to communicate with our current Ph.D. candidates,” said Ready, the English professor. “But we have to get on the other side of this initial approach to dealing with this situation. I suspect we’ll all try to go into this in a positive and forward-looking manner, and hope that everyone’s acting in good faith.”


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