New Strategy for Small Ph.D. Programs

German doctoral programs at Chapel Hill and Duke hope to merge; experts see model that could be applied to many disciplines.
January 3, 2007

In German studies these days, a graduate department with 10 full-time faculty members is considered quite large, and many are half that size. Many small departments have responded with outreach to other fields, and in some cases universities have merged German studies with other languages.

Professors at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have come up with another approach. They have asked their administrations to let them merge their graduate programs into a single unit, with a common graduate student body, faculty and curriculum. In so doing, the two universities believe that their programs could catapult to among the largest -- if not the largest -- in the country, with 18 full-time faculty positions. Beyond the number of faculty lines, proponents believe that the plan could allow for a breadth of topical coverage that tends to vanish when humanities programs get too small. By eliminating the need to offer the same introductory courses, the theory goes, the combined department could offer a much broader range of classes, and in future faculty hiring, seek out expertise that isn't found in many departments today. The resulting range of intellectual interests may be of the sort that small humanities departments can't find by themselves.

A few models already exist for Ph.D. programs offered jointly by two universities, but they have generally been in cases of large, well financed science departments with complementary strengths. The German proposal is notably different in that it involves small humanities departments. While the plan hasn't been approved by the respective administrations (although they are encouraging) or even been formally announced, it is starting to attract buzz. The plan comes at a time that a panel of the Modern Language Association is calling for language doctoral programs to broaden their scope. And experts on foreign languages and the humanities generally have been anxious to find new models to support departments like German studies that don't stand much of a chance of just gaining new faculty lines.

"This could be a very powerful model for the humanities going forward and for any relatively small field," said Debra W. Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. Top universities tend to invest resources in programs that they perceive as having the potential to be leaders in their fields, she noted, and small departments -- however stellar their professors -- have a tough time doing so because they can't provide the depth of larger departments.

"What a move like this does is create the well-beyond-critical mass that is necessary to give graduate students choice in their work and faculty members intellectual variety in their department," Stewart said. "This is very smart -- and could be a way of keeping important fields alive, fields that might in the long run not survive." Stewart, who has not been involved in the efforts to create the combined German program, said of the idea: "We need good solutions for the humanities. It's terribly important that we find ways to make these programs viable for students and intellectual life."

While higher education is full of departments that have had mergers imposed upon them, the Duke-Carolina plan came from professors. The institutions' proximity means that faculty members tend to know one another, and the two departments have in recent years expanded collaborative efforts, with joint conferences, joint visiting scholars, and coordinated library purchases. The Robertson Foundation, which provides scholarships to top students at both institutions, has also supported the collaboration between the two departments and the proposed merger (which would not affect undergraduate programs).

Ann Marie Rasmussen, chair of Germanic languages and literature at Duke, said that while her department has sustained strong support from administrators, she has been aware of "the retrenching going on" in many German programs. "As departments get smaller, it puts a lot of pressure on graduate education."

Many departments have responded by declaring that they have some niche in German studies (and other small departments point to similar niches in their disciplines), Rasmussen said. "The mode is that departments say 'we specialize in something' and that is touted as intellectual strength."

"But that kind of niche culture isn't giving students what they really need," Rasmussen said. In an English department, professors talk about "coverage" -- as in having all key periods and genres covered. With departments of six or so, "coverage" loses its meaning, she said. But in a "truly merged" department, coverage could be provided, she said.

Clayton Koelb, chair of German at Chapel Hill, offered the following example. As German departments have lost slots, whole areas have suffered. He said that "almost everything before 1750 these days is almost considered exotic," noting that German departments that once had two medievalists today have none. Areas that are vitally important for understanding Germany -- the Reformation, for example -- "have largely been neglected," he said.

At the same time, both Chapel Hill and Duke have been offering the same introductory graduate classes when their combined new Ph.D. student body could fit around a seminar table.

Koelb said that there are a set of factors in North Carolina that may not exist elsewhere: proximity, good working relationships among professors, a history of collaboration. But he said that he was already hearing from professors in other departments and at other institutions about the idea.

"It just became very clear to us that in order to achieve the goals we shared, the best course would be joining forces," Koelb. "It's about getting the most bang for the buck."

Gregson Davis, dean of humanities at Duke, said that details remain to be worked out. He said, for example, that since his institution is private and Carolina is public, the bureaucratic hurdles are real. But he also said, "I think this is going to happen."

He said he saw this plan helping with one of the greatest challenges facing humanities administrators. "I tell my bosses that we can't afford not to have a Slavic department or a German department any more than we could dispense with a classics department," Davis said. (He's a classicist.) But even with that philosophy, he said, small departments are in real trouble. "If you are left alone as a small department, you gradually shrink and disappear. This is a strategy for preventing that. This is a brilliant solution the faculty members have come up with."

Sara Lennox, a professor of German studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and president of the German Studies Association, said that her department had taken a different approach. Several years ago, German was merged in with other languages. Today, professors of German maintain a strong Ph.D. program, she said, in large part because of work with other fields at the university: Jewish studies, Polish studies, and so forth. Generally, she said that this move has been very healthy for German studies, as students are prepared for the "transnational" approach to scholarship and teaching.

She said that the UMass approach is working well there, but added that the Carolina-Duke approach could be a key model where institutions are located near one another. "They are looking for new strategies, and that could be really smart," she said.

If departments don't have such strategies, she said, mergers can be imposed from above that don't necessarily advance intellectual goals. "That's the danger to avoid," she said. "A lot of administrations like economies of scale."


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