15 January 2014

That Elephant Again

In, "How Should Graduate School Change? A Dean Discusses the Future of Doctoral Education Reform," the unnamed dean of a "well-endowed private institution of higher education" offers this peek under the rock of higher ed administration:
Both faculty and administrators are extremely sensitive to the hierarchies of prestige that drive the academy. In most fields, the majority of faculty members who populate research universities have graduated from a handful of top programs—and they spend the rest of their careers trying to replicate those programs, get back to them, or both. They are worried about doing anything that diverges from what those top programs do, and will argue strongly that divergences place them at a competitive disadvantage in both recruiting and placing graduate students.
The focus on vaguely defined "excellence" contributes to that behavior, because there is nothing to define "excellence" beyond the hierarchies that are already in place.
Yes!  But the interview also demonstrates the limitations of centering the conversation about higher ed on the plight of surplus Ph.D.'s.  Don't get me wrong--it's a problem that graduate programs are churning out more Ph.D.'s than can get jobs.  But it's also worth noting that there's no shortage of college students who would benefit from learning in discussion-sized classes taught by credentialed experts steeped in values other than corporate ones.  This dean's solution?  Revising doctoral programs to train students for non-academic careers. This alternative reaffirms the "hierarchies of prestige" that have created the problem. If the only alternative to "training the next generation of graduate students" is "using your Ph.D. in a nonacademic career," then undergraduate education--and the society that depends on that undergraduate education--misses out.

This anonymous dean's solutions are similar to the points made in "On Graduate Education and Program Size," where Katina Rogers, the managing editor of MLA Commons argues that
reform must go beyond simply reducing program size, which on its own may not significantly improve employment prospects or reduce the reliance on contingent labor. Rethinking curricula with an eye toward collaboration and public engagement, tracking and celebrating the varied career outcomes of graduates, advocating for fair working conditions for all faculty members, and exploring ways to better support graduate students both during and after their studies are key elements in moving toward systemic improvements.
Once again, where are the undergraduates?  The number of tenure-track lines is in steep decline, but the numbers of college students are holding steady and, in some sectors, growing.  Those students need credentialed instructors working in conditions that advance their learning.  So long as the question, "What's best for Ph.D's?" is driving the conversation, it's going to remain insider baseball.  To get the tax- and tuition-paying public on board with the need for our labor, we need to start asking the question, "What's best for undergraduate education?"

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