During the week of April 28th, Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts Esther Raizen notified various department chairs across the College of Liberal Arts (COLA) via email about a series of new policies regarding graduate time-to-degree and funding. According to these emails, these policies stated:
1) As of Fall 2014, College of Liberal Arts units will not fund students beyond their seventh year in the program. This applies to all types of funding, from TA/AI/GRA positions to fellowships. Exception requests will be considered only under special circumstances, and primarily in the case of students who received competitive external grants.
2) As of Fall 2014, candidacy extensions will not be approved for students beyond their eighth year in the program and/or students for three or more years since candidacy. Exception requests will be considered only in special circumstances.
3) As of Fall 2015, College of Liberal Arts units will not fund students beyond their sixth year in the program. This applies to all types of funding, from TA/AI/GRA positions to fellowships. Exception requests will be considered only under special circumstances, and primarily in the case of students who received competitive external grants.
COLA distributed no formal memo outlining these policies, nor did they publicly announce them until June 4, 36 days after Raizen first notified the Department of American Studies about their immediate implementation. During that 36 day period, American Studies graduate students, rightly worried about the implications of these new policies, wrote and unanimously signed the petition below, outlining what we understand to be the policies’ failings and our specific concerns about them. American Studies graduate students sent this petition to 10 relevant administrators at the University, including College of Liberal Arts Dean Randy Diehl and Raizen. Though COLA has now publicly announced these policies, the situation has not changed: their public statement does not significantly modify the policies as we understand them and thus does not require us to alter the substance of our critique. In fact, it introduces more problems. We thereby believe our petition remains relevant, and present it as the UT-Austin American Studies graduate student community ratified and distributed it. A response by the American Studies graduate student community to COLA’s public announcement is forthcoming.
Department of American Studies Graduate Student Petition Opposing Proposed College of Liberal Arts Time-to-Degree Guidelines
We the undersigned, graduate students of the Department of American Studies, unanimously reject the College of Liberal Arts’ recently proposed new policies regarding time-to-degree for graduate students undertaking doctoral work. As Associate Dean Esther Raizen summarized the new policy in an email to our department chair and graduate adviser:
[The College of Liberal Arts’] plan is to request that as of fall 2014 OGS not grant candidacy-status extensions to students beyond their eighth year in the program and/or students enrolled for three or more years since candidacy—this will be our default position, and we will consider exception requests only under special circumstances. We also request that as of the fall of 2014 College of Liberal Arts units not fund students beyond their seventh year in the program (and, as of fall 2015, beyond their sixth year in the program). This applies to all types of funding, from TA/AI/GRA positions to fellowships. Again, we will consider exception requests only under special circumstances, and primarily in the case of students who received a competitive external grant. (email communication, April 28, 2014)
We have significant concerns and questions about this plan’s implementation, its effects upon current and future graduate students, and its impact upon the ability of the College’s departments and programs to define and offer rigorous doctoral programs. Specifically, we are concerned with the policy’s impact on the exercise of academic freedom; apparent conflicts with established Graduate School and Graduate Assembly policies; credible harm done to current and future graduate students in American Studies; credible harm done to College graduate programs; credible harm done to the undergraduate student body, for which graduate students provide significant teaching, advising, and mentoring; and the lack of transparency with regards to the development of the plan, its implementation, and its rationale.
Call for Immediate Suspension Pending Further Review
This plan was developed without input from affected faculty and graduate students. We thereby propose the immediate suspension of all its tenets, pending the release of specific details about the plan (enumerated below) and a University-wide period of conversation and clarification that involves all relevant stakeholders, including, but not limited to, the Graduate School, the Graduate Assembly, the Graduate Student Assembly, the Faculty Senate, the Office of the President, the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, undergraduate students, and each affected graduate program.
Below is an enumeration of significant concerns we feel should be fully addressed before the College of Liberal Arts moves to enforce any part of this proposed policy. The list is not intended to be all-encompassing, but rather speaks to the complexity of each individual’s program and the impossibility of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to the proposed policy.
Enumeration of Concerns
1. The proposed College of Liberal Arts time-to-degree guidelines (hereafter, “proposed CoLA guidelines”) are incongruous with established policies regarding graduate student employment and funding. The standing fourteen-semester rule, legislated by the Graduate Assembly in 2007, allows a graduate student to be employed in the following positions for fourteen semesters: “Assistant Instructor (0045); Teaching Assistant (0063); Teaching Assistant, no student contact (0062); Graduate Research Assistant (0090); Academic Assistant (0065); Assistant (0071); and Tutor (0064).” If graduate students completed work for a master’s degree at The University of Texas at Austin, they can petition to extend employment in these positions for two more semesters. The proposed CoLA guidelines clearly contradict these employment policies, legislated by the Graduate School and Graduate Assembly. Furthermore, the fourteen-semester rule does not apply to a student’s ability to accept a fellowship or scholarship, whereas the proposed CoLA guidelines make clear that students will not be eligible for any kind of funding after the proposed cut-off dates, a second contradiction of standing Graduate School policy. (See The University of Texas at Austin Graduate School web page, “Fourteen-Semester Rule on Student Employment,” www.utexas.edu/ogs/employment/14_semester_rule.html, accessed 15 May 2014.)
2. The proposed CoLA guidelines contradict standing Graduate School time-to-degree policies, as outlined in Graduate Catalogues dating back to 2005. The 2005-2007, 2007-2009, 2009-2011, and 2011-2013 editions of the Graduate Catalogue clearly state under § Time Limits that graduate students have six years to complete all requirements to proceed to doctoral candidacy. Thereafter, doctoral students have three years in candidacy to complete, defend, and submit their dissertation before being subject to review by the Graduate Dean. These policies are guaranteed as binding under § Graduation. Since graduate students are bound to the rules in the catalogs under which they matriculate or may elect to follow any subsequent catalog as long as it is no more than six years old, we are concerned that the proposed CoLA guidelines violate standing Graduate School Policy, and troublingly reassign time-to-degree review procedures normally held by the Graduate Dean to the College of Liberal Arts. (See Graduate Catalog 2005-2007, pp. 39, 46; Graduate Catalog 2007-2009, pp. 22, 27; Graduate Catalog 2009-2011, pp. 21, 27; Graduate Catalog 2011-2013, pp. 21, 27; Graduate Catalog 2013-2015, pp. 22, 25).
3. The proposed College of Liberal Arts time-to-degree guidelines raise significant questions about the ability of the Department of American Studies to define and enforce a reasonable, field-specific timeline for the completion of a sufficiently rigorous doctoral program of work so that graduate students can effectively prepare for their professional careers and adequately compete for jobs at peer institutions. The specific interdisciplinary requirements of American Studies demand significant mastery of multiple fields. Alumni indicate that the current comprehensive exam reading requirements, which typically total more than 300 books across four fields and take between 12 and 18 months to complete, have been indispensable in securing academic jobs in American Studies and additional disciplines, and in adequately preparing them for teaching duties. The degree acceleration encouraged by the new guidelines would strongly discourage this interdisciplinary exam model, which has long distinguished American Studies alumni from The University of Texas at Austin. The proposed guidelines would do irreparable harm to the national reputation of the Department of American Studies, a program currently held in high esteem within the field.
4. The proposed CoLA guidelines pose particular challenges for graduate students whose research programs require lengthy periods of review, data-gathering, and bureaucratic maneuvering. These include, but are not limited to: research with human subjects requiring IRB approval; extensive fieldwork; extensive archival research; and international research requiring language acquisition, visas, and other documented review processes. Given that the proposed CoLA guidelines would, in most cases, bar students from taking the time required to complete such research, write a dissertation, and defend it, these new policies impinge upon the academic freedom of graduate students to design and pursue projects dependent upon substantial periods of review and/or data gathering under the guidance of their advisers. The guidelines thereby disrupt and deter a broad range of accepted scholarly, academic, and professional pursuits. This will discourage future graduate students who intend to undertake such projects from applying to programs in the College of Liberal Arts, given substantial uncertainties about the ability to complete them under the proposed policy.
5. The immediate implementation of the proposed CoLA guidelines, with no period of comment or discussion, bypasses established protocol for altering graduate programs of work, raising pressing and unaddressed questions regarding the authority of doctorate-granting departments to determine what is best for their students. These proposed guidelines will significantly impinge upon students’ ability to complete current curricular requirements, and any curricular change to a graduate program of work requires approval of the Graduate Assembly and must meet the Assembly’s legislated University-wide requirements for graduate programs. The immediate implementation of the proposed CoLA guidelines therefore threatens the ability of doctorate-granting departments and programs in the College to review their curriculums, enter into conversation with the Graduate Assembly, or revise program requirements in a timely manner consistent with established University and Graduate School protocol, and the rigorous requirements of each field.
6. The proposed CoLA guidelines rely upon vague and ambiguous language that demonstrates a lack of attention to the specificities of the various graduate programs that must now adhere to them and fail to acknowledge the fact that there can be considerable methodological and disciplinary differences even within departments. The guidelines state that, beginning in academic year 2014-2015, graduate students will not be able to receive AI, TA, GRA, or fellowship funding past “their seventh year in the program,” and beginning in 2015-2016, past “their sixth year in the program.” However, the term “program” is not clearly defined, and fails to account for differences in required coursework for students who matriculate with a BA versus those who matriculate with an MA to the Department of American Studies, and who may reasonably have different time-to-degree expectations due to these differences in degree requirements. Furthermore, since many graduate students across the College, and in American Studies in particular, pursue innovative interdisciplinary projects with advisers in multiple departments, individual students have considerable and reasonable variances in time-to-degree due to the differing disciplinary methodologies and expectations that inform their work. By failing to interface with departments regarding such differences in time-to-degree plans, the proposed CoLA guidelines inadequately reflect the needs and expectations of graduate students and their advisers.
7. The language of the proposed CoLA guidelines makes no distinctions between sources of student funding when describing new limits placed upon those enrolled in graduate programs. It suggests that whether graduate students have received no funding from the University, have received external grants or fellowships, or are employed in units outside the College of Liberal Arts – such as the Cockrell School of Engineering, the Harry Ransom Center, and UT Athletics – they will still not be able to receive any funding past their seventh year in their program in 2014-2015, and past their sixth year in 2015-2016 and beyond. The standing fourteen-semester rule recognizes that graduate student employment is often discontinuous and that fellowships should not count against a student’s ability to be employed. The proposed CoLA guidelines, however, disproportionately harm graduate students who have been funded through other units of the University and those who have financed their education through student loans. Furthermore, the proposed CoLA guidelines effectively penalize students who compete for and receive grants and fellowships, as the guidelines do not guarantee that students who have secured such funding will not have such grants count against their CoLA funding clock. This policy, and the uncertainty it causes for graduate student funding, will likely discourage students from putting their time and effort into applying for external grants. Forcing students to progress more quickly, rather than encouraging them to craft stronger projects that are recognized by external fellowships and grants, will diminish the standing and ranking of the Department of American Studies specifically, and The University of Texas at Austin generally.
8. The proposed CoLA guidelines disproportionately harm economically disadvantaged graduate students, who have fewer options for funding their graduate degrees and are more vulnerable to funding constraints, and who already receive fewer college degrees than students from more economically secure backgrounds. According to a recent New York Times Magazine story profiling The University of Texas at Austin,
About a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree. (“Who Gets to Graduate?,” May 15, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/magazine/who-gets-to-graduate.html?ref=magazine&_r=1)
According to The Pell Institute, these disparities persist at the graduate level. As fewer low-income students attain bachelor’s degrees, fewer are eligible to enter graduate school, but even amongst those who do earn bachelor’s degrees, a pronounced gap remains: only 3% of low-income, first generation students with bachelor’s degrees enter PhD programs, versus 7% of not-low-income, not-first-generation students, and only 1% of low-income, first generation students with bachelor’s earn PhDs, versus 3% of not-low-income, not-first-generation students (see: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ ED504448.pdf, pp. 18-19). Further disadvantaging poorer students at the graduate level will only accentuate this disparity, which is inconsistent with the larger mission of the University.
9. If implemented immediately as a one-size-fits-all policy, the proposed CoLA guidelines disproportionately harm graduate students at an advanced stage of their graduate careers, who have been working under both the fourteen-semester student employment and Graduate Catalog time limits rules. To ask students to drastically revise their plans with no warning is unfair, will potentially prevent late-stage PhD candidates from completing their degrees, and will reduce their competitiveness on the academic job market by foreshortening their time-to-degree. Because faculty advisers typically request three full dissertation chapters before being able to compose job market letters of recommendation, students now facing significantly shortened time-to-degree requirements will be forced to complete these chapters at an accelerated pace, which will almost certainly compromise the quality of what they are able to produce now that they must go on the job market substantially sooner than planned. Furthermore, students who are graduated at an accelerated rate without sufficient time to finish their dissertations and apply for academic jobs will be markedly less competitive on the market without institutional affiliation. The resulting decrease in graduate placement will immeasurably harm the standing of the Department and the College.
10. If implemented, the proposed CoLA guidelines will further harm current and future graduate candidates’ academic competitiveness by effectively reducing the time in which graduate students have to complete external activities necessary for competitive job placement. Chief among these activities is the ability to publish peer-reviewed articles in prominent academic journals. The process to research, write, submit for review, revise, resubmit, and finalize an article for peer-reviewed publication commonly takes between nine and eighteen months, and, even once an article is accepted for publication, lag times to reach print are variable and can extend past one year. Foreshortening the time to complete graduate degrees will harm the ranking and prestige of graduate programs, and CoLA at large, by significantly reducing the amount of time in which students have to complete and publish articles.
11. Graduate student participation in national and international professional conferences likewise increases the presence and prestige of The University of Texas at Austin as a premier research institution, and is vital for graduate student placement in competitive academic jobs. Given the modest number and limited availability of professional development grants from CoLA, it is already difficult for most graduate students to participate in more than one national or international conference per year. Moreover, in interdisciplinary programs like American Studies, graduate students are expected to go on the market having presented and/or or organized panels not only at the national American Studies conference, but also at the other disciplinary conferences that are integral to their work. The proposed CoLA guidelines’ effective reduction in funding and time-to-degree will further reduce University of Texas at Austin graduate students’ presence at national and international conferences, which will, in turn, reduce their competitiveness on the job market.
12. Competitive academic positions at peer institutions typically seek candidates with substantial demonstrated teaching experience. Reducing time-to-degree and the support for those degrees through AI and TA positions reduces the opportunities graduate students have to gain this experience, thereby putting them at a distinct disadvantage on the academic job market. Graduate Students in the Department of American Studies are especially vulnerable to the shortened time-to-degree proposal due to CoLA’s already limited funding support for the Department. Many American Studies graduate students do not have the opportunity to attain field-specific TA or AI experience until their fifth year or beyond; the opportunity to design and teach a course related to their research is an incentive for incoming students and distinguishes The University of Texas at Austin graduates on the job market; the proposed CoLA guidelines will only accentuate the difficulty of obtaining adequate teaching experience.
13. Whereas there has been some verbal communication that the proposed CoLA guidelines will effect changes in the structure of funding for graduate student employees, there have been no written guarantees or timelines for when these changes might take effect. Furthermore, in the absence of open consultation and collaboration with affected departments, it is far from clear that the proposed CoLA guidelines are the best way to achieve these ambiguously-defined changes in funding structures.
14. The development and release of information about the proposed CoLA guidelines raises serious and significant questions about the transparency with which this initiative was developed. The Department of American Studies chair and graduate adviser were not informed of any plans to implement this change in rules until April 28, 2014, and it appears other departments and programs in CoLA were equally unaware of these proposed changes. American Studies faculty have provided anecdotal evidence that some faculty in other departments are still completely unaware of this proposed policy change. Although the College may have the authority to shape policies and directives for its programs, it is readily apparent that the proposed CoLA guidelines will have University-wide effects, and should be open to public comment and debate by all stakeholders affected by potential impacts on the reputation and quality of graduate programs at The University of Texas at Austin, including, but not limited to, the Office of the President, the Graduate School, the Graduate Assembly, the Graduate Student Assembly, the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, the Faculty Senate, the programs and departments immediately affected, and the undergraduate students taught and mentored by graduate student employees. Before any department or program in CoLA may reasonably be expected to comply with the proposed guidelines, the policies should be opened to a period of public, transparent debate, with statements and input solicited from all of the entities and organizations listed above, as well as an open call to any other potential stakeholders.
The College of Liberal Arts administration has yet to make a formal, public announcement of this policy. The brief explanations of the policy provided by the College have relied upon vague and ambiguous language. It has not provided any of the data upon which the proposed changes are based, nor has it provided a detailed justification for implementation. It has failed to provide a timeline of the new policies’ anticipated outcomes, a study of their impact upon different programs within the College, an account of how different programs or departments may be affected specifically by the proposed guidelines, or a summary of those students most vulnerable to this policy and proposals to ensure that their graduate careers are not irreparably damaged or ended. It also has not addressed how the proposed guidelines may or may not conflict with legislated and written policies currently standing and binding for graduate student conduct.
In the absence of specific data, details, and plans, it is irresponsible for graduate departments and programs to move forward with implementation of these proposed guidelines, especially given that the College of Liberal Arts administration has not consulted with its programs and departments to ensure that such guidelines are crafted sensibly and transparently, without harming current and future graduate students, and the standing and reputation of the University, the College, and the departments and programs therein.
We, the graduate students of the Department of American Studies, are strongly committed to higher education, and are proud to have the opportunity to substantively contribute to the excellence of teaching, research, and public service at The University of Texas at Austin. Given the seriousness and number of concerns raised about the proposed College of Liberal Arts’ time-to-degree guidelines, and the damage they will do to the careers of current and future graduate students, the integrity of the Department of American Studies, and the standing and reputation of the College of Liberal Arts and The University of Texas at Austin, we respectfully resolve to suspend implementation of this policy. We request a thorough, responsible collaboration with all units of the College of Liberal Arts, and input from the greater University community, to cogently and successfully develop graduate policies that are consistent with the greater mission of the University.
Unanimously ratified and signed by the American Studies graduate student body:
Anne Gessler, Ph.D. Candidate
Andrew Gansky, Ph.D. Student
Jaime R. Puente, Ph.D. Student
Julie Kantor, Ph.D. Student
Sean Cashbaugh, Ph.D. Candidate
Carrie Andersen, Ph.D. Student
Lily Laux, Ph.D. Candidate
Jacqueline Smith, Ph.D. Candidate
Ashlyn Davis, M.A. Student
Joshua Kopin, M.A. Student
Kerry Knerr, M.A. Student
Susan Quesal, Ph.D. Candidate
Emily Roehl, Ph.D. Student
Marvin Bendele, Ph.D. Candidate
Jeannette Vaught, Ph.D. Candidate
Andrea Gustavson, Ph.D. Candidate
Brendan Gaughen, Ph.D. Candidate
Natalie Zelt, M.A. Student
Philis María Barragán, Ph.D. Candidate
Amanda E. Gray, Ph.D. Student
Ellen Cunningham-Kruppa, Ph.D. Candidate
Lauren Ortega, M.A. Student
Edwin Whitewolf, Ph.D. Student
Jose Centeno-Melendez, M.A. Student
Andrew Hamsher, Ph.D. Candidate
Josh Holland, Ph.D. Candidate
Robert Oxford, Ph.D. Student
Skyler Collins, Ph.D. Student
Caroline Pinkston, Ph.D. Student
Jennifer Kelly, Ph.D. Candidate
Courtney Williams Barron, Ph.D. Candidate
Elissa Underwood, Ph.D. Candidate
B. Duncan Moench, Ph.D. Student
Tynisha Scott, Ph.D. Student
Jennifer Doane, Ph.D. Student
David Juarez, M.A. Student
Kirsten Ronald, Ph.D. Candidate
Dave Croke, Ph.D. Candidate
Irene Garza, Ph.D. Candidate