Response to COLA’s “Position Paper”

Response to COLA “Position Paper”

On June 4, the Office of Research and Graduate Studies of the College of Liberal Arts (COLA) released a statement briefly outlining its new policies regarding graduate student time-to-degree and doctoral student funding. It released this statement 36 days after Associate Dean Esther Raizen informed various COLA departments about these new policies via department-specific emails direct at department chairs and graduate advisers. It provides little-to-no new information and fails to clearly address the various problems American Studies graduate students have levied at it. In fact, it introduces several new problems, further evidence of the fact that the proposed policies are shortsighted, poorly considered, and ultimately untenable.

The Policy Publicly Summarized

In the new statement, COLA argues that it hopes to reduce graduate student time-to-degree to an average and median time of 6.5 years, .75 years less than the average time-to-degree between 1989 and 2013 and .5 years less than the median time-to-degree for those same years. Its stated goal of 6.5 years is approximately equal to the average and median time-to-degree between 2002 and 2007: 6.7 and 6.5 years, respectively. It claims to be working with individual departments to reduce time-to-degree. To facilitate this, it has imposed stricter guidelines on time spent in doctoral candidacy. COLA now expects doctoral students to enter candidacy during their third year, and no later than their fourth, declares that doctoral candidates must complete their dissertations within 3 years. It pledges not to support candidacy extensions beyond a student’s third year in candidacy, nor beyond their 8th year in their program, but will grant exceptions to students who obtain external grants. To facilitate these new time-to-degree timelines, COLA has declared that graduate students will not receive funding past their 7th year in their “program” as of 2014-15. As of 2015-16, no graduate student will receive funding past their 6th year. Again, COLA states it will grant exemptions for students who receive external fellowships, but goes further here, stating that exemptions “based on individual student’s academic programs and personal circumstances” remain a possibility.

The Problems Remain

While we are grateful that COLA has finally taken the time to publicly articulate its new policies, its statement does not significantly modify the new policies as we understand them and does not address the criticisms that we have levied against them.

First, current graduate students remain subject to these new policies, despite the fact that they have been working in accordance with the policies they matriculated under in good faith. The public announcement makes reference to exceptions and claims that COLA will “work to minimize the adverse effect that these plans will have on current students,” but such references and claims remain vague and ambiguous. Graduate students, on multiple fronts, have clearly articulated the “adverse effects” of these plans, but COLA has failed to adequately respond. Its announcement makes no effort to define the criteria for exceptions, leaving senior graduate students in precarious positions.

Second, the public announcement again articulates a “one-size-fits all” model of graduate student funding and time-to-degree. It suggests that there will be some leeway for disciplinary differences, but it doesn’t specifically say what, if any, allowances will be made. For instance, it states that COLA will “consider support during the seventh year in a small number of cases, based on individual students’ academic programs and personal circumstances,” but offers no description of what will fall under such categories, a description that is necessary if we are to accept its claims here. COLA continues to make no distinctions between students who entered UT with a B.A. and those who entered with an M.A. The announcement makes repeated reference to “doctoral students,” “doctoral programs,” and “Ph.D. students,” suggesting that COLA will consider the new time-to-degree limits only in relation to time spent enrolled as a Ph.D. student. However, conversations between Raizen and departmental representatives have demonstrated that is not the case. Both of these groups of students will be subject to the same to the same time-to-degree criteria.  If there has been a change here, COLA has not articulated it in this document.

Third, this public announcement is too-little-too-late. COLA published it on its website on June 4. Raizen notified individual departments via email about the new policies on April 28, just before the end of the spring semester, when graduate student and faculty workloads were at their highest and many were preparing to leave for the summer. The public announcement does not open any avenues for debate about the policies themselves: all stakeholders (faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students) are effectively being told that this is the new way and that any conversation on the subject must be based on this premise. It remains an administrative decision made by fiat.

On New Information

COLA’s statement provides little-to-no-new information. New material includes its newly stated expectations of graduate students and its plans to restructure funding packages across COLA. This new information remains problematic and does not resolve any of the problems with the policies as we previously understood them.

COLA writes, “Our general expectation is that graduate students maintain full-time status for the full duration of their study, remain in residence while completing their respective degrees, and include summers in their program.” Such a statement betrays a profound lack of knowledge about graduate student life. It isn’t clear if this statement regarding residency is directed at junior or senior level graduate students, but it doesn’t accord with the experience of either. It seems redundant in the case of the former. Junior graduate students, specifically those in coursework, are unlikely to leave Austin given that they are in coursework which requires in-person attendance. Senior graduate students often have to travel for extended periods of time to do research. Such travel does not impede dissertation progress. In fact, it facilitates it. (http://amstudies.wordpress.com/category/stories-from-summer-vacation/) Furthermore, it is unclear why one has to be in Austin while writing a dissertation. Of course, most students do remain in Austin, but if their research or personal matters bring them elsewhere, that does not mean they will not make progress on their dissertation. The expectation that students take courses during summers is deeply problematic. Graduate students do not receive funding during the summer – we are only paid 9 months out of the year (October through June). That means taking summer courses will likely impose further costs on students, which COLA states it is working against, unless of course it is willing to provide funding sources for students enrolled in summer courses. However, its statement suggests no such thing.

This statement newly provides a future plan for funding students:  it writes, “we will encourage College departments to offer all entering Ph.D. students recruitment packages guaranteeing five years of support starting with the first year in the program, at a level that, at the minimum, covers the cost of attendance, and including at least one year of fellowship funding.” Again, several problems remain. First, it specifically singles out Ph.D. Students, suggesting that time students spend completing their M.A. at UT will not count against them. However, as noted above, Associate Dean Raizen has privately made it clear that such time will count against students’ funding clock. Second, the Department of American Studies already struggles to fund each of its students for five years. This is due to the already scant amount of money we receive from COLA. This plan is only feasible if COLA pledges to increase its financial support to the Department of American Studies, which has not happened. Perhaps it will.

Problems with Their Justification

COLA’s justifications for the new policies remain unchanged, though the public announcement takes a slightly different approach to articulating them. In exchanges with individual department chairs and with individual graduate students, Associate Dean Raizen has claimed that the new policies are designed to increase yearly graduate student stipends. This public announcement foregrounds time-to-degree as the central issue: it is the first issue discussed throughout. The public announcement presents limits to graduate student funding cuts as a means to facilitate that.

Shortening time-to-degree is an important goal. It is an important issue in higher education across the United States and has been an ongoing COLA project. As described in the public announcement, it has successfully reduced the average time-to-degree over the past decade. This raises the question: are current policies not working? Why implement new policies to shorten time-to-degree when current policies appear to be reducing them? Furthermore, according to the recently published “Report of the MLA Taskforce on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature,” the average time-to-degree for humanities Ph.D. students is 9 years, almost 3 years longer than the current COLA average (page 3). While not all departments in COLA are MLA-fields or in the humanities, this suggests that COLA’s older policies were effective. If they were not, COLA needs to clearly explain why.

This document’s references to COLA’s previously stated plans to raise graduate student stipends are vague and problematic. In exchanges with departmental representatives and individual graduate students, Raizen has repeatedly and explicitly claimed that the new policies on time-to-degree were designed such that COLA could raise graduate student stipends, often citing specific financial data, including the dollar amount of stipend raises. Despite COLA’s private insistence on such points, it appears to refuse to explicitly state them this forum. The closest it gets is its description of new “recruitment packages” described above. These new recruitment packages should, according to the announcement, cover cost of attendance at the University, which is necessary given that, as of now,  “the average yearly stipend is currently some $4,500 below that cost.” The announcement rightly acknowledges that we are underpaid laborers and goes on to imply that shortening time-to-degree is a necessary step in alleviating this disparity, though it does not explicitly state how. The announcement does state that COLA hopes to “reduce our graduate student population.” Forcibly reducing the number of graduate student workers will certainly free up funds to increase graduate student funding to an acceptable level. However, it is likely that such a plan would hinder COLA’s attempt to reduce time-to-degree. The new policies would reduce the number of graduate student workers while requiring those remaining to do more work, something that is unlikely to speed up time-to-degree.

Most importantly, the public announcement centers on shortening time-to-degree, but it barely refers to the curricular changes needed to facilitate that. The document focuses primarily on administrative and funding matters. Only one paragraph out of the document’s 15 paragraphs addresses curricular issues. Time-to-degree is a shorthand way of describing student progress through required coursework, qualifying exams, candidacy, and dissertation writing. Any effort to shorten time-to-degree must tackle these issues first. The recently published “Report of the MLA Taskforce on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature” states as much: its recommendations for shortening time-to-degree all focus on restructuring graduate student curricula. COLA, however, has not mandated any curricular changes, nor shown significant interest here in investigating them apart from its vague overtures towards “working with individual departments.” It offers no perspectives on graduate student professional development, nor on the cultivation of other skills necessary for “placement in academic and other training-related jobs.” COLA’s overall lack of attention to these issues suggests that its primary motivation is financial, a belief reinforced by the fact that the only exceptions to the new policies that it is willing to guarantee are for those students who secure external fellowships, which would incur no cost to The University.

Conclusion

As we have written elsewhere, these new policies come at a time when COLA is being systematically reduced. UT, as a whole, has increased faculty-hiring by 25% and administrative- hiring by 60%. COLA faculty, however, has shrunk. There were 567 full-time faculty members in COLA in 2009-2010 and the new budget, according to COLA’s 2012 Research Report, calls for it to be reduced to 491 by 2016-2017 (page 8). It is difficult not to see these new policies as part of this larger trend, especially since the hard deadline for the implementation of the new policies, the point at which “all entering and current students should work with a clear expectation of no more than six years of College funding,” is also 2017. It would appear that COLA faculty and graduate students will be “reduced” at the same time.

As a whole, the public announcement does not change the situation in the slightest: COLA’s policies remain shortsighted and overly vague. They are unlikely to accomplish its stated overarching goal “to matriculate outstanding doctoral students and provide them with the training, experience, and support necessary for successfully completion of their respective degrees and placement in academic and other training-related jobs upon graduation.” Consequently, the criticisms outlined in the Department of American Studies graduate student petition stand.

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