Fertik: Leave the graduate school alone

Among top universities in the United States, Yale has maintained a venerable commitment to undergraduate education. When I was applying to colleges, I was told that at Yale, every professor, no matter how distinguished, was required to teach at least one undergraduate course per year. For me, the possibility of attending a university that excelled both in research and in teaching represented the best of all possible worlds, and the education I received exceeded my expectations. Last fall, I returned to Yale to pursue a Ph.D. in American history. Although I knew times were tough in higher education, I was confident that Yale’s commitment to the humanities, and the fundamentals of a liberal arts education within a world-class research institution, were stronger than the vagaries of the business cycle.

Six months later, I am not so sure.

In an article in Friday’s News, David Burt reported on changes to graduate admissions and funding currently being contemplated by Graduate School Dean Thomas Pollard and other administrators. In essence, the idea is to cap the total number of graduate employees that a department could have enrolled at any given time, with the expectation that this would encourage departments to move us more quickly through our programs. These proposals fit a disturbing trend that I and other members of the Graduate Employees and Student Organization (GESO), which represents hundreds of graduate employees in the languages, humanities and social sciences, have been observing for quite some time. We believe that these proposals would be detrimental to the University in four clear ways:

First, they would discourage graduate researchers from pursuing bold, ambitious research. To take on the kind of innovative, ground-breaking dissertations that built the reputation of the Yale History Department and are prized by hiring committees, scholars often need to know multiple languages, and to conduct research abroad. The dissertation, which is the core of graduate work, is by its nature original; forcing us to finish on a compressed timeline means encouraging us to take on less intellectually ambitious projects.

Further, these proposals are bad for undergraduate education. To enforce shorter graduate programs, graduate teaching is being cut for upper years, just as they enter the academic job market. As a result, already this semester, undergraduates have seen decreased access to college seminars and writing-intensive sections, and ever-increasing class sizes, especially in modern languages. Undergraduates are also less likely to be taught by a teaching assistant who already has substantial teaching experience under his or her belt.

The proposed measures also discourage diversity and discriminate against all but a few graduate employees. Some have families whom they help to support. Some come with mountains of student debt; others don’t. International scholars may not have undergraduate debt, but they are ineligible for a number of funding opportunities open only to U.S. nationals, and are unable to work outside the University. To maintain their immigration status, however, they require a clear source of income, such as upper-year teaching and registration status. A one-size-fits-all approach will actually leave many out altogether.

Finally, these proposals reflect the fact that decision-making authority is being taken away from the people who do the teaching and the research (that is, faculty and graduate employees) and given to administrators and deans. All across America, the policies that administrators are implementing (including severe budget cuts) are disproportionately affecting the humanistic disciplines. Politicians and pundits are wondering aloud whether these disciplines meet a strict cost-benefit test of their value. I think the humanities are worth defending for their own sake, and for the sake of our democracy. For that reason alone we should fight this trend, and Yale, with its historic commitment to a liberal education, should be a leader in fighting it. The University should excel in all forms of scholarship, and it should be a public good in the interest of a better world. Meaningful democratic participation — achievable through dialogue and negotiation — is critical to realizing that goal.

Today at 12 p.m., in front of Sterling Memorial Library, hundreds of GESO members will gather, along with our allies, for the public release of a report which discusses these trends, and what we think should be done about them — including exploring the role a recognized union can play in upholding the control the teachers and researchers have over our work and our lives. We invite anyone concerned about the future of higher education to join us.

Ted Fertik is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department and a 2007 graduate of Trumbull College.