When Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Thomas Pollard asked directors of graduate studies for data about their programs last fall, department leaders saw red flags.
A two-phase review of mentoring practices at the Graduate School had just concluded months before. Some program administrators believed Pollard’s request could only be motivated by one concern: the Graduate School’s budget.
Pollard released the results of his analysis on Aug. 25, giving directors of graduate studies nine recommendations for improving mentoring and a list of corresponding best practices. He also provided median time-to-degree information for each graduate program, as well as rarely seen data detailing each program’s cost to the Graduate School.
As administrators examine the new data, many professors are perusing the statistics to see where they stand. For those in the humanities, the numbers may seem discouraging: Humanities Ph.D. candidates at Yale often take more time to complete their degrees than students in other disciplines, and they also cost the Graduate School more money on average. According to Pollard’s report, science and engineering students and professors often receive federal grants that cover more of their expenses.
Throughout the process of producing the report, Pollard said that the review was intended to increase transparency and help students complete the strongest possible dissertations on an efficient time scale rather than help the Graduate School distribute funds.
Still, many faculty members interviewed said they worry that administrators could use such data when they consider how to allocate resources in the future.
“I believe what the dean says,” said John Treat GRD ’82, director of graduate studies for the East Asian Language and Literatures Department. “But I don’t know what the next dean of the Graduate School will think.”
News of Yale’s unique take on self-evaluation has spread, and deans of other Ivy League schools have already expressed interest in adopting Pollard’s approach.
Graduate school administrators’ focus on cost and performance at their schools present a particular challenge to humanities programs, which are already struggling to justify their budgets as the academic jobs in the field grow increasingly scarce. Mark Bauerlein, former director of the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts and an English professor at Emory University, said humanities programs will need to find new ways to advocate for preserving their current consumption of university resources.
“Unless the humanities people come up with forms of justification of their own, someone else will do it for them,” he said. “The world has changed. … We need evidence. We need data.”
PRIMED FOR PRODUCTIVITY
Pollard’s study follows a recent push by state universities to pay closer attention to costs and student outcomes, often in response to pressure from state governments to rein in spending. This led to quantitative analyses of programs, which higher education experts said they had not seen carried out with such rigor at private universities until Pollard conducted his study.
Much of the recent effort to increase productivity in universities has been focused on undergraduate education. The Lumina Foundation, a private, Indianapolis-based foundation which works to increase students’ access to higher education, recently held a conference for lawmakers and university administrators from 17 states on ways to enroll more students and increase graduation rates.
“The economic recession provided more impetus for state governments to focus on how to do more with less,” said Khadish Franklin, a spokesman for the Lumina Foundation’s College Productivity initiative.
The most high-profile statistical analysis of higher education costs came in Texas in September 2010, when the Texas A&M University System issued a “productivity spreadsheet” that listed individual professors’ net financial impact upon the school system given their salaries and the amount of revenue they generated for or drained from the system.
The data was made public to increase educators’ accountability to Texas taxpayers, said Heather Williams, a higher education policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which developed the model for the Texas A&M University System’s productivity spreadsheet.
“We would like to see more transparency within the universities,” she said. “We are interested in reducing the cost of college and seeing where the money is going.”
The Texas A&M University System analysis drew widespread criticism from professors, who questioned the implications and accuracy of the data. Pollard himself called the productivity spreadsheet “draconian,” and said other graduate school deans feel similarly.
Bauerlein said higher education administrators across the nation often observe the way controversial policies are received at other schools. Though less drastic than the Texas state system initiative, he said Pollard’s report is sure to draw the attention of administrators at other universities.
“The faculty will all hate it, but other administrators will be looking at it very carefully and wonder if they can do it at their campus,” Bauerlein said.
IVY WEB OF INFLUENCE
The emphasis on efficiency has not been limited to undergraduate institutions, said Frank Donoghue, director of graduate admissions in the English department at Ohio State University and author of the 2008 book “The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities.”
Donoghue said graduate school administrators in the Big Ten conference, to which Ohio State University belongs, have also turned their attention to time-to-degree statistics and funding analyses.
On Sunday, administrators of several elite graduate schools were briefed on new uses of quantitative analysis: Pollard presented a report on his Graduate School analysis that day at a Washington, D.C., meeting of deans from “Ivy Plus” schools, which include every Ivy League institution save Dartmouth College, along with several high-ranking schools including Stanford University and the University of Chicago.
Peter Weber, dean of the Brown University Graduate School, and Cornell Graduate School Dean Barbara Knuth said they were impressed by the correlation between the use of Pollard’s recommendations and strong student outcomes at Yale — and both are interested in using some of Pollard’s tactics at their schools.
“I am intrigued by the aspects of the study relating to mentoring practices, and am considering following Yale’s lead,” Weber said.
Knuth said the Cornell Graduate School already meets many of Pollard’s recommendations, but she added that she will consider launching a similar investigation into the “size and sources” of funding for individual academic programs.
Still, Pollard’s analysis does not consist of numbers alone: The dean used statistical evidence to promote nine best practices, which are correlated with shorter time-to-degree and higher degree completion rates.
Pollard recommends that departments assign research projects early in students’ careers to prepare them for dissertation research and require students to present their work to their peers at least once per year. Other recommendations center around mentoring, suggesting that professors make an extra effort to regularly gauge students’ progress and give feedback.
All seven program heads interviewed said they already use many of the “best practices” in the report, but some said they plan to make improvements based on the information.
Meg Urry, chair of the Physics Department, said she will direct her thesis committees to meet on a more regular schedule and keep closer tabs on students. Eckart Frahm, director of graduate studies for the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department, said he would consider giving qualifying exams at an earlier phase of the doctoral program.
For the majority of directors of graduate studies interviewed, though, Pollard’s recommendations are not groundbreaking.
In the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department, Frahm said, students already present their work to each other even though they are not required to do so.
“We’ve done just about everything this report suggests on an ad hoc basis,” Treat said of the East Asian Languages and Literature Department. “If we [have to] formalize it to make [Pollard] happy, we’ll formalize it.”
FAIR TO COMPARE
Although slight adjustments might be all that some departments will need in order to fall in line with Pollard’s recommendations, humanities and social sciences professors said some suggestions suit science and engineering programs better than their own disciplines.
For example, Pollard recommends that advisers and students speak frequently, but professors said humanities researchers often work independently — either by necessity or by choice.
“There’s an increasing sense of trying to transition that model of lab work to other disciplines,” said Steven Smith, a political science professor. “There’s a lot of push back from those whose scholarship doesn’t fit. … What I do is pretty much impervious to that kind of work. I like to work on my own.”
Professors said they feel uncomfortable with the statistics in part because programs across the Graduate School have inherent differences.
Students in some fields may need more time to research their dissertations, they said, while other programs are so specialized that they compete with relatively few other universities for the most talented applicants in the field.
While Treat said he would prefer Yale’s East Asian Languages and Literatures Department were compared to peer programs across the country rather than other departments at Yale, a recent attempt at this kind of analysis fell flat.
The National Research Council released a much-anticipated set of rankings for roughly 5,000 doctoral programs in September 2010.
But the council used data from the 2005-’06 academic year to give programs a range of possible rankings instead of giving each program a hard-and-fast numerical ranking. The method and age of the data led professors from Yale and universities across the country to call the finished product outdated and inaccurate. Since last fall, the NRC has issued a series of corrections that address both input errors and methodological problems.
Pollard acknowledged limitations on some of the data that he collected from departments over the past year. For example, yield — which measures the percentage of students accepted who decide to matriculate — is influenced not only by the quality of Yale’s program, but by whether other programs across the country exist that may compete with Yale for applicants.
Professors still value the yield statistics: Dale Martin said he is not worried about the future of the Religious Studies Department, for which he is director of graduate studies, largely because his department’s yield is among the highest in Pollard’s report.
“Some departments feel like they got a rougher deal than others,” Martin said. “We came out looking good.”
Pollard said the median time-to-degree statistic can be difficult to interpret by itself because it does not take into account students who never complete their degrees. To help correct for this problem, Pollard used both time-to-degree statistics and completion rates to show a correlation between the use of his best practices and strong performance, and he said the correlation is strong but “noisy.”
As universities across the nation focus more on quantitative approaches, they face the challenge of using statistics that are often imprecise and hard to interpret.
Students and faculty at Yale and other universities have accused their schools of acting more like businesses than educational institutions in using statistics and financial data to evaluate academic programs.
Gaye Tuchman, a sociology professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of the book “Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University,” said she was surprised to see an elite school like Yale produce a report like Pollard’s.
“[Pollard] has made some interesting recommendations that may improve the learning experience of doctoral students, but I wasn’t quite sure if he was interested in improving the learning experience of Yale students or improving the production of Ph.D.s at the university,” Tuchman said. “One of the problems with the model of the corporate university is that it is about producing students with degrees as much as it is about providing better education.”
On Feb. 9, Yale’s Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) presented Provost Peter Salovey with a 15-page report called “Yale, Inc.: The Corporate Model in Higher Education.” The report argues that University administrators fail to adequately consult with faculty members and students when making decisions that affect them.
Graduate Student Assembly chair Andrea Stavoe GRD ’14 said Pollard met with members of the student government to discuss his findings, adding that the group read and offered suggestions on an initial draft of Pollard’s report.
Now that Pollard has publicly released the final report, Stavoe said, GSA members will discuss the recommendations amongst themselves and with the graduate students community, and will bring their findings to Pollard. She said that in recent conversations, humanities and social sciences students have registered concerns about the usefulness of the recommendations in their disciplines — much like faculty members in those fields have.
Pollard added that he is in the process of meeting with representatives from each of the programs to discuss his recommendations.
GESO co-chair Stephanie Greenlea GRD ’12 said Pollard’s collaboration is a “step in the right direction,” but she said administrators should still “include more academic workers in academic processes.”
Despite protests from some students and professors, higher education experts said they expect analyses of productivity and efficiency to grow more popular as time goes on — and at many schools, a focus on cost may leave some humanities programs looking weak against other disciplines.
OH, THE HUMANITIES
Bauerlein, the Emory University English professor and former director of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Office of Research and Analysis, was candid about what he viewed as the diminishing value of a humanities doctorate: “It just doesn’t make sense for people to go to school in the humanities,” he said.
In addition to costing universities an undeniably high amount compared to the sciences, Bauerlein said humanities programs produce Ph.D.s who struggle to find work in a shrinking academic job market.
Maurice Samuels, director of graduate studies for the French Department, said even though humanities jobs are difficult to find, Yale’s programs produce the best-equipped graduates in the market.
“There are still jobs, and someone has to get them, so why shouldn’t it be Yale?” Samuels said.
In some respects, Yale’s humanities departments may be winning the numbers game: The disputed 2010 National Research Council rankings placed many of Yale’s humanities programs at the top of the nation’s offerings, and Yale’s humanities departments as a whole outranked the University’s science departments.
Frances Rosenbluth, deputy provost for faculty development, said the University will not jeopardize its top-ranked humanities offerings by underfunding them.
“Protecting ranking is one goal of the University in allocating resources,” she said. “We’re not going to give up something we’re best at to be second best at something else.”
Still, even at Yale, administrators must make sure they are granting degrees in fields where they have a strong chance of finding positions after they graduate: Salovey said the University takes into account the number of job openings available for new Ph.D.s when determining how many applicants to admit to graduate programs.
Some humanities professors said that doctoral degrees in humanities programs prepare students to think critically and excel in fields other than academia. Others argued that humanities scholarship contributes to society in a way that cannot be quantified — the humanities engage “the life of the mind for its own sake,” said Millicent Marcus GRD ’73, director of graduate studies for the Italian Department.
But some higher education experts said that such arguments carry less weight as universities across the country rely on quantitative analyses and shift their focus towards improving science and engineering offerings. Pollard acknowledged that a “new balance will have to be achieved across the whole country” to meet the shifting demands of the academic job market.
“[Humanities programs] have cause for concern,” Bauerlein said. “If they can’t show their value, then they’ll find their resources will be trimmed.”