Thoughts on JHU’s strategic plan

For background on the current situation at Hopkins, see the JHU newsletter article that first brought it to the public’s attention, and Colleen Flaherty’s article from today (12/11/13) on Inside Higher Ed.

As a graduate of Johns Hopkins, I cannot say that I was surprised by either the proposed plan (which, granted, still has not been released publicly to my knowledge, and therefore has been unavailable to me thus far) or the reaction of the graduate students. For several years prior to my graduation, various departments in the arts and sciences held “futures seminars”, inviting leading scholars from within and out of the school to discuss what the future of graduate school would look like

At the time I took umbrage (and still do) to suggestions that humanities graduate programs should become two-tiered; one tier for those who would go on to become “real” academics, writing a full dissertation and following in the career footprints of their advisors; and another “phd-lite” style program that would be on a faster track, potentially paid for by students or outside funding, with no (or a very short) dissertation, geared towards MBAs (or anyone, really) who wanted to show that they could read and write critically and/or be creative. Pixar was cited as an example of the sort of company that would be beating down the door for these second-tier PhDs.

Around the same time, graduate students in my program met with our then chair, William Egginton (now Vice Dean of Graduate Education) and aired out grievances, festivous-style. Money was on the forefront of many a mind. We explained that our stipend was hardly enough to live on, and more difficult still when, come May, the pay cheques dried up. From mid May to mid September, we were on our own. That, plus the belief (ahem, well-known fact) that our colleagues in similarly ranked institutions were paid much more for the same (and sometimes fewer) responsibilities, made it a particularly harsh reality. Likewise, we discussed the somewhat delicate issue that those of us who choose to study literature in a foreign language often get teaching assistantships that are a far heavier load (teaching, prepping, and grading a class entirely on our own from day one) than those in, say, history or English departments who generally T.A. under a lead professor, at least for the first year or two.

For these reasons, amongst others, it was clear that the vast majority of grad students believed that they deserved a higher stipend. The national average, as per glassdoor, is $25,000, which puts the current JHU stipend $3,000 below the mark (as per the Inside Higher Ed article linked above). The plan proposes raising new graduate student stipends to $30,000 and raising current students stipends by approximately $5,000. The issue that current students have with this plan is that in order to do so they will cut the acceptance rate by approximately 25%.

Those opposing the plan claim that cutting already small cohorts by 25% would effectively kill some programs. My own cohort was made up of 4 people, although they very well could have accepted more (and probably did, as they have in previous and subsequent years), some of whom may have chosen to go elsewhere or forego pursuing a PhD for whatever reason. So, it is not to say that my cohort would have automatically become 3, but it could have meant that some of us may not have been accepted in the first place. Whether three students instead of four would have greatly changed my perspective on or experience within the program is difficult to say.

As a former student I am torn. I understand the argument that cutting already fairly small cohorts could affect the quality of programs. However, as a current Assistant Professor who is also on the job market, the plight of the adjunct and contingent faculty that now make up over 70% of higher ed faculty in the US is often in the forefront of my mind and I am pleased to see schools responding to the oversaturation of the market. It is the other side of the plan, “leaning junior” in new faculty hires, and, in particular, the adjunctivization of undergraduate instructors, that concerns me most. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against them hiring more junior faculty, I think it might actually do them a lot of good. Junior faculty will probably be on the forefront of their respective fields. They’ll also probably be willing to teach more than the one to two classes per semester taught by current senior faculty. It is the hiring of “adjuncts with master’s degrees” to do the work of the soon-to-be missing graduate students that worries me. Hopkins may be on the right path to empower the students they do accept to both graduate with less debt and with higher prospects for fulltime work, but replacing those “missing” students with adjuncts, instead of having full time faculty teach undergraduates negates any good will the plan might have generated, at least for me. Why any parent or student would pay a total of over $60,000 for tuition and room/board combined per year just for their classes to be taught by underpaid, uninsured, MA graduates with little or no job security is beyond me.

As I stated above, I have not had the opportunity to read the plan. If anyone has a public copy that they would like to send me or that they can link to in the comments, I would be very interested seeing it. 

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