261 Graduate students resist University’s plan

A group of graduate students in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences are rallying to protest the implementation of a plan that will introduce major changes to the graduate program. The school’s Strategic Planning Final Report was released on Nov. 11 to graduate students, who responded with a comprehensive Strategic Plan Response.

Signed by 261 graduate students as of press time, the response asks the administration to halt any progress on the plan until the students are able to provide their input. They have found issue with the proposed cut backs of graduate students by up to 25 percent, decreased hiring of tenured professors and fewer faculty-taught graduate classes, amongst other things.

“This is a period in which higher education is under a lot of financial strain and the question of how best to use the resources we have is a very serious one that involves significant trade offs. I wish that weren’t the case,” Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Katherine Newman said.

The plan states that competitive recruitment at the graduate level is a top priority, and that the School of Arts and Sciences needs to offer its students better funding packages so that it is able to compete for the very best talent.

“The core piece of this as regards to graduate programs was a plan to increase graduate students stipends from their current levels, which are lagging about 40 percent behind some of our top peers and bring them up to that level by next year for the incoming classes,” Vice Dean of Graduate Education William Egginton said.

The plan proposes to increase graduate stipends to $30,000 per year, $25,000 for the nine-month academic year and $5,000 for the summer months. It promises new graduate students five years at this level of compensation with full tuition and health care covered, along with a professional development supplement of $1,000. Two of the students’ five years will be free of any teaching obligations in the humanities and social sciences, and there will be opportunities for graduate students to compete for a sixth year of support from the University.

“We have been raising the stipends gradually every year but the big jump that we’re trying to find our way toward, which would make stipends actually competitive and feature year round support (rather than only nine months), is new for Hopkins students in the Humanities and Social Sciences, but we think really quite critical for them,” Newman said.

But in order to afford the increase in stipends, the number of graduate students would have to be reduced by about a quarter. The reduction would be carried out over a five-year time frame.

“To afford that expense, which students in the doctoral programs have been asking for ever since my arrival, we have to confront some hard decisions about the size of the cohort we can afford,” Newman wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

In the graduate student body’s response to the plan, students expressed concerns about how it will affect their departments. With smaller cohorts, they think that the intellectual discussions and overall learning environment could be negatively affected.

“A strength of Hopkins is the graduate student community, which includes interactions with faculty members and grad students. But now with only three people, lets say, as opposed to six, in your cohort, the opportunities for discussing with your fellow grad students are really curtailed,” sociology graduate student Smriti Upadhyay said.

They’re also concerned that reducing the number of graduate students will increase the amount of time they spend teaching, leaving them with less time to focus on research.

“We teach one or two sections a semester and then we try to do our research in the mean time. If we had to teach a whole other section, it’s a lot to ask. I think most people would agree an additional $5000 wouldn’t really compensate us because. . .while we do need more compensation, the increase in work that that would require wouldn’t really allow us to get our research done,” English graduate student Erica Tempesta said.

The Nov. 11 draft of the Strategic Plan considered this potential problem and referenced solutions that some departments are already implementing. The plan cited “professional TAs,” — people with master’s degrees that are hired to teach but are not looking to obtain a doctorate themselves. It also mentioned universities that employ advanced undergraduates as TAs and referenced the Mathematics Department at Hopkins as an example of this.

The graduate student response claimed that there are not enough qualified undergraduates to make up for the decrease in graduate students. They also expressed concern at the imbalance that stipend differences would create.

“It would create a fairly dramatic inequity for the next few years between incoming students and existing students. You would just have students who are being paid a great deal more than others. Some people would probably say that that would be very upsetting to them. Thinking about my peers, I don’t want to see them being paid less for the same amount of work as other people. I think that’s kind of awful,” Tempesta said.

The graduate students also disagree with the assumption that increasing salaries will improve the program as many note that they were drawn to the University not for the stipends, but for the faculty and the departmental culture.

“I didn’t come here for the money, and none of us came here for the money, so the amount to which that is going to impact our own work is sort of small,” Tempesta said.

The Strategic Plan also puts forth a proposition called “leaning junior.” It outlines the University’s intent to hire more junior scholars to replace senior professors when they retire. The financial savings from this plan could be put toward departments with high enrollments. In essence, the plan acknowledges that the University must hire tenured professors, but it argues the University should hire fewer. The graduate students’ response contends that this will negatively impact the intellectual community, especially since many of them chose Hopkins for the faculty it has to offer.

The plan also calls for the proportion of courses that faculty teach to undergraduates as compared to graduates to change from 2:2 to 3:1.

Many graduate students believe this will limit their accessibility to the faculty and weaken their relationships. They also believe that this decrease will lead to fewer courses being offered but will increase the time needed to obtain a degree.

Many graduate students also think that the broad nature of the plan will take away from different departments’ ability to remain autonomous in their decision-making process.

Department chairs, who have been actively consulted throughout the process, have had varying responses to the plan. Co-Chair of the Writing Seminars Department Jean McGarry likes that students will have semesters where they won’t have to teach, as Writing Seminars graduate students have had to teach every semester.

“One of the best features of the new policy for the Writing Seminars would be the ‘gift’ of a semester free of teaching for our incoming poets and fiction-writers, a semester freed up so that they can concentrate on their courses, their writing, and also have the time to prepare for teaching IFP,” McGarry wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

Some chairs have concerns with aspects of the plan that they hope to see resolved.

“By reducing graduate enrollments, we run the risk of compromising the integrity of many of our graduate programs and that’s a serious concern. We’re hoping by working together with the Dean, we can find a funding path that would be less hurtful and would allow us to maintain our graduate levels and also support our graduate students at the level that we would all like to see them supported,” Chair of the Sociology Department Karl Alexander said.

The plan has been in the works for some time now, according to Newman.

“This discussion has been ongoing for 18 months within the Advisory Committee on Budget and Strategic Planning and is now engaging the rest of the faculty,” Newman wrote.

Over the course of 2010-2012, 30 two-day programs called “the futures seminars” took place to examine the possibilities for investments in new fields as well as potential changes in methods of research training necessary to keep the University’s departments competitive. Following these meetings, the 22 departments and 10 programs drafted white papers on how these changes would affect their particular department. The white papers outlined the future of faculty hiring as well as graduate and undergraduate program changes.

Teams of external reviewers consisting of senior academics from more than 80 universities were brought to campus for two days each. They used the white papers as a basis to interview every faculty member in the department under review, select groups of undergraduate and graduate students as well as members of the Dean’s office. Following this, they submitted reports to Hopkins. Using these reports, the departments considered the suggestions, added their own and responded to the external review.

Last year, the Advisory Committee on Budget and Strategic Planning was created, comprised of faculty from the School of Arts & Science, many of them department chairs.

“This committee was charged with producing the strategic plan as a way of achieving the vision indicated by the sum total of all the futures seminars, the white papers, and the external reviews that the departments underwent in the previous years,” Egginton said.

After the plan was created, it was posted on a password protected website to allow the faculty to read it and respond. In the fall, an open faculty meeting was held where the plan was presented to the faculty again. Following this, a series of town hall meetings took place at which point faculty were encouraged to attend and ask questions about the plan. Lastly, the plan was presented to the graduate students.

On Nov. 18, the Graduate Representative Organization (GRO) held a meeting in which Egginton fielded questions about the plan. A general graduate meeting occurred afterwards. After some deliberation at this meeting, the graduate students decided to ask for a moratorium. The plan was officially distributed by the GRO with the permission of the Dean’s office on Nov. 19, though many graduate students claim to have had access to it previously.

On Nov. 25, the graduate students held a town hall meeting to further discuss their concerns. Many graduate students want to stop the current plan from proceeding, arguing that they were brought into the decision-making process too late.

“I think that it should be an opportunity for us to rethink some of the ways that decision-making is happening. There’s the plan and that’s huge, and that’s the focus. But along with the plan are all of these other issues about transparency and how grad students are involved in decisions that are going to affect them in a huge way,” Upadhyay said.

With the amount of discussion occurring, Egginton is hopeful that a solution will be reached that satisfies both the graduate student body as well as the department chairs.

“The basic message is that this is a strategic plan that is still being discussed. It hasn’t achieved any final form yet and we’re actively soliciting the opinions of our colleagues and the chairs of the various departments as to what would be most effective and the best way forward,” Egginton said.

11 Responses to "261 Graduate students resist University’s plan"

  1. Amy Sheeran   December 6, 2013 at 1:12 am

    Thanks to Ellen Brait and the News-Letter for covering this. I’m one of the grad students who opposes this plan (and also a former undergrad), and I’d like to stress that this is not simply an issue of graduate education: the plan also has far-reaching implications for undergrads, and undergrads should be part of the discussion as well. This plan would fundamentally change the kind of institution you applied to and attend, and your voices should be heard.

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  3. Joe Haley   December 6, 2013 at 8:52 am

    Like Amy, I’d like to thank Ellen Brait and the News-Letter for covering this issue, which is of critical importance to everyone at the university.

    One small but significant clarification: although the plan has been in the works for many months, graduate students have only learned of its existence very recently and mostly as the result of leaked information. The dean’s authorization for the GRO to circulate the draft – or even discuss it with their constituents – came only after the document had been leaked and widely disseminated. In fact, we wouldn’t have known that such major changes were in the works had a few courageous students not alerted the rest of us.

  4. Craig B   December 6, 2013 at 9:20 am

    JHU has been around and been a great place for research and research-based education for a long time. It shouldn’t freak out and dramatically restructure over a recession. Recessions come and go.

  5. Heather Stein   December 6, 2013 at 10:41 am

    An excellent article on the current controversy! Undergraduates will be affected by these changes too and, i believe, not for the better. Hopkins’ strength is in research and these changes undermine that.

  6. Amanda Smith   December 6, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    As a humanist who has read a dystopian novel or two, I have seen futures in which streamlining replaces intellectual exploration and critical thinking. It ain’t pretty. The strategic plan begins to move Hopkins along that path, cutting quality for faculty (tenured, tenure-track, and fixed-term), grad students, and undergrads. As a graduate student who received better offers at other institutions, I can attest to the fact that money is not everything. I came to Hopkins because of the reputation of the faculty in my department, the time my advisor showed me that she would be able to give me, the flexibility of the program, the value it placed on research abroad, and because my department emphasizes the importance of collegiality, “We very much hope that you will accept and take your place among our graduate students whose camaraderie and esprit de corps, as you will observe, is as high or higher than I have witnessed at any other university” (qtd. from offer letter). The strategic plan places all of those Hopkins hallmarks at risk!

  7. Martijn Buijs   December 6, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    It is interesting to note that, though no doubt factually correct, “261 graduate students resist plan” may obscure a larger truth, to the extent at least that I am able to divine it.

    This larger truth is that one would be hard pressed to find a single graduate student who is not, to some degree, hostile to key points of the plan.

    The proposed stipend inequality may be the most obvious of these; it is frankly unacceptable. I can only applaud the desire to increase stipends to levels corresponding to those at other universities, but there is no reason why such an increase cannot be made across the full body of graduate students; if need be, in smaller increments than the dramatic leap ahead proposed.

    Structurally far more dangerous, however, is the proposed shift towards a greater number of junior faculty over senior, and the corresponding shift away from graduate and towards undergraduate teaching that comes with it. It is hard to see how this would mean anything other than a turn in the direction of adjunctification which so many universities have taken. This, too, must be fundamentally resisted.

    Over and above this, the plan aims to further curtail departmental autonomy – the centralized committee for sixth-year funding is but one aspect of this move. Here too critical questions must be raised.

  8. Samuel   December 6, 2013 at 2:21 pm

    I find it difficult to believe that this is the direction the current administration wishes to take the School. What distinguishes the humanities in particular at Hopkins, what it has long been recognised and admired for, is the intensity of its engagement with ideas and arguments, its unremittingly high standards for grad students; its capacity to find and hire the right faculty. It must be a mistake to “normalize” the place, to compel it to adhere to plans formulated by administrators without a strong understanding of its distinctiveness. Is too late not to go down this track? I speak as someone who taught there in the past and has known it well for many years.

  9. Nancy Hoffman   December 6, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    As a recent alumna (’12) of KSAS, I want to voice my support for the graduate students who have not been integrated into this planning process as they should have been. The graduate community at JHU is an extremely valuable asset to the university as a whole, and radically changing the composition of that community may have unexpected consequences.

    One of the greatest strengths of JHU as an undergraduate institution, in my opinion, is its ability to treat undergraduates more like graduate students, and for students of varying levels and in varying disciplines to interact and share ideas. I now attend a much larger research university, and while this environment has its strengths, too, I very much miss the intellectual community Hopkins has to offer. I believe that its model of research within a supportive and stimulating environment is key to the type of education Hopkins provides.

    It would be a shame to see this model fall apart over major changes without due consideration of current graduate students’ input. The graduate students of KSAS are invested in their community and deserve to have their voices heard in this matter.

  10. Francesco Brenna   December 6, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    Great article!

    • Corina Goulden   December 6, 2013 at 4:26 pm

      The Hokpins graduate education is an incredible experience. It would truly be a shame to implement significant changes without thoughtful input from a;l parties.


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