Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 23, 2024

261 Graduate students resist University’s plan

By Ellen Brait | December 5, 2013

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.

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.

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