U. of C. professors protest changes to graduate student programs


Staff writer

More than 100 University of Chicago professors signed a letter to President Robert Zimmer and outgoing Provost Daniel Diermeier to complain that announced changes to the school’s humanities and social science graduate programs will adversely affect undergraduate education, research and the school’s commitment to several divisions.

The professors also said the policy, which Diermier announced in October, had been “arrived at and imposed without any serious consultation of the faculty whose disciplines it will restructure.”

Six department heads — those of philosophy, art history, music, anthropology, comparative human development and South Asian languages and cultures — faculty from 22 departments and programs signed on to the Dec. 16 letter, which was published by The Chicago Maroon.

Diermeier announced the reforms as a result of a committee on graduate education’s findings in March. The letter — reportedly penned by philosophy professor Matthew Boyle, who did not return requests for comment — claims that deans of affected divisions were informed over the summer but forbidden to speak about it.

“The only plausible reason for this is that, if there had been some consultation period prior to the official announcement, it would have been possible for the faculty, graduate students, or other affected parties to have some input into this enormously consequential decision,” the letter reads.

The faculty also argued that the committee’s work cannot represent the meaningful academic engagement on the matter, not least because Diermeier chose the committee’s members.

“It would have been better for an institution that values faculty governance to consult the faculty about the implications of this particular model and then involve them throughout the entire process of implementation—something that takes more time but is more likely to lead to a satisfactory outcome for all stakeholders,” said Department of Music chair Berthold Hoeckner, who signed the letter.

“Faculty leadership and engagement has been essential to the University’s success since its founding, and in particular the extraordinary progress the University has made in recent years on a variety of fronts, said U. of C. spokesman Jeremy Manier in a statement. “Faculty input takes place through a number of different methods depending on the issue, consistent with the University’s longstanding and successful model of distributed authority. Particular roles are played by individual faculty members, larger faculty bodies, departments, department chairs, divisions and schools, the College, the deans, the Council of the University Senate, the provost, and the president.

“For example, the priorities that led to the greatly expanded funding model for PhD education have been a subject of faculty discussion for years, most recently through the provost-appointed Committee on Graduate Education, which consisted of faculty members and students. Additional input was gathered through deans as well as faculty members in the office of the Provost. Departments and schools will determine how to most effectively implement the model within their particular programs, with the goals of substantively increasing funding and ensuring that students have the guidance and support to successfully complete their degree. We expect to see a 15% increase in the number of funded PhD students and a shorter time to degree.”

The professors claim that the number of doctoral students in the humanities, presently 585, would decline to 420 at the end of the academic year in 2023 because of the reforms. While the U. of C. will commit to funding doctoral students for 9 years under the reforms, “Only by pressuring our graduate students to finish or leave in far fewer than 9 years will we be able to preserve the possibility of admitting new students, and thereby preserve the viability of our graduate programs as wholes.”

In October comments to Inside Higher Ed, Diermeier said the reforms, due to take full effect in two years, are designed to reduce how long students take to complete their doctorates, with the U. of C. aiming to end the phenomenon of graduate students pursuing their doctorates for up to nine years before dropping out.

The faculty members also express concern that a reduction in the number of doctoral students and the recent rapid growth in the number of U. of C. undergraduates will negate the university’s ability to sustain large courses, quality undergraduate education and faculty research for want of a sufficient number of capable teaching assistants.

Finally, the professors express apprehension about their ability to teach graduate seminars and the expectation that they would have to do more work that doctoral students currently do, making the U. of C. “not a broadly excellent research university, but a place where only certain favored disciplines are supported.”

Hoeckner said he is unsure how the proposed reforms will affect the Music Department

“There are still a number of unknowns. This is a problem: We’re in the middle of admissions season, and we still don’t have full knowledge of all the details” he said. “We’re trying to build a ship at sea and are still missing some vital parts.”