The Perils of the Perpetual Scholar
Graduate liberal arts education is undergoing a crisis. Suffering from the same financial depression as the non-scholarly world, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) has had to re-evaluate its future in terms of pressing economic constraints. Academia, the traditional employment stronghold of graduate students, no longer offers the job opportunities guaranteed by professional schools, and the population decline has forced many schools to close, taking with them potential jobs for graduate students.
The problems, which were anticipated ten years ago and articulated in a report by Dean Rosovsky earlier this year, remain the focus of concern for GSAS administrators and individual departments. Besides the more general considerations affecting the quality of the nation's graduate education, GSAS students and Faculty also spent this year discussing internal administrative problems peculiar to Harvard. No group initiated substantial changes, because "change at the GSAS is like a slow-moving ship," says Edward L. Keenan '57, dean of the GSAS. But administrators and students have clearly maneuvered into positions from which to take action next year.
As GSAS officials slowly mull over the changes suggested in Rosovsky's report, the outside world is rapidly pushing change on the school. The number of applications dropped this year a substantial 11.5 per cent, and the shortage forced many departments to admit more than the GSAS standard of 25 per cent of the applicant pool. More graduate students than ever before dropped out at mid-year this year to attend professional schools. While Richard A. Kraus, associate dean of the GSAS, and director of admissions and financial aid, maintains that Harvard's graduate school accepts less of its applicant pool and enjoys more secure finances than other leading graduate schools, Kraus says this year--the first "huge dip" in applications--"raises some questions about whether we are having problems or about to have problems at the graduate school."
Rosovsky's report discussed the logistics of a smaller graduate school and suggests several options for programs in a smaller school, but so far GSAS administrators have allowed individual departments to handle the consequences of the applicant drop themselves. Some departments, like the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, have felt the affects of the drop sooner and more intensely than others. Eckehard Simon, chairman of the German Department, explains that he and Rosovsky worked together this year to adjust the Germanic curriculum so that the graduate department can continue to function with only three students. Under one plan, the entire program would shift to the undergraduate level with separate section meetings once a week for the graduate students.
Simon is quick to cite the advantages of the decrease in the size of his department. "By limiting the number to three, we can always place our students. If we target at one PhD, I think we can place that one scholar," he says. Simon, like Rosovsky, is not very disturbed by the shrinking GSAS and thinks any resulting problems have solutions, found easily with a little analysis, this year's by-word at GSAS.
Chairman of the History Department, Ernest R. May, says the History Department was geared to handle 50 graduate students until recently. Next year, 18 students will enter the History graduate program. "Right now we're in the talking stage about how to deal with the changes," May says, "but there is an overall department feeling that these are questions of the graduate school, not the department." The History Department sent to Rosovsky a letter summarizing some of their ideas about maintaining the viability of graduate school education, including a proposal which would widen job training to include preparation for non-academic as well as academic careers.
Rosovsky requested similar letters from all GSAS departments, and "the letters are still coming in," Keenan says, adding that he and Rosovsky will analyze the letters this summer, formulate some strategies, and "go from there."
One concrete action completed this year is to clarify rules governing selection and payment of graduate student teaching fellows. Students wanted uniform practices across all departments so all students had a fair chance at the jobs, to ease the burden of tuition and expenses. The new guidelines, drawn up by a student-Faculty committee and approved by Rosovsky, will take effect next year. Michael Moynihan, a member of the Graduate Student Council (GSC), says the guidelines tackle only part of the problem. "The kind of teaching one does, whether a graduate student can propose tutorials and have freedom from the syllabus, as well as how much responsibility a teaching fellow has, are still issues with many graduate students," Moynihan says.
Many GSAS students feel that the lack of a center for social and intellectual communication between students of different departments is the GSAS's single worst problem. "We lack any kind of community feeling," Moynihan says. The GSC hopes next year to provide a graduate student center for students to meet other graduate students.
"It can't be stressed enough--there is a total absence of any facilities for social and intellectual get-togethers on the level of the undergraduate house system," explains Lee Smolin, a graduate student in Physics and a GSC member. GSC members will look for a center on campus this summer, and hope to arrange GSAS intramural sports next year as another attempt to foster community spirit.
Smolin cites student-Faculty relations as another problem in the GSAS. "There is not nearly enough attention from professors and thesis advisers, especially in the humanities where you haven't proved yourself until your work is published in your last year," Smolin explains. "Invariably Harvard professors obey the tradition of ignoring students," says Susan Napier, a graduate student in East Asian studies. But Smolin feels the administration is aware of the problem. He says his discussions with Keenan reveal that Keenan is "genuinely concerned with the problem." The decreased size of the school may lead to more Faculty-student contact, but no one can yet predict if the pressure of fewer students will allow Faculty members to feel more free to isolate themselves in their research.
Several administrators are trying to analyze the drop in the number of applications especially among minorities and the consequences of accepting more than 25 per cent of the applicant pool. Kraus and Suzanne M. Lipsky, assistant to the dean for student affairs in the GSAS, blame the tight job market and rising college costs for the drop in applications but they say the drop in some minority applications resulted mainly because of new methods of defining minorities.
Lipsky is encouraged by the increase in the number of black applicants, but she is not ready to admit discouragement over dramatic decreases in other minority applications. By reclassifying hispanics to exclude those who are South American or have Spanish surnames but are not Puerto Rican or Chicano, Harvard registered a 40 per cent drop in hispanic applicants. But Lipsky says recruitment efforts this year may actually have increased the number of "true" hispanics, an increase the statistics mask. Similarly Native American applicants dropped because to qualify as Native American this year an applicant must satisfy National Bureau of Indian Affairs standards and possess a tribal classification. Nevertheless, the decline in Asian American applicants remains a mystery to Lipsky and to Kraus who speculates it is simply "ordinary fluctuation."
A drop in the quantity of graduate students may or may not lead to a drop in the quality. With fewer applicants to choose from, the school can't always be as selective as before about qualifications and may not be choosing from the best college seniors. But, Kraus points out that with fewer students the school can devote more time and resources to each one, maintain its excellent placement record and ease the pressure on its finances. Kraus adds he only has worries about the quality of students in two departments.
By and large department chairmen aren't alarmed about a drop in the quality of students. Raymond Siever, chairman of the Geology Department, a department that accepted more than the 25-per-cent figure, says that while GSAS will undoubtedly continue to accept only the best applicants, the school may be tempted to fill a larger percentage of its positions with students who don't need financial assistance from the school.
Although Rosovsky's report mentions that outside sources of financial backing for graduate students are shrinking, especially in non-science areas, GSAS officials don't see financial aid to students as a pressing problem at the moment.
A GSC committee this year dispelled student concern that GSAS financial aid was distributed unequally among departments, by compiling research which found that the aid system overall does not discriminate against any departments. "They found the distribution of money system was fairly equitable," Smolin says.
"Financial aid at Harvard is need-based and we are most generous in this regard," Keenan explains. He believes that although the system for financial grants is complex, it works and "we will stick with it." And about financial aid for minority students, Lipsky says that so far the GSAS has been able to support the minority students to whom they've offered positions, adding that many have outside money with GSAS fellowships as additional aid. "Nobody has ever been turned away for lack of funds," Lipsky says. But she acknowledges that the graduate school will eventually be unable to offer aid to all the minority students who need it. For this reason, Lipsky says she is aggressively seeking funding through outside programs, such as the Department of Health, Education and Welfare's grants for under-represented minorities and women in education.
The GSAS has clearly learned that it cannot escape the harsh economic realities which all but eliminate the possibility of the perpetual scholar, who now studies for ten years to find that professorships and other academic opportunities are few and far between. In response to the dictates of the financial situation the GSAS is responding this year with the first stages of what will be significant changes in the size and the shape of the school. "We've done our homework, we've gathered together all the information to make the proposals and we'll see more action next year," Moynihan says about the GSC this year. But the generalization could be applied across the GSAS. Although Rosovsky admits that "We're moving slowly, as usual," the analysis, preparation and discussion of administrators and professors are a vigorous reaction to changes in the "real world" which have altered the face of Harvard graduate education.