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Dealing With Institutional Problems

Government's New Thesis Policy

By Philip P. Pan

Assistant Professor of Government Mark A. Peterson often refers to the institutional constraints facing the president during his lectures on American government.

These days, however, he has been dealing with different kinds of institional constraints at the Government Department.

In recent years, a steadily increasing number of honors concentrators has created a thesis crunch in the government Department--too many students and not enough advisors to go around. The department has on occasion sent the wary concentrator to the Kennedy School of Government--where policy making analysis has become a necessary substitute for "real" political science--but a few interested students have found themselves with no one to advise them.

This week, Peterson, the department's head tutor, announced that the Government Department had instituted a major policy change to help alleviate the crunch.

Under the new policy, which will take effect in 1994, government concentrators will need to have an 11.5 GPA--roughly a "B"--if they want to write a thesis and graduate with honors. In addition, faculty have been required to advise three thesis papers each year.

Government is the first department to discriminate among potential thesis writers based on grades alone. Although Peterson is quick to note that even students with lower GPAs can petition for special permission to write a thesis, the move met with mixed reviews from undergraduates and graduate thesis advisors.

And while most agree the new policy will ease the demand for advisors, they say it will not likely solve the problem completely. They say one institutional constraint--the inability to predict undergraduate interests and the need to maintain a diverse set of specialities among tutors--will always make finding thesis advisors more difficult.

Government divides its undergraduates into four fields of study: American government, comparative government, political theory and international relations.

American government has for several years been notoriously popular among undergraduates. But Peterson says that while there is a real demand for scholars in the field, there are very few students pursuing with Ph.Ds in American government.

"It is the case we have proportionally fewer graduate students in American politics than undergraduates in American politics," says Peterson.

Peterson says there have been efforts to increase faculty in American government, and cites eight or nine recent faculty searches. But Peterson, himself an American specialist, says that "all of these positions do not attract a large number of applicants."

The problems, however, go beyond American studies, and Peterson says there are "even more pronounced...differences within the subfields."

For example, in recent years students have shown more interest in local politics. But there are very few graduate students and faculty who specialize in that area, says Peterson.

Peterson says that such differences are difficult to resolve because undergraduate demand is hard to predict--especially when picking graduate students who will stay with the department for six or seven years.

"It is important to realize how insecure we are about what those demands are going to be," says Peterson. He adds the department has "zero idea" of what will be the hot areas for next year's sophomore class.

And although undergraduate interests are a consideration in appointing scholars, the Government Department wants to ensure its faculty encompasses a wide range of topics and approaches.

When a faculty member is hired, it can mean an eight-year budget committment for junior professors or a 40-year commitment for senior faculty. Peterson says that this makes it difficult to make hiring decisions based on unpredictable and often-shifting undergraduate trends.

"There are real institutional constraints that any group or organization such as ours would face," says Peterson.

It seems that "the constraints of responsible management" apply as well to the University as they do to the topics in Peterson's American government courses.

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