Reducing Graduate Programs
Bernard Reilly, November 2002
To the Editor:
AHA President Lynn Hunt's essay in the September 2002 issue of Perspectives on the tenure crisis identifies a real problem but misidentifies its primary cause. As a result of 38 years in academe I am as aware as anyone of the collateral effects of the tenure system. They are lamentable and probably incurable in practical terms, as are the marginal ills of any system designed by human beings.
However, in respect to the glut of doctorates in history and the shortage of jobs to employ them professionally, the tenure system is fundamentally irrelevant. Should it be abolished, the job shortage would more probably be exacerbated than relieved. Surely, the winners and the losers would be alternated in some measure, but that is hardly germane to the root problem.
The irreducible statistical facts are that, since the 1950s, institutions of higher education in this country have been behaving as though the radical expansion of the college student body that followed hard upon the end of World War II would continue forever. Unfortunately, it is now difficult to project that the opening up of higher education to those with the talent or desire for it, to young women, and to the baby boom that bolstered the effects of both the former, have not run their course. A stable system is in prospect rather than the heady, violent, and highly unusual growth that lay behind the remarkable bloom of graduate education that took place in the period 1950–75.
Despite the utter predictability of this situation, the higher education establishment—trustees, presidents, deans, and senior professors—has steadfastly refused to address the problem. Graduate programs in history, for example, have been producing—for the past 20 years at least—PhDs each year at roughly double the number of jobs becoming available annually. This is not only unforgivable, but irresponsible as well.
Nevertheless, the mixture of inter-institutional gamesmanship, the all-out protection of traditional reputations and excellences, and fairly repulsive turf wars, have proved resistant to all other necessities. In vain, new baby booms have been imagined, early retirements have been projected unrealistically, and alternative types of employment sketched. None of these has materialized in dimensions sufficient to ameliorate a perfectly obvious problem that refuses to go away.
To my knowledge, few institutions and faculties have had the courage to reduce their graduate programs once they found that they had ceased to be able to place their students in jobs upon graduation. The most honorable exception is Bryn Mawr College (my alma mater, incidentally). The college eliminated such programs in the 1980s. I am sure there are a few others. But most institutions have simply continued to produce doctorates as though an oversupply would stimulate demand. Predictably, the process is converting civilized competition into a savage struggle for survival. At the intellectual level, that is pathetic. At the personal level, it is tragic.
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