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University of Pittsburgh

December 6, 2012

Letters

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More on suspension of grad admissions

To the editor:

This May the Pitt chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) sent to Provost Patricia Beeson and the University Times a letter (www.utimes.pitt.edu/?p=21296) noting the lack of consultation involved in the suspension of admissions to the graduate programs of classics, German and religious studies in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. We understand that since then there have been ongoing discussions between these departments and administrators, but we would like to point out some other aspects of the suspension decisions and their aftermath that are problematic and should be known to more of the faculty.

First, the chairs of the affected departments have been told by Dean N. John Cooper and Associate Dean Kathleen Blee that the suspensions are in effect permanent terminations, although Provost Beeson, in her University Times response to the May AAUP letter, wrote, “At this point, admission to the graduate programs has only been suspended.  … Any proposal to close programs  … will undergo appropriate review in accordance with both the Guidelines for Review of Academic Planning and the Planning and Budgeting System.” According to the Guidelines for Review of Academic Planning, a termination proposal requires a statement of impact on the budget and other University programs and personnel, and a list of those who were consulted, with their comments. While Dean Cooper discussed financial impacts at the A & S Graduate Council meeting of April 20, the A & S Council meeting of April 24, and the A&S planning and budgeting committee meeting of April 27 (after the decision had been made), the affected departments had no input to his remarks and he apparently did not provide the detailed multi-dimensional report that the guidelines for termination require.

Second, according to the strategic plan for fiscal year 2013, “Focusing for the Future,” A&S planning decisions have been importantly influenced by rankings by U.S. News, although as the report says on page 20, these have limitations such as “lack of transparency with regard to who the rankers are and whether they are peers.”  Furthermore, as that page also notes, U.S. News does not rank any language and culture programs; nor, as it happens, does it rank programs in religious studies. Thus having a goal of moving “more of the programs that are just outside the top quartile [of national peers] into that group” inherently disadvantages German, classics and religious studies.

Third, Pitt’s administration has chosen not to have any formal evaluation of these three graduate programs for 20 years or more. So it is possible that one or more of these programs may actually be close to the top quartile of their peers by some measurement, or at any rate close to the top quartile of such programs at public universities. It is also possible that the extended time to degree reported of some students in these programs is not unusual in similar programs nationally.  Formal reviews would have clarified this.

Fourth, the decision to suspend graduate admissions was made without consideration either of recent changes in the departments, or of how the TAs in the departments are used in undergraduate education and how difficult it would be to replace them. Religious studies, for example, cannot find a non-tenure stream instructor who could teach undergrad courses in six widely different areas of the field, as the absence of TAs would require.

Fifth, “Focusing for the Future” acknowledges, page 31, that cutting TA positions in the affected departments is a reallocation of money rather than an economy move forced by severely declining state funding. It is a reallocation of University support away from the humanities, and although other metrics contributed, one reason seems to be that U.S. News does not consider some humanities fields sufficiently important to rank. In a time when the international and intergroup understanding mediated by German, religious studies and classics is especially needed, do most faculty believe this is a wise choice?

In spite of all the praise for the University of Pittsburgh in the recent Middle States accreditation review, as Provost Beeson has reported the review noted some lack of transparency.  The process that facilitated suspending admissions to these departments  exemplifies this lack. Perhaps the formulation of some of the policies in “Focusing for the Future” does too. We urge the administration to do a more thorough review of these programs and policies. This summer, a document supported by many of the humanities chairs proposed a more thoughtful set of procedures for making future decisions, but we have heard nothing about an administrative response to it. If the same goals and strategies continue, which other departments will be next to have the money for their graduate programs reallocated because they don’t help us in the U.S. News rankings?

Associate Dean Blee recently circulated a draft of a major policy statement on the future direction of graduate education in the Dietrich school to its chairs, program directors and directors of graduate studies, with an invitation to comment and to share it with departments and programs for further suggestions. This circulation and invitation to comment and share are steps in the right direction, but we hope that in the planned process of “moving away from broad, comprehensive graduate programs and toward more specialized programs” sufficient substantive reviews are made to assure that excellence does not disappear in narrowing focus.

Pitt AAUP
Beverly Ann Gaddy, President
John J. Baker, Immediate Past-President
Philip K. Wion, Secretary/Treasurer

Editor’s note: This letter also was signed by three members of Pitt AAUP’s ad hoc committee on suspension of graduate admissions.

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N. John Cooper, Bettye J. and Ralph E. Bailey Dean of the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, responds:

We continue to follow relevant University procedures for academic planning. We have been discussing next steps with the departments and reviewing proposals from the departments as they are received. I would like to reiterate that a suspension is not a termination.

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Filed under: Also, Letters, Volume 45 Issue 8

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