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June 14, 2012

A&S graduate admissions suspensions:

German, classics, religious studies chairs discuss effects

Chairs of three departments in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences that have been ordered to suspend graduate admissions warned that the decision will have negative effects on their departments and on Pitt’s reputation.

John Lyon of the German department, Edwin Floyd of classics and Linda Penkower of religious studies outlined for Faculty Assembly what they see are the consequences of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences Dean N. John Cooper’s decision to suspend admission of graduate students to their departments. (See April 19 University Times.)

The department chairs expressed shared concerns. They said:

The timing of the suspension announcement so close to the traditional April 15 decision date for graduate applicants was embarrassing;

The lack of input requested of the chairs in defending their programs prior to the suspension decision was unfair;

The negative effect will be widespread on collaborative graduate programs each department engages in with other Pitt units and other institutions;

The negative effects also will apply to the departments’ undergraduate programs;

The likely impact on faculty makeup due to the fall-off in the number of graduate students and the inability of faculty to supervise dissertations is a concern;

The lack of substantial financial benefit to the Dietrich school resulting from the decision belies the justification for the suspensions;

The suspensions send a negative message about the University’s commitment to the humanities and to offering a well-rounded liberal arts education.

German department chair John Lyon said, “We were asked to address: How will the suspension of admissions affect our department and what concerns do we have for the future?

“In 2008, we were given direction to focus more on our PhD program, which we did,” he said. “We have significantly reduced time-to-degree. Data trends demonstrate important changes in our program since 2008. But these have been ignored, with the decision [to suspend admissions instead] based on aggregate data from 2005 to 2011,” Lyon continued.

“Recent history contextualizes current successes in our graduate program, which have increased dramatically since 2008,” he said. Those successes include an average of one PhD awarded each year; an uptick in the number of publications in the discipline’s journals; an increase in fellowships and scholarships awarded from both external and Pitt sources, and the enrollment of more highly qualified students.

“Suspending our graduate program will damage [the reputation of the program] just as it is re-establishing itself as an important PhD program in the field,” Lyon said.

“Suspending the graduate program also will harm our undergraduate program, which is strong. Not only does it show sustained strong enrollments, but it shows an overall increase in major certificates and minors over the past decade.”

The undergrad program also feeds the TA/TF track, which will be diffused by replacing TAs/TFs with non-tenure-stream (NTS) faculty, he maintained.

“Currently, the language program is staffed primarily by TAs and TFs who as part of their training meet weekly with a coordinator. Such coordination would be difficult with NTS faculty, which would negatively impact the consistency and continuity of the language program,” Lyon maintained.

“In addition there is a limited pool of candidates who accept NTS positions, and they are unlikely to be the most-qualified in the field,” he noted.

The suspension of the graduate program also will impact the faculty makeup, he said, because faculty no longer would be allowed to supervise dissertations.

“This is particularly impactful on our endowed chair, an internationally renowned film scholar who was hired with the promise that he could supervise dissertations. We don’t want to lose him to other institutions,” Lyon said. “In future hirings it will be more difficult to attract top-notch faculty if we can’t authorize a chance to teach graduate students.”

In addition, the department has a number of collaborative graduate programs with other departments at Pitt. “For example, the recently established PhD in film studies is structured as a union of programs. There is no PhD in film alone, but only in film and a respective culture. Removing German from this program would limit its appeal,” Lyon said.

The German department also recently established a reciprocally funded graduate-level exchange with the University of Augsburg in Germany. “Suspending our graduate program will damage that relationship,” Lyon said.

“Suspending the graduate program in German also sends a message about Pitt’s commitment to German and European studies, traditional areas of strength for us. Germany is the largest economy and the driving force in the European Union. It is crucial that Pitt [maintains] its strengths in these areas. It also sends a message that Pitt does not value humanities as much as it does other fields,” he said.

“The justification for the suspension is financial. Yet the financial impact of the suspension is not significant. The document proposing program suspensions translates as a reallocation within the Dietrich school, that is, no money will be saved overall,” Lyon said.

Department of Classics chair Edwin Floyd seconded the points made by Lyon, adding that current graduate students in his department are upset that their program has been devalued by the administration. “The suspension of admissions to the graduate programs impacts the programs now. It gives a very bad message to the graduate students we have currently. I heard one student say, ‘I’ll be a graduate of a program that has been labeled by its University to be very poor,’” Floyd said. “It also was a matter of a sudden suspension of admissions, in the three- or four-day period from April 2 to April 5, very sudden. To do that at a very late date, just 10 days before April 15, is embarrassing to us and to the University of Pittsburgh.”

Religious studies chair Linda Penkower said her department is one of the most collaborative in the Dietrich school, noting its long-standing relationship with the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a developing relationship with Carnegie Mellon.

“The suspension affects the drive for excellence in many other programs, and therefore has an effect on the University’s mission,” Penkower said.

Moreover, she said, Pitt’s religious studies graduate program is the only such secular training program offered between Philadelphia and the state of Indiana. “Our program has significant value to the region, and the diversity of religious groups present in western Pennsylvania makes the region a laboratory for advanced research,” Penkower said.


Following the chairs’ reports, Juan Manfredi, vice provost for Undergraduate Studies and former associate dean in the Dietrich school and mathematics department chair, was asked about the prospects of restoring graduate admissions in the departments.

Manfredi said, “We are in the middle of a process. The admissions of new graduate students [in the three departments] has been suspended.

“At this time, the dean and the chairs are discussing future options, and as the provost said in the University Times, we are committed and expect to follow the guidelines in full detail. No decision will be made without following the process described in the planning and budgeting system and the guidelines for review of academic programs. I’m sure the discussions are very intense and people are trying to move forward and I have full confidence that the arts and sciences governance structure, which is very well developed, will continue moving this process forward.”

—Peter Hart

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