Are Graduate Programs Pressing Pause — or Pulling the Plug?

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Tim Cook for The Chronicle

By Peter Brooks

One of the best undergraduates I have taught (I’ve been teaching for 50-plus years) is applying to graduate programs in English. As I began to advise her about where she might apply, I became aware of how opportunity has shrunk this year. So many universities — over 50, according to the latest Chronicle report — have “paused” graduate admissions in many or all departments in the humanities and social sciences. Others, including Yale, where I teach, have reduced admissions drastically. The Yale Graduate School, I was informed, will allow the English department only three graduate-student admittees for the fall of 2021.

University administrations claim that they must pause or reduce graduate admissions so that they have the resources to support their current graduate students better and longer in a profession ravaged by Covid-19. Institutions have lost tuition payments and incurred new expenses in the pandemic. And graduate students in the humanities and social sciences are a drain on the budget: They don’t pay tuition at most institutions, and they subsist on university fellowships (some universities will continue to accept students who have outside fellowship support).

Job markets are rotten across the humanities, and we should not be oversupplying them. So the pause has a rationale. Still, I wonder whether it’s a good idea to cut off the chance for a new generation to enter graduate studies in English, comparative literature, foreign languages and literatures, anthropology, sociology — to name some of the fields put into the frozen nitrogen vat. It smacks of a kind of Malthusianism that hangs around university corridors of power: the fear that graduate students will reproduce faster than the food chain can accommodate them. This gives me pause, since that same Malthusianism is in good part responsible for downgrading the humanities within the university in favor of more “productive” fields.

The claim of financial hardship may seem less compelling when we consider that the stock market soared in 2020 despite the pandemic, continuing the longest bull market in history, and that private universities, at least, added comfortable increases to their huge endowments. Did Brown, Columbia, NYU, Penn, and Rice — to cite a selection — really have to pause all or most of their humanities intake?

University administrations will tell you even vast increases in their endowments make little immediate difference, since they are constrained by spending rules that allow only a very limited expenditure from investments each year. The endowments are being protected for a “rainy day,” and however critical the Covid-19 crisis is, it doesn’t seem to qualify on the rain scale. I’d argue that universities have turned their endowments into fetish objects, to be admired, publicized, and petted rather than spent in the most useful ways. Trustees and presidents remind me at times of Ben Jonson’s Volpone, who awakes daily to worship his hoard of gold:

Good morning to the day; and next, my gold;
Open the shrine, that I may see my Saint.
Hail the world’s soul, and mine! More glad than is
The teeming earth to see the long’d for sun
Peep through the horns of the celestial Ram,
Am I, to view thy spendour darkening his …

The administrative form of idolatry, perhaps? But that’s a subject for another essay.

It’s true that there are fewer humanities majors. Students, and especially their parents, are concerned about post-college jobs and financial security. But plenty of students still want to take courses in the humanities, to talk about art and philosophy and literature, even if they don’t want to make that their specialty. Undergraduates continue to enroll in humanities courses, including relatively recent additions like ethnic studies and communication, even if they don’t choose to major in its departments. There’s too much administrative attention to distributing resources according to major enrollments: We should worry less about majors than about where students go to find real intellectual sustenance beyond mere information. We don’t want an exclusively STEM college experience.

I’d urge that we look at the pausing of graduate admissions not only from the point of view of university policy makers, but also from that of my extremely able and eager student wanting to continue her exploration of literature. Why should she be kept waiting at the gates of academe? What message do we send her when we say we will admit only students who have outside funding? Don’t we risk alienating those whom we want and need for the future of the university? Is it really right to say: We know you are qualified, but we don’t want to deal with you right now? It’s perhaps too easy to label a situation Kafkaesque, but this situation is spoken to directly by Kafka’s “Before the Law,” if you switch the name of the field applied for:

Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.”

You know the rest of Kafka’s tale: The applicant never gets through the door.

Peter Brooks is an emeritus professor of comparative literature at Yale University.

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