Mulligan GS: We are in this together

Guest Columnist
Monday, October 7, 2013

We have recently seen a number of quotes and editorials in The Herald representing our school’s unique “university-college” structure as the setting for a zero-sum match in which undergraduate and graduate students are pitted against one another in a fight for limited and shrinking resources. This is an inaccurate depiction of life at Brown. In the context of debate over the strategic plan, it is an unhelpful one, and based on my own and other graduate students’ conversations with undergraduate students, it is not even representative of the community’s sentiments. If the question is how we can simultaneously pursue world-class, cutting-edge faculty research and use that research to educate world-class undergraduates in an open-curriculum, liberal arts setting, the answer is Brown graduate students.

This institution’s unique and deceptively short mission statement does two things: It commits Brown to service “by discovering, communicating and preserving knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry, and by educating students to discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation,” and it recognizes that these goals are best served by its unique “university-college” composition. We are the hyphen in that “university-college” compound. In our research capacity, we work with your professors to push the limits of disciplinary knowledge. In our teaching capacity — predominantly as teaching assistants — we help you to understand some of these more difficult, cutting-edge concepts, bridging generational and educational divides.

I have yet to meet a Brown graduate student not committed to this dual teacher-researcher role. Most of your TAs had offers from multiple graduate programs but decided to come to Brown because of its unique institutional structure. If the Open Curriculum allows undergraduate students to do exciting, interdisciplinary work that will make them leaders on the global stage, the hybrid role inhabited by Brown graduate students allows us both at and beyond Brown to expand the boundaries of human understanding and to preserve and communicate knowledge in danger of being forgotten or drowned out. Most of us who enter the professoriate will not be as fortunate as our mentors at Brown and will have to choose between our students and our research. But I can personally say that my time here, teaching and learning from Brown’s remarkable undergrads, has prepared me to strike that balance in a productive way.

Here are some stark facts. Graduate student support takes up just under 10 percent of Brown’s overall operating budget. Many of us receive zero support during the summer break, and nearly all international students are barred by the U.S. government from working — so they scrimp and save to fly home, where they can legally pay for their groceries. Those who do receive summer support are paid less than an undergraduate on an Undergraduate Teaching and Research Award. Your Ivy League TAs are highly-intelligent professionals saddled with their own temporarily-deferred student loan debt and could be making much more in the private sector but are living out their late 20s and early 30s on poverty wages or no wages at all for three months of the year.

At the same time, the administration has tried to limit PhD completion time to an unrealistic five years. Ask your faculty adviser how long it took him or her to complete a PhD. President Christina Paxson’s strategic plan’s current wording suggests graduate programs will be funded according to undefined but strict measures, privileging perceived competitiveness over broad-based need. I know this issue rings home with the undergraduate community. When faculty members identified increased numbers of and increased funding for graduate students as among their top priorities in last spring’s Herald poll, this was not only for their own research needs but also for the educational needs of undergraduate students (“Poll: Faculty members name Graduate School as preferred U. priority,” Apr. 24). Brown professors will continue to pursue high-end research. But if their graduate students are fewer in number or inadequately funded, and if we are being hurried towards the exits with arbitrary deadlines on our dissertations, do you think you will receive more or less attention from your professors and TAs?

We aren’t in this for the money, but National Grid, our landlords and the grocery store are not particularly receptive to our senses of a higher calling. We have recently seen in the pages of The Herald a good deal of justified undergraduate concern about the strategic plan in its current form. Please do not mistake relative silence by graduate students on this matter as a lack of interest or concern regarding the plan. We are stretched incredibly thin, trying to balance our teaching loads with completing our research in a short time frame and applying for jobs in an incredibly competitive market, all with limited funds. We recently released a public statement on the first draft of the strategic plan, as reported by The Herald (“President, provost hear grad students’ concerns,” Oct. 3). I hope I have helped to underline what everyone at Brown already knows: the extent to which the graduate and undergraduate communities, far from being at odds, hold complementary interests. And with that, I must return to my dissertation.


John Mulligan GS is a PhD candidate in English Literature and secretary of the Graduate Student Council. He believes Brown is a community, not a thunderdome.

  • concernedfellowgrad

    Unionize Brown grad students!

  • Torrey

    Thank you John! Well said 🙂