Editorials, Opinions

Editorial: The terminal master’s in history should come back

By
Editorial Page Board
Friday, April 19, 2019

On April 1, The Herald reported that the University suspended its terminal master’s in history. That program had offered a year-long opportunity to earn a master’s degree for students not previously enrolled at the University; now, outside applicants cannot receive a standalone master’s in history degree from Brown. The University’s choice to suspend the program is irresponsible and the justifications for the suspension are flimsy at best — ultimately threatening our institution’s commitment to advancing education in the humanities and further, shutting out voices and perspectives from the study of history.

The University’s decision to suspend the terminal master’s degree rested on misleading assertions about the program’s rigor. Robert Self, chair of history, told The Herald that Brown’s one-year program and lack of professional focus pales in comparison to most of the successful history master’s programs at peer institutions, which are two years long and have strong professional focuses. But despite his claims, both Yale and Penn offer terminal master’s programs with similar courseload requirements to Brown’s now discontinued version. The University requires a minimum of eight courses, while Penn mandates eight and Yale seven. Thus, the University must do more to explain why a year-long program is insufficient given the existence of similar programs at peer institutions.

That said, Harvard, Princeton, Cornell and Dartmouth do not offer terminal master’s degrees in history, and Columbia’s programs are partnered with or based in institutions abroad. But the absence of year-long masters programs at these peer institutions should not compel us to take a step back and instead ought to inspire our university to provide this type of education that may be unavailable elsewhere. As we are taught as undergraduate students at Brown, the study of history is vital in contextualizing the events of today and informing a more equitable and inclusive future. The opportunity to advance one’s education in this area should not be confined to those willing to commit to a PhD program, which is often the only option available to students once a terminal master’s degree ceases to exist. As a school that takes pride in its commitment to liberal arts, it makes sense that Brown should lead the way in offering in-depth, comprehensive and accessible advanced degrees in the humanities.

The University’s second justification for the suspension suggests that the terminal master’s in history does not contain a strong enough professional focus. However, the University’s website for the master’s in history clearly details two tracks in the program: a professional track and an academic track. The professional track includes two skills courses that are meant to help students meet their unique professional goals, while the academic track is designed for students who wish to eventually obtain a PhD. It is confusing why the University would criticize its own program for a focus the program itself seems to prioritize. In order to understand this decision, we, as students, would like to better understand the qualifications of a program with “strong thematic or professional focus,” as Self told to The Herald.

Perhaps most importantly, the suspension is inherently exclusionary. While the suspension will allow current Brown students to continue to participate in the fifth-year master’s program, it has eliminated the opportunity for outside applicants to receive a master’s in history from the University, unless they are a PhD candidate. Clearly, Brown understands that there is value in a year-long master’s program, as it affords that opportunity to its current students. Refusing to extend that privilege goes against Brown’s mission statement, which declares that the University exists to “serve the community, the nation and the world by discovering, communicating and preserving knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry.” The University cannot hope to serve the world if it bars the vast majority from even applying to its master’s program; similarly, it cannot discover new knowledge if it excludes outside applicants who bring a unique perspective to their study.

Further, this suspension is part of a worrying trend. The University suspended the elementary track of the Masters of Arts in Teaching program last year and has yet to exhibit any concrete steps toward bringing the program back. The valuable year-long program combined graduate courses with real teaching experience in local schools; without it, Brown has lost a great deal of its appeal for students interested in elementary education. The program, like the terminal master’s in history, set Brown apart from its peer schools. Moreover, the suspension of both the MAT program and the terminal master’s in history went against popular sentiment among students in the respective programs. Students quoted in The Herald this month cited positive experiences during their year-long study of history — mentioning impressive classmates and important perspectives the program inspires. Another student quoted in The Herald, this time about the MAT program, stated that, “If you talk to any alum, they will tell you that this is the best teacher education program in the country.” The opinions of students who have experience in these programs should not be discounted by the University when it makes its decisions.

If the University wants to set itself apart and become a leader in graduate studies, suspending unique master’s programs acts directly against its own goals. We encourage Brown to revitalize the terminal master’s in history, a decision that would benefit the University and all those involved. Otherwise, the University will have taken a step back in its pursuit of quality higher education in the humanities and its dedication to serving the community beyond those already on College Hill.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Grace Layer ’20 and Krista Stapleford ’21, and its members, Elisheva Goldberg ’22, Eduard Muñoz-Suñé ’20 and Riley Pestorius ’21. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com.