Op-eds, Opinions

Self: Why we suspended our MA program in history

Op-Ed Contributor
Thursday, April 25, 2019

In response to The Herald’s April 19 editorial, “The terminal master’s in history should come back,” I wish to clarify the history department’s rationale for suspending that program. I’m grateful for The Herald’s keen interest in, and impassioned defense of, the study of history as a critical element of “our institution’s commitment to advancing education in the humanities.” I could not agree more.

For this precise reason, in the last decade the department has deepened its commitment to a global curriculum, hired faculty in dynamic new fields and redesigned its introductory undergraduate courses around large-scale historical phenomenon that contextualize the present in a useable past (e.g., capitalism, imprisonment, piracy and refugees), among many other initiatives. The history faculty’s commitment to advancing education in the humanities is something I marvel at every day I come to work.

The question, rightly raised by The Herald’s editorial page board, is how an MA program serves that objective. It’s a question the history faculty considered at great length before deciding earlier this year to suspend the program.

As chair of the department, I consider it an honor to work at a university where such a decision is criticized in the student newspaper. Far too much damage is being done to the humanities in far too many provinces of American higher education with far too little opposition. That the suspension of a small history MA program that annually serves about six to eight students could be met with such rigorous resistance is a testament to Brown’s thriving intellectual culture, a culture I value enormously.

I would be pleased to rise to the editorial page board’s challenge to “do more to explain” the program’s suspension while along the way correcting a few misperceptions. Among the latter, the most critical to correct is the contention that “the suspension is inherently exclusionary.” It’s actually just the opposite. Equity was at the forefront of faculty minds in our deliberations.

Unlike undergraduate and PhD programs, masters programs at Brown do not receive dedicated university financial aid. Students must either pay out of pocket or borrow. With a high price tag and the potential to encourage burdensome debt, a responsible, ethical MA program has to deliver a clear individual and public good. There are many MA programs at Brown that do so. We were not convinced that ours did.

This is not the case because the department lacks any faith in its teaching. The relevant matter is the nature of PhD programs and non-academic job markets and the role of MA programs in preparing people for them. To deliver a clear individual and public good, MA programs should either have a low financial barrier of entry, so that cost is a minor issue, or a curriculum oriented toward academic or professional outcomes that justify a high cost. Ideally, programs should have both a low barrier of entry and a high quality curriculum.

A general History MA at Brown fits neither mandate. As an undergraduate concentration, history offers a foundational liberal arts education in critical thinking, writing, data analysis, reasoning and the challenge of confronting human societies not like our own. History is, in my obviously self-interested view, the foundation of an undergraduate liberal arts curriculum. But a graduate degree in history must offer more than a BA.

Last year, the Academic Priorities Committee, the university-wide faculty committee responsible for overseeing academic departments and programs, issued a mandate to all of Brown’s MA programs. The mandate was straightforward: Be an exceptional program among your peers, with a distinct purpose, or consider suspending operation. This was a welcome charge, because it’s a sign that the APC, under the provost’s encouragement, is demanding that every academic program at Brown, at every degree level, meets the highest standards.

In that context, what we found was telling. Most of Brown’s peers have either suspended their History MA programs (this is the case, as your editorial observes, at Harvard, Princeton, Cornell and Dartmouth) or have created focused and rigorous two-year thematic MA degrees. The best examples are Columbia’s program in International and World History, which includes a year of study at the London School of Economics; Georgetown University’s, which is run in conjunction with the Georgetown Institute for Global History and takes advantage of Washington D.C.’s large government and NGO sectors for internships and job placement; and New York University’s MA in World History with major and minor fields and a foreign language requirement.

To be exceptional in that environment would require a restructuring of the History MA program on a significant scale that would of necessity include both academic strengthening and the development of a financial model consistent with equity and access. It would require distinguishing our History MA program not just from ones like Columbia’s, Georgetown’s and NYU’s, but also from ones closer to home, like Brown’s own excellent and highly regarded two-year MA program through the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage.

Such a restructuring could be undertaken, to be sure. But it’s not clear that such a restructured program, to serve a small number of students, would be distinct enough to be successful and represent the best use of faculty time and energy. Thus, in responding to the APC’s charge, we’ve made realistic assessments of the best use of our current resources. This has meant focusing the department’s considerable energies on the undergraduate concentration and the PhD program, two areas where we can be truly exceptional and attract the highest quality students. In fact, it is our involvement with the American Historical Association’s Career Diversity for Historians program that has focused our acute awareness on the career prospects for holders of graduate degrees in history and deepens our commitment to training graduate students responsibly.

Moreover, when opportunities have arisen to broaden the department’s influence in history education in ways that are consistent with our vision and resources, we’ve done so. Just this past year, for instance, the department launched a new partnership with the Choices Program, a thirty-year-old Brown program, based of late in the School of Professional Studies, that produces history and social science curricula from academic research conducted by Brown faculty. In another example, Amy Remensnyder founded the Brown History Educational Prison Program in 2012 and for the last seven years has organized a cohort of history faculty who teach in Rhode Island’s Adult Correctional Institute.

The decision by the history faculty to suspend the MA program was not an easy one and was not undertaken lightly. There was much debate, and the views I’ve expressed above are not shared by every member of the faculty. It may be revived and restructured in time. But whatever the future of that specific degree, I want to assure The Herald, and all Brown students, that the department is as committed as ever to making the study of history indispensable to the intellectual life of our campus.

Robert Self is the chair of the University’s Department of History and can be reached at robert_self@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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