Recently, the Graduate School published a new policy for sixth-year funding. In short, it asks graduate students to compete and be ranked against each other for a limited pool of money that would go toward their sixth year of doctoral study. Although it is characterized by the Grad School as increasing clarity and efficiency, it strikes me as antithetical to the University's stated values.
Marc Howard Ross, a professor of political science at Bryn Mawr College, defines policy as the distribution of tangible and symbolic benefits. In other words, all policies increase or decrease particular benefits or, more clearly, resources. What is more, policies reflect a community's values. As Cris Shore and Susan Wright argue, policies are anthropological artifacts. Although these authors write about policies in terms of government, their insight can be extrapolated to policies at any level. In this way, we can think of the new policy for sixth-year funding both as distributing symbolic and tangible benefits as well as a statement on our values as a University.
Here is a University statement that reflects on graduate students relating to the Plan for Academic Enrichment: "Today's graduate students take courses, create knowledge, support faculty research and contribute to the teaching and mentoring of our undergraduates. Directing PAE resources to support the Graduate School has yielded significant results, as evidenced by the record numbers of applicants, improved selectivity and our competitiveness with the very best of our peers."
The statement recognizes the symbolic and tangible effects of quality graduate students — they play a central role not only in the production of knowledge in their own disciplines but also in guiding undergraduate students. In addition, the plan comments on a particular culture that is cultivated for undergraduate, graduate and medical students alike — independence, energy, maturity, responsibility and self-directedness. Inevitably, monetary commitments are made to ensure the very best graduate students are attracted and supported while at Brown. What, then, does it mean for this culture when doctoral students shift their energies toward being ranked at the top?
Speaking in March, Peter Weber, dean of the Grad School, clarified that most students who request sixth-year funding are candidates in the social sciences and humanities — and that external funding for them is quite limited. It is simply the case that it usually takes around seven years for such candidates to complete their dissertation work. This group will therefore be disproportionately affected by the new policy. Also aggravating is the fact that the amount of money they need to compete for remains unclear, and the criteria by which they will be ranked remains similarly vague.
As it stands, the statements and guidelines define five years as the standard — the time by which graduate students should be done with their dissertation work. Because five years is characterized as normal, failure to stick to this deadline calls for a loss of funding. But those who know of the process say that five years is unrealistic — especially for students in the social sciences and humanities.
As I think about this, I am not clear what problem this policy seeks to address. Are we simply out of money? Are new buildings needed? Are we trying to teach doctoral candidates to compete for funding so they are ready in the future? I am not sure. But this policy strikes me as having a negative effect on collegiality among the doctorate cohorts. Sure, competition can be healthy. In fact, all Brown students had to compete against peers to make it here. But how does one regulate such competition within a close community like ours? It seems unnecessary.
The Grad School does much to support students. Their current support of graduate students should not be overlooked. But if we offer so many tangible and symbolic benefits to recruit the very best graduate students, we should also commit to their success while at Brown for as long as possible. Yes, we should demand the very best from every single one of our graduate students — but as a University, we should be ready to match that commitment. Let's not be sidetracked by policies that compromise our investment and our values as a community of scholars.
Hector Najera is a graduate student focusing in education.