The Div School Must Openly Confront Its Challenges

The UChicago Divinity School has engendered a burdensome and harmful academic environment for its students.

By David Mihalyfy

Everyone knows that the University of Chicago Divinity School is facing major institutional challenges. Even apart from the University-wide budget crisis due to overbuilding and administrative self-enrichment, the Div School has been experiencing a quiet crisis of confidence, perhaps most visibly reflected in its unusually high leadership turnover. Since the deanship of Margaret Mitchell ended after a single term, the school has seen an interim appointee, then a failed search, then the external hire of Laurie Zoloth, who has now left that position after a little less than a year, entrusting her place to new interim appointee David Nirenberg.

If the Div School wishes to regroup and effect positive change, its faculty and administrators must engage students and alumni in open and honest conversation about the major underlying problems of the M.A../Ph.D. programs’ professionalization value and the division’s academic culture.

Graduate study in religion can and should be undertaken for purely intellectual and personal reasons, but the professionalization value of the A.M./Ph.D. has frequently been overstated due to both academia-wide trends and dynamics specific to the Div School.

As is widely known in the professoriate, administrators have increasingly relied upon graduate student and contingent labor in the humanities and social sciences, severely reducing the number of tenure-track jobs. Between increased competition and the increased unpredictability of search committee standards, no known strategy exists for having a decent chance of securing one. The default outcome is contingent employment at one or many institutions, often for volatile wages hovering somewhere around the poverty line.

At the Div School, many faculty have furthermore not kept abreast of the current professionalization terrain, nor has the school published job openings per area of study or its job placement record.

Additionally, entrance barriers are growing for those seeking to turn their professorial training to other careers or even secure “make-do” subsistence jobs. The phenomenon of severely reduced job training for any given position is economy-wide, as is the contingency phenomenon. Thus, the “transferrable skills” advertised by career advisers do not compete favorably with more directly applicable degrees and experience, while quickly attaining steady full-time work at minimum wage “as a fallback” is not assured.

While career prospects have worsened, the Div School and the larger University are not neutral bodies when they encourage matriculation. By advertising prioritized Ph.D. admission, the Div School attracts a large population of A.M. students who provide it with substantial revenues. In turn, Ph.D. and A.M. students become a relatively cheap labor force to staff classrooms, offices, and libraries. With both, faculty can teach higher-level classes that are more interesting to themselves, providing motivation to ignore or minimize students’ ethically troubling debt and career trajectories.

In terms of academic culture, although neglect and even bullying are present in many departments, their extent and degree appear to make the Div School an outlier. The overall professional culture of academia is already strongly hierarchical and lacks the basic accountability found in other lines of work. Yet, not uncommon professorial behaviors at the Div School range from long periods of silence, forgetfulness of past interactions, and non performance of core duties, such as reading work or following the stated curriculum, to the creation of situations in which failure is ensured—“moving goalposts”—and the public humiliation of students, including through sarcasm and derision. Faculty responses include avoidance of criticizing peers or imitation of troubling behaviors (mobbing). Administrators at best listen, while at worst they excuse these behaviors, treat them as an image problem, or do not respond to attempts at contact. Often, both blame students for what are clearly faculty and administrative failures.

Some of the factors creating the present situation include an excessively large graduate student body and an internal environment of scarcity (e.g. financial support, professorial time, stable division-internal teaching positions). Moreover, the Div School went without anyone performing director of graduate studies duties for over a decade, a lack of standard checks-and-balances that has permitted the development and normalization of an authoritarian culture wherein professors can act without regard for student outcomes or gain self-worth through the arbitrary treatment of students. On occasion, this behavior has attracted the notice of faculty outside of the division, and those with whom students have shared anecdotes and documentation have used words such as “unacceptable” and “egregious.” Clearly, the faculty who behave in these ways are not engaging in any meaningful or sustained dialogue with student work.

Since this faculty behavior seems to primarily occur in the dissertation phase of some curricular areas but not necessarily others, it is often invisible to entering graduate students and forces tough choices on those who eventually encounter it, since at that point they have already invested years in their program, and a shortage of faculty in their area may leave them with few options.

Given the sectoral transformation and the multilayered, institution-specific circumstances, no single solution exists, but positive steps can be taken. At the national level, a more consistently effective oversight mechanism than the current accreditation process should be established for private universities, since basic fulfillment of mission should be necessary in order to receive public funds like student loans and research grants. At the institutional level, options are more plentiful. In terms of professionalization, these options include the maintenance and publication of area job placement records, as well as the thoroughgoing integration of non professoriate career experiences and credentials such as high school teaching certifications. With academic culture, these options include faculty training in project management, pedagogy, and civility and collegiality, the creation of faculty accountability through processes of correction that incorporate proportionate penalties, and the imposition of external auditing. Possible, too, are the reduction in size of the A.M. student body, the establishment of clearer and more typical boundaries between the A.M. and Ph.D. tracks, and the movement of the Divinity School away from graduate education and toward instruction of undergraduates in the Core Curriculum.

In contrast, the Div School’s current course seems unsustainable. Its problems have been aired in a variety of internal fora for a number of years and frequently reach prospective students and religious studies colleagues in private conversations. In fact, originally constituting an open letter, this analysis found much sympathy among over 20 people, although many were hesitant to sign; current students feared increased problems with advisers, while recent alumni working in academia worried about reprisals such as denied recommendation letters or retaliation against their own doctoral students entering the tenure-track job market. Amid such a slow hemorrhage of whispers, deflection and inertia only worsen the situation.

The Div School has much to offer, but change is necessary. The future never looks like the past, and now less than ever. Only a forthright communal reckoning and very likely something a bit more than “tinkering around the edges” can restore its institutional vitality.

David Mihalyfy (Ph.D. ’17) studied in the Divinity School’s History of Christianity program.